Pablo Picasso’s talent was so protean and absorptive, one could tell any number of stories with his drawings. But by focusing on a diverse selection of some of the finest works the artist made on paper during the first three decades of his career, the National Gallery of Art’s new show, “Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition,” becomes a clear and concise synopsis of his early career.
Opening with a drawing of a small statuette of Hercules, made by a 9-year-old Picasso in 1890, and closing with the artist’s turn to classicism and Apollonian, sculptural forms in the aftermath of World War I, the exhibition covers all the essential chapters: The blue and rose periods, the inspiration of African and primitive art, the move to and consummation of cubism, and the “call to order,” as the French called the return to more classical values after 1918.
Picasso’s father was an artist, so it’s hard not to project onto the older man not only a sense of pride and wonder but also terror as he nurtured the talent of his young son. The 1890 drawing of Hercules, based on a statuette that sat in a hallway of the family’s home, is awkward, the limbs inflexible and the head turned up and looking in a direction quite different than the original. But five years later, after academic training in drawing, Picasso is able to produce convincingly modeled images of classic plaster casts, and a touching drawing from life of an African man in a loin cloth. In 1896, he made a watercolor image of his father, as haunting as anything he’d produce in the course of the next 70-some years. The face is lined with care, one eye is obliterated by a dark shadow of red and the man seems a delicate presence on the page, which is mostly blank around the edges.
This meticulous rendering of his father concentrates time in a way that is rare in so much of the artist’s work. The drawings made for his first solo exhibition, at a Barcelona café called the Quatre Gats, suggest speed — the rapid, confident, distillation of form that made the artist seem almost diabolical. No one is quite sure who the “Young Man With Arms Crossed” is in a charcoal and oil-wash sketch that probably hung in the Quatre Gats. But there’s no mistaking the intensity of his presence, the hard, intolerant melancholy of a solipsistic young man. Made in part as a challenge to an older, more established artist in Barcelona, the series from which this drawing is taken conjures youth and determination with the most minimal means.
His encounters with Paris, and his relocation there in 1904, were like a blast of wind on hot embers. The same gallery that includes his juvenile Hercules also includes the ambiguous blend of tenderness and humor in his magnificent “The Death of Harlequin,” from 1905-06. A supine man, with hands together in the position of prayer, and a mask of white makeup that gives him the pallor of death, emerges from the brown background of raw cardboard. Two figures, their heads surrounded by an aura of white paint reminiscent of medieval saints, look at him, motionless, almost expressionless, staring in as if from some alternative universe. The form of an animal is left blank on the page beneath the bier. Seen from a distance, the shape could be a cat looking slightly to the right; seen up close, faint lines make it clear it’s a dog, looking left to its presumptive master.