Art: Picasso's World of Children Kunstsammlung, Dusseldorf

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The Independent Culture
It seems hardly credible, but even today the cynic, confronted by a Picasso, will suggest that a child of three could do it. Within this tired commonplace, however, lies an ironic truth. For over half a century, Picasso sought in his painting to emulate the innocence, insouciance and, not least, the savagery of a child's way of seeing. It might not surprise us then that children should feature so strongly in much of his work, or that they should be the theme of a newly opened exhibition.

"Picasso's World of Children" is the uninspired title of an otherwise extraordinary gathering together of some 200 pictures (no less than 65 of them, many important, from private collections), at Dusseldorf's Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Without doubt, it is one of this autumn's international highlights and if anyone needs to be disabused of the view that Picasso was a charlatan, here is the exhibition to do it.

The show is often more biographical than art-historical, and it is significant that the image chosen for the poster was Paulo as Harlequin (1927) - as blatant a piece of sentimental naturalism as Picasso ever painted. For Picasso, though, children were never looked at merely formally, as they might have been by Renoir, nor were they just embodiments of innocence. As with other areas of Picasso's work, each of these paintings can be seen to satisfy a complete variety of purposes. Take, for instance, the commonly held notion that his 1901 blue period paintings are early evidence of paternal feelings. Their probable raison d'etre is much more sinister. In many of the works of that year on view here, and most particularly in the National Gallery's Child with a Pigeon (sadly, not included), what is commonly taken for intense sentimentality is, in fact, testimony to the children of the pox-ridden whores of Montmartre with whom he was then familiar and a lament for their bleak future. That this dark theme remained for some time is evident in Man, Wife and Child (1906), in which a doomed infant fixes the viewer with an intense, blank stare.

By the 1930s, the artist's motives have changed. Here is a striking group of drawings and watercolours in which a blind minotaur is being led by a young girl. But, once again, all is not what it seems. The girl is, in effect, Marie-Therese Walter, the artist's new love, instrumental in the break- up of his marriage to Olga. In iconographical terms she is a hackneyed symbol of innocence. In personal terms, though, her transformation says much about Picasso's relationship with women and his attitude to children.

The exhibition's central focus is a group of works made between 1935 to 1939, which display a vast range of technique and intent. Neo-classical drawings of family groups vie with mothers and dead children (studies for Guernica) and tender studies of the painter's daughter. Here again is Marie-Therese, but this time she suckles her daughter Maya, the true catalyst in the breakdown of the painter's previous marriage. His subsequent life drawings of the young Maya are acknowledgments of her role in the opening of a new era.

A complete Picasso retrospective is today almost unthinkable (and, for reasons of insurance and curatorial cupidity, largely impracticable). To examine a given theme of his work, however, is an admirable way to attempt to understand the artist's oeuvre.

n Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf (00 49 211 83810) to 3 Dec; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (00 49 711 2124050) 16 Dec-10 March 1996