It's almost impossible to separate Pablo Picasso the artist from Pablo Picasso the personality, and Picasso the public figure from Picasso the private man. Aren't they all the same now? With the hundreds of biographies (scores more are being published this year), all the dramatic movies (a must-see: Surviving Picasso, starring Anthony Hopkins), and competing narratives, sussing out what's true has never been harder. The key, it seems, is to realize that every stunning painting of his, every stunning period of his life, and every stunning character flaw adds up to a greater (and more fascinating) whole.
Picasso exhibited his first painting in 1896, at age 14. For the next seven decades, he set the standard for what art could be. Cubism and abstract figuratives were born through his canvases. And African motifs entered Western art via his avid experimentation. Like Bob Dylan in music, Picasso helped create genres that others imitated but could never really duplicate. Picasso's legion of followers included the women who inspired some of his best-known work (Portrait of Dora Maar, Girl Before a Mirror, etc.), whom he would inevitably treat as disposable, to be replaced by the next young muse who kept him satiated.
All this is laid out, more or less, in the de Young exhibit, "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 Maar, Picasso's paramour from 1936 to 1943 (when she was superseded by Françoise Gilot), is ravishing and tormented in the poses he demanded of her. Portrait of Dora Maar is one of the happier gazes we get of her at the de Young, but it's outnumbered by teary tableaux.
Then there's Gilot, who lasted nine years with Picasso and is the subject of L'ombre (The Shadow), a gut-wrenching work that shows his black shadow hovering over her nude body in the bed they once shared. The de Young's audio tour describes the pain he felt at her departure, but the complete story is in her memoir, Living with Picasso. She details meeting the sexagenarian Picasso when she was 21, marrying him, bearing two children (Claude and Paloma), then fleeing because of his "hardened" attitude. She outlines his every benevolence and blemish, from his sexual advances to his fits of rage. "You should be ashamed to let yourself go — your figure, your health — in the way that you have," he told her after Paloma's arrival. "You look like a broom. Do you think brooms appeal to anybody? They don't to me."
Give Gilot credit. A painter in her own right who was Picasso's intellectual match, she once called him the best "nonfigurative" painter in history. His figurative work isn't bad either, of course. 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." Knowing this helps appreciate the art on loan from the Musée National Picasso. There's dirty laundry here, but there are also the themes (war, beauty, movement) that moved him and are just as powerful today as they were in Picasso's century of life and death.