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Picasso’s Women Star in Revealing Retrospective: West Coast Art

"Portrait of Olga in an Armchair" by Pablo Picasso, painted in an "old fashioned" style. Source: de Young Museum via Bloomberg

The beautiful, sad-looking Olga Kokhlova, a dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, sits with her right arm draped over the back of a chair, a partially open fan in her lap. The dark floral patterns of her dress and the upholstery stand out against the flat background of pale gold.

Painted by Pablo Picasso in 1918, shortly before his marriage to Olga, the portrait is completely realistic in style.

With echoes of 19th-century neoclassicism and Japanese screens, it’s one of the surprises in an exhibition from the Musee National Picasso in Paris, now on view in San Francisco.

The “Portrait of Olga in an Armchair” came after a decade in which Picasso’s work had grown increasingly strange (many said outrageous), starting with his fascination for primitive art and evolving into his co-invention of Cubism with Georges Braque.

In Olga’s portrait, Picasso seems to be saying that he still knows how to paint the old-fashioned way. It also represents one of those stylistic about-faces that marked his prolific career.

The elegant show at the de Young Museum is organized chronologically, starting with the artist’s blue and rose periods in the first years of the 20th century. This is followed by a roomful of rough and finished studies based on African masks that led to the landmark “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” of 1907.

The spooky “Woman With Clasped Hands,” whose blank face and body are rendered mostly in white, gray and black, is a standout from the period.

Wives, Lovers

Then we’re on to fully abstract Cubism, the realism of the post-World War I period, Picasso’s unique brand of surrealism in the late 1920s and 1930s, his politically themed work in the years before World War II and the looser, dreamlike images of his late period. He died in 1973 at the age of 91.

With Picasso changing muses as often as artistic styles, the show is also a survey of the women in his life.

After unsmiling Olga, there was the young blonde Marie-Therese Walter, often seen nude in bed; the serious photographer Dora Maar, who was the model for the “weeping women” studies that preceded the monumental antiwar “Guernica” of 1937; Francoise Gilot, a painter and writer; Jacqueline Roque, his second wife. And others.

The French government acquired the collection after Picasso’s death, in lieu of taxes, and while the museum’s home in Paris is being renovated, some of its best works are on worldwide tour.

Scary ‘Cat’

Look for the scary “Cat Catching a Bird” (1937), a political allegory in gray and black, with only the bird’s open wound rendered in red; and the clever “Bull’s Head” (1942), a sculpture made from a bicycle seat and handlebar.

For the de Young, the exhibition represents a sequel to its two blockbuster shows last year on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. It’s also a fine companion to “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” a remarkable exhibition about Picasso’s early patron Gertrude Stein and her art-collecting family, on view this summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a companion show, “Seeing Gertrude Stein,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musee National Picasso, Paris” runs through Oct. 9 at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Information: +1-415-750-3600; The exhibition travels next to Sydney, where it opens Nov. 12 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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