Before Pablo Picasso became a celebrity — then a world-renowned icon of Modern Art — he was a young, often desperately poor unknown struggling to find his identity as an artist.
Schooled by his father from the age of 7, he learned to produce unusually accomplished academic work early on — yet he also was drawn by the elongated, almost expressionist figures of El Greco. In his late teens, he embraced the vibrant post-Impressionist influences of both Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh after discovering the French avant-garde.
Instead of settling into a single style, however, what distinguished Picasso most was his uncanny ability to explore many approaches, absorb what he liked and then recombine them into a fertile and increasingly complex vocabulary of his own. Before he turned 30, that singular talent was literally rewriting the rules of art — and helping define Modern Art through the Cubist revolution.
But this would not be the last time Picasso's eye for the new resulted in a ground-breaking kind of visual expression.
As seen in nearly 200 works assembled for a milestone show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, experiment, invention and a persistent dissatisfaction with the status quo were to become indispensable hallmarks of a career that spanned nearly 80 years.
That long, rich, ever-changing story is one reason why the museum is touting "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris" as an "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Not since 1980 has any exhibit taken such a deep and wide-ranging look at the work of a man whose name has become synonymous with Modern Art.
"Everybody knows the name Picasso. But not everybody knows the art behind his fame," says John Ravenal, the VMFA's curator for modern and contemporary art.
"That's something only a large exhibition can show you — and this exhibition is so comprehensive that you can trace his development step by step over his entire career. There's nothing missing."
Indeed, the collection of the Musée National Picasso sprang from the diligence of the artist himself, who deliberately assembled tens of thousands of works over the years as a way of shaping his own place in history.
Stored in various studios, the hoard ranged from simple scribbles and unfinished works to masterpieces — all of which were pored over by art experts after Picasso died in 1973 and his heirs offered the French government "first right of refusal" in lieu of paying estate taxes.
Not everything was masterful, Ravenal says. Not all of Picasso's greatest triumphs were included in the sprawl of paintings, drawings and other items he stockpiled. But few disagree that the 5,000 pieces obtained for what became the Musée National Picasso in 1985 make up the largest, most comprehensive and outstanding collection of his work in the world.
"Picasso didn't just keep these things haphazardly," the curator says.
"He was very aware of what he was doing — and he was very astute. These are the textbook iconic examples of his work."
Still, never before has the museum sent its treasures abroad in such an impressive mass.
Only the extensive renovation project that closed so many galleries enabled its director and chief curator, Anne Baldasarri, to assemble such a large and rich collection for this unprecedented global tour, VMFA director Alex Nyerges says.
And it's just that rarity and richness that embraces visitors so strongly when they enter the first gallery and find two of Picasso's most important early paintings.
Hanging alongside "The Death of Casagemas" — a 1901 oil that artfully mimics the brush, palette and emotional clout of van Gogh — is the arresting 1904 portrait "Celestina (The Woman with One Eye)" from the artist's subsequent Blue Period. Several other iconic images rise up from the adjacent walls, too, including a large but elegantly simple 1905 drawing called "Nude with Legs Crossed" and a 1905 bronze portrait head titled "The Jester."
Still more landmarks of Picasso's early development fill the following gallery, including a spare yet compelling 1906 study of two nude boys — one carrying a smaller boy on his back — in a Rose Period painting titled "Two Brothers." Then there are the increasingly schematic, African-inspired figure studies and the masklike Iberian self portraits — all of which show the young artist juggling and sifting through multiple influences.
What resulted was the upheaval of Cubism — which rendered figures, landscapes and still lifes from shifting, simultaneous perspectives rather than the fixed view and one-point perspective of traditional Western art. And from such baffling 1911 Cubist portraits as "Man with a Guitar" and "Man with a Mandolin," it was just a few steps before Picasso and his co-conspirator — Georges Braque — starting creating history's first collages.
"Picasso doesn't develop in a linear way. He's always looking around. He assimilates and absorbs all sorts of things, trying to invent something new," Ravenal says.
"Cubism was not just a style but a revolution — a new vocabulary, a new language that defined Modern Art."
Characteristically, Picasso returned to classicism at about the same time, often switching back and forth between such realist images as "Seated Woman" (1919) and "Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race)" (1922) and his signature Cubist and semi-abstract works.
He also began exploring the potential of surrealism and the unconscious, combining it with his previous experiments to create boldly colored and patterned portraits — such as "The Kiss" (1925) and "The Portrait of Dora Mar" (1937) — that scrambled and then enriched the impact of his subjects by combining figural elements from multiple perspectives.
This relentless urge to seek out new ideas and then graft them onto the old continued throughout Picasso's long career, even after he began to age and was no longer considered a revolutionary but rather a 20th-century Old Master.
"He's always looking forward, looking back and then synthesizing it all into his own language," Ravenal says.
"So while he's constantly pushing and exploring instead of settling into one thing, you also see these strong connections and continuity. It's part of his identity as a very Modern artist."
Erickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris"
Where: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond
When: Through May 15
Cost: $20 adults, $16 children 7-17
Info: 804-340-1400; http://www.vmfa.museum
Bus Trip: The Peninsula Fine Arts Center is staging a bus trip to see the show on Saturday, April 30. The $50 fee includes transportation, exhibit ticket, audio tour and preview by Pfac curator Michael Preble. 596-8175, ext. 200
Online: Go to dailypress.com/vmfapicasso to see images from the show.