Cubism is thrilling and exhausting work, like listening to the music of the 12-tone composer Anton Webern for as long as the ears hold out. But the five drawings made between 1910 and 1912, which explore the idea of the standing female nude, are a kind of Berlitz primer in the language of cubist form, from the grid-like scaffolding of the 1910 “Standing Female Nude,” in which sensual forms feel like they’ve been packed into boxes that are all slightly turned on a vertical axis, to the sparse language of ciphers one finds in the two most reductive, depersonalized drawings made the same year.
A third and final room looks at the works made with paper collage techniques just before World War I, and the large, classical female forms (including a sculptural head of his wife, Olga, rendered in magnificent gradations of pastel colors). The paper works play games with surface and form, with paper (originally pinned to the drawings) functioning on multiple levels, as suggestive of texture (wall paper and wood grain), as negative space outlining basic forms, as flat planes for drawing and as three-dimensional intrusions into the picture, casting small shadows where they furl up from the background, shadows that Picasso emphasizes (and subverts) by echoing them in charcoal. The women of the early 1920s, buxom and placid, feel as if they’ve been inflated from some kind of metaphysical air pump, a fullness that recalls the “prana” or spiritual fullness one finds in the amply cushioned sculptures of the Hindu tradition.
But it is the discontinuities that ultimately make the strongest impression in this exhibition.
One finds them early on, in a 1902 pen-and-ink drawing called “The Lecturer” that has the mordant sophistication of a drawing by the British aesthete and art nouveau illustrator Aubrey Vincent Beardsley. Where does this come from? Nothing around it is quite like it, although a portrait of Igor Stravinsky from 1917 has some of the same humor and reliance on forceful line. A 1918 graphite “Portrait of Madame Georges Wildenstein” channels the great French master Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, with a face reminiscent of a pre-Raphaelite beauty, but with strange games of perspective and alignment, including eyes that don’t quite match, and a lower body that dissolves into sketchy minimalist gestures.
There’s no summarizing Picasso, no containing him within manageable parameters. While some exhibitions devoted to only an artist’s drawings might leave you with the sense that you’ve seen everything but what matters, this one concentrates without reducing. When it ends, with sketches and pastels from 1921, you turn looking for the next chapter. But this is the first exhibition that the gallery has devoted to Picasso’s drawings, many of which were painstakingly borrowed from private collections, and it may be a while before the institution finishes the project.
Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition
is on view at the National Gallery of Art through May 6. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.