Pablo Picasso, the most recognized name in modern art, is the subject of a big, fabulously varied exhibit that opened Saturday at the de Young Museum, where his art, rather than his fame, is featured.
“Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris” ignores the artist’s “biography and mythology,” says Fine Arts Museums director John E. Buchanan Jr. Instead, it’s a rich retrospective of Picasso’s work featuring 150 paintings, drawings and sculpture.
Against white walls and with only small, inconspicuous signs identifying the works by name and date, Picasso’s creations speak for themselves.
“Not a one-trick pony,” in Buchanan’s understated characterization, Picasso was a fountainhead of quantity, styles, innovation, reinvention and powerful inspiration for his contemporaries and generations following him.
Anne Baldassari, head of the Paris museum loaning the works, says the sheer figures are overwhelming. The museum is truly “Picasso’s Picassos” because it consists of works owned by the artist and bequeathed to the French government by the artist’s family.
“Out of 70,000 works owned by Picasso, we received about 5,000,” Baldassari said. Most of the 3,500 in rotating exhibits are now touring museums around the world while their Paris home is being renovated.
Even with a roughly chronological order through the galleries, there is dizzying variety in each room. It’s difficult to believe that so many styles — some radically different works are displayed side by side — could come from one artist.
“He was a protean figure who not only created and contributed to new art forms and movements, but also forever transformed the very definition of art itself,” Buchanan says.
The exhibit begins with the 1901 “Death of Casagemas” by the 20-year-old artist, and ends with “The Matador,” the 1970 self-portrait Picasso painted a few years before his death in 1973. Variations in the chronological order were dictated by the size of the galleries, and also Baldassari’s preference for thematic groupings.
Picasso’s involvement with women runs throughout the exhibition, which features sculptures and paintings of his wives and mistresses created in myriad styles.
One large gallery focuses on Picasso’s depictions of war. They are among the artist’s most powerful, hard to take, paintings — from the 1939 “Cat Catching a Bird” on the fall of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War to the 1951 “Massacre in Korea.”
The latter is a shockingly grotesque representation of the episode in Sinchon where a large number of civilians, including children, were executed by South Korean and American forces. The expressionistic painting pitches robot-like soldiers against naked figures, in the manner of Goya’s “The Third of May 1808,” depicting another massacre, but in a style never seen before.
Grotesque, weird, classically beautiful, innovative and mock-imitative works mix through the show, and emotions range from amusing to horrifying.
It’s difficult to describe this exhibition as something to be liked or disliked. But it is one that cannot be ignored, and should not be missed.
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except until 8:45 p.m. Fridays and closed Mondays; exhibition closes Oct. 9
Tickets: $18 to $26
Contact: (888) 901-6645, www.deyoungmuseum.org