Pablo Picasso. "The Death of Harlequin," Paris, end 1905 / beginning 1906 gouache over charcoal on cardboard (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

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.

Adding to the indeterminacy of the image is Harlequin’s strange expression, ever so slightly suggestive of a faint smile.

The second room is dominated by two focuses: the development of analytic cubism, represented in five drawings that plot the concept of femaleness along an extended, vertical axis, and a series of drawings that develop ideas that came to full fruition in the 1907 painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

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