"My work is my diary," Pablo Picasso once said. "For those who know how to read, I have painted my autobiography."

With Picasso, learning to read means understanding the world from which his images are wrenched. A PBS documentary airing tonight at 8 on Channel 26 explores that world -- where he lived, the images that surrounded him and the way those images were transferred and transformed on his canvases and in his sculpture.

The hour-and-a-half program, produced by WNET in New York, is almost a Picasso collage. Photographs of Picasso in the cafes, Picasso in the studio, picasso in the streets, Picasso in his home with the succession of women central to his life are juxtaposed with his paintings and his-sculpture.

A gnarled abstraction that looks nearly incomprehensible at first glance becomes understandable and beckons to the viewer as the photograph of one of his children dissolves into the painting. The intensity of emotion present in nearly everything Picasso painted comes to the surface.

The story of his life is told in his own words and in the words of friends, lovers, children, critics and other artists -- including Joan Miro and the photographer Brassai. The program -- organized almost completely chronologically -- avoids romanticizing Picasso. There is a distance that is appropriate and yet an underlying appreciation and respect that are, too, appropriate.

The thread that connects the styles and the periods that he invented and worked to perfection is supplied by the women in his life. "He invented, he perfected a style for a woman," says one observer.

Perhaps the most impressive segment of the show is devoted to his masterwork, "Guernica." The images out of war-torn Spain and the wail of anguish through music bring out the power of his painting in a dramatic and accessible way. "Painting is not done to decorate apartments," said Picasso. "It is an instrument of way for attack and defense against the enemy. A good painting ought to bristle with razor blades."

The portrait of the artist that emerges is clear, intense and humorous. The artist who called fame "castigation by God of the artist" earned the acclaim that is mirrored so well here.