For seven decades, Pablo Picasso set the standard for what art could be. Cubism and abstract figuratives were born through his canvases. African motifs entered Western art via his avid experimentation. He helped create genres that others imitated but could never really duplicate. All this is laid out, more or less, in "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris," which acts as a streamlined career retrospective. The Blue Period Picasso's early years, when he emphasized the color blue to accentuate a feeling of aloneness and troubling times is nicely represented here by La Célestine, a 1904 work. Carlota Valdivia, who posed for it, ran a brothel. (Picasso wasn't a theoretical painter. He wanted to get in the dirt with others.) Of the periods on view, the most surprising might be Neoclassicism (1918-1924), when Picasso alternated between new strains of Cubism and more straightforward representations of people from mythology and his personal circle. His new wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, was a calming influence and became the subject of his paintings, but that didn't last. They separated in 1935, and he moved on to other women and styles, including Surrealism and the distorted figures with bulging eyes and misshapen limbs. Maar, Picasso's paramour from 1936 to 1943 (when she was superseded by Françoise Gilot), is ravishing and tormented in the poses he demanded of her. His figurative work is impressive too. His portrait of Gertrude Stein, for example (on view at SFMOMA during its excellent "Steins Collect"), captures her intellectual high-mindedness and imposing girth with an insight that was never matched by the many other artists who painted her. Picasso intuited his subjects better than they intuited themselves, and he was unafraid of their reactions. In his art, he mined his own rage and tempestuousness. As this exhibit points out, he once said, "Painting is just another way of keeping a diary."
Tuesdays-Sundays. Starts: June 11. Continues through Oct. 9, 2011