A painter under the influence

The myth that Picasso sprang forth as a fully formed genius is neatly undermined by the National Gal

At 16, Pablo Picasso was already trying on other artists for size. We first encounter his big black eyes here from under a periwig; he has been at the dressing-up box and come back as a Goya. It’s an unnerving self-portrait for a teenager, the face already apparently thick with the life that was to come: full of mortal fears, hard-bitten, raging against the dying of the light before it has had a chance to burn. Some of the artist’s biographers have claimed that, by the time he made this portrait, Picasso was a habitual visitor to the brothels of Madrid. And his sexual promiscuity was always matched by his artistic philandering – for every new mistress, there was, as this show at the National Gallery in London about his influences demonstrates, also an Old Master.

To begin with, Picasso wanted to paint himself into the classical Spanish tradition. Not long after his bewigged Goya fancy dress, he started to copy El Greco, still considered beyond the pale by the purists. Picasso and his friend Francisco Bernareggi sat in the Prado, working their way under the skin and into El Greco’s ghostly skulls. They sent the results to Picasso’s father, Don José Ruiz y Blasco, a professor at the school of fine arts in Barcelona. “All was well so long as we worked on Velázquez, Goya and the Venetians,” Bernareggi recalled, “but the day we decided to do a copy of El Greco, his reaction was: ‘You’re taking the wrong path.’ That was in 1897, when El Greco was considered a menace.”

Picasso relished that menace. He liked to believe that in becoming an artist he had destroyed his father’s career, and later famously claimed that when Don José saw his son’s skill as a boy he “gave me his paints and his brushes and never went back to painting”. The claim is not true, at least in the literal sense, but it supported Picasso’s Oedipal sense of himself – Freud was very much in the air; having stolen his father’s lifeblood, the prodigy signed his paintings with his mother’s name, Doña Maria Picasso y López.

One way of looking at this exhibition is as a history of Picasso’s subsequent obsessive search for paternal figures to appropriate and destroy. He eclipsed the modest talent of his own father and then spent a career measuring himself against more oppressive pretenders. As his work developed, he eyed up painters he would eventually have to take on, a bull in art history’s china shop. As early as 1929, he wrote a note on the back of an envelope: “When I see Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe I say to myself: trouble for later on.” It was not until 30 years later that he felt Manet could be confronted. Then, between the ages of 78 and 81, Picasso did little else but take apart Manet’s iconic picnic, piece by piece. He made cardboard cut-outs of the figures – in a glass case at the London exhibition – to see what forces held them together, and made a hundred variations of the picture, each more a Picasso than the last, as if he wanted to go back and write his name on the modern just as it began.

Yet it was not just modernism that Picasso wanted for himself. Immediately after the Liberation, Picasso took his lover Françoise Gilot to the Louvre to look at Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. “That bastard,” he said of Delacroix, as if of a rival. “He’s really good.” A decade later he became obsessed with the idea that the French painter had “already met” another of Picasso’s muses, Jacqueline Roque – she bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the Algerian women. Picasso wasn’t having it. In the extraordinary series of canvases displayed here, he clearly felt he had to find and perhaps destroy the magic of that original. He paints versions of Jacqueline into the picture and adds priapic shorthand references to himself, a marking out of territory.

His rivalries were as often played out as comedy. Just as Picasso was a lover of prostitutes, so he was a connoisseur of the painting of prostitutes. He admired Degas (“my contemporary”) for two things, his pen-and-ink sketches and his whores: “You could smell them.” An etching of his own here has Degas looking on from a portrait on the wall at a scene in a brothel, a classic Picasso tangle of tits and ass, while the artist himself inhabits the shadows with his dark stare and great hairy hand. He is alive and Degas is dead, the etching says. He can do whatever he wants.

In later life, Picasso was in the habit of projecting on to one wall of his studio the work of the artist who was most in his head at any one time. He liked to have them there as a goad to his own ambition, a larger-than-life reminder of what he was up against. Van Gogh and Rembrandt were the most frequent visitors to his wall (Picasso did not do things by halves). You sense in this habit not only his insatiable need for competition – as if Matisse wasn’t enough – but also his insecurity about his own place in the canon. Not only did he want to be Picasso, he wanted to be everyone else that mattered, too. His rendering of himself as Van Gogh is a truly terrifying proposition, the knackered straw hat, the lolling tongue, the mangled ear, the starry tattoo and the eyes, of course: red, black, yellow and green.

When a version of this exhibition was on at the Louvre, the inspirations for Picasso’s paintings were displayed alongside the results. Here, you are invited either to hold the original for comparison in your mind, or, in a few cases, head off into the permanent collection to track it down. It feels half-cocked as a result. On the one hand, you are being asked to contrast; on the other, it is not quite clear where this guessing game will lead you. The obvious homages are singular enough, but often the influences are a stretch at best. All great paintings refer to other great paintings, and Picasso was not the first artist to be aware that he could not paint a line that had not been painted before.

One of the pictures that makes you take a step back here is the Nude with Joined Hands of 1906. It’s a glory of one of the happier periods of Picasso’s life; he is 25, just beginning to feel all the things he might be capable of. A simple golden figure steps out from a background of perfect rose. It is maybe enough to know that this was the high point of Picasso’s summer of love with Fernande Olivier in the Pyrenees, rather than to think how it might relate to Gauguin’s Pacific island statues or Cézanne’s very stately portrait of his wife with her hands in her lap.

What the approach of the exhibition does give the lie to, however, is the persistent mythology that Picasso sprang forth as a genius fully formed. There are a good many false starts here – and he was as honest about his failures as his successes. It is hard to look at his versions of the Manet, for example, or at his monochrome Las Meninas of Velázquez, and not want to look harder at the originals. The sense you come away with is that, although he never took a step back from challenging the past, he never emerged unscathed. It’s like Rocky, or, better still, Raging Bull: it’s the sheer persistence that gets you in the end. Picasso got knocked down, but he got back up again.

“Picasso: Challenging the Past” is at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 7 June. For more details visit: www.nationalgallery.org.uk