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Portrait of a Cubist as a Young Man

Picasso: The Early Years At the Museum of Fine Arts Through January 4

Those who find it difficult to subtract four-digit numbers may wish to bring a calculator, or at least scratch paper, to the Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition "Picasso: the Early Years." Even easier, however, is to eavesdrop as visitors whisper to each other while subtracting 1881, the year of Picasso's birth, from the date of a painting's execution. The solutions are often unbelievably small.

For example, one will end up with an answer of only 12 while standing before an extremely confident study of a male torso begun in (gasp) 1893. Fourteen, before the beautifully solemn portrait, "Girl with Bare Feet." And only 15 before the exhibition's first self-portrait, painted with expressive strokes in a restrained palette.

Yet just because these works were completed by an extraordinarily young artist does not automatically make them valuable masterpieces which stand on their own. If anything we might say that their art historical value depends not on their individual merit, but largely on the fact that they were created by one of the artists who later invented cubism. Had Picasso died in 1906, the date of the exhibition's last painting, we might question whether these same works would be hanging in the MFA today.

In the first half of the exhibition we find canvases which provide an almost text-book example of an artist struggling to develop his own style. He begins with rather academic work, the most interesting of which are his two self portraits from 1896 and 1897. In the earlier of these paintings, we see a young man in three-quarter profile looking out at us from beneath the shadow of his dark, unkempt, hair. Energetic brushstrokes define the facial features while his body melts off the canvas in a blur of brown. Yet despite the temerity of Picasso's mark making, we can't help but notice a sense of doubt or even fear in the artist's eyes. This effect is magnified in "Self-Portrait in a Wig," where Picasso's uneasy expression, heightened by his uncomfortably formal costume, belies the confidence of his hand.

This mingling of doubt and confidence persists as the exhibition progresses. We find a certain stylistic assurance within each painting, but not among the works as a whole. It's almost as if Picasso tries on a style and buys it completely until he finishes a painting only to abandon or modify that style before moving on to the next canvas. The show's label text aptly points to possible influences which include artists such as Monet, Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Cezanne and even Velasquez.

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A second link among the paintings before 1901 is the developing tension between the projected space of the image and the actual surface of the canvas or picture plane. Like the Impressionists before him, Picasso applies paint thickly on the canvas, drawing attention to the fact that a painting is more a thing, a surface, than a mysterious window onto another world.

Often details in his paintings seem to jump out at us, rather than remaining obediently where they should. For example, the red hat band in "On the Upper Deck," looks as though it is sitting on the surface of the canvas as opposed to on the hat in the image where it belongs. Similarly, the highlights on the buildings in "Montmartre Street Scene" appear more like abstract shapes on the picture plane than reflections on buildings in the distant background. This conflict between the material surface of the painting and the illusion of space in the image is doubly intriguing in its ambiguity, as we are unsure whether to attribute it to budding originality or simply unresolved patches in a young artist's work.

Ironically, Picasso doesn't really nail painting until he starts using a lot less paint. As we move into his more well-known work of the Blue and Rose Periods, we find that the surfaces become far more controlled, flatter and less overtly "painterly." Only when Picasso retreats from the heavily textured impasto of his earlier canvases do we feel his work becoming more assured and less self-conscious. Somewhere along the way he realizes that he doesn't need to prove he's a painter by giving the viewer countless energetic strokes and layers of thick paint.

Two portraits of his mistress Madeleine serve as elegant examples of this newfound painterly restraint. In "Woman in a Chemise (Madeleine)," Picasso sets his subject's creamy profile against a blue-green background. Yet the layering of the image is so delicate and transparent that body slips into background and chemise slips into body. In "Seated Nude (Madeleine)," Picasso goes even further, playing with both line and plane to describe form. He uses thin black lines to distinguish her rust legs from a background of the same color, while only a mottled cream plane indicates the surface of her chest and breasts.

In these portraits, the thin, careful application of color lyrically suggests the vulnerability and distance of his subject. Here, unlike in his early self-portraits where style and expression seemed at odds, Picasso seamlessly reconciles his painterly means with the work's emotional content and atmosphere.

From this period forward, it becomes clear that even if Picasso had died at 25, he would have made a few paintings worth remembering. This point is bolstered by the energy and innovation found in the exhibition's last room, which takes the viewer through 1906, Picasso's twenty-fifth year. Here one recognizes the familiar distillation of planes, clarity of line, and sculptural forms which will become important in his later paintings. At the far end of the gallery, we see Picasso's spectacular, iconic "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" and his well-known self-Portrait with Palette."

Yet following these two paintings we are plunged not into "Les Demoiselles D'Avignion," his great masterpiece of 1907, but the exhibition gift shop replete with Picasso cups and saucers. Though it would be unfair to fault the curators for the exclusion of this painting, which would clearly have overshadowed all of the others in the show, one can't help feeling a sense of frustration upon leaving the exhibition's final gallery. We crave follow-through or some kind of resolution after bearing with so much of Picasso's self-searching work.

But the show holds out and leaves us to find satisfaction in catalogs of his later work--or in the recognition that we've just had a peek at a remarkably ambitious artist's struggle for self-definition. Though this may seem like a highly academic justification for spending an afternoon and the price of admission, Picasso may be one of the few artists who can make us appreciate this process almost as much as the final rewards.Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts and Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society, New YorkPicasso's "Woman in a Chemise" shows signs of a maturing technique.

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