Picasso’s portraits are some of the most well-known and instantly recognisable paintings of the 20th century. It’s also no secret that the Spanish artist spent his life trying to break down and re-establish the traditional values of painting, drawing, ceramics and sculpture – and his most famous resource with which to do it, was the humble portrait. He never worked from commission and normally only portrayed those who he knew personally, meaning that his portraits aren’t just physical representations, but subjective insights in to how Picasso viewed these people beneath their appearance. The works impress Picasso’s own sense of self, and emotional interactions with each sitter in to each work – rendering them highly emotive and providing simultaneously fascinating and humorous insights in to how the man, of the myth, operated.
A new exhibition of Picasso’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery examines the artist through this most intimate and accessible of all his forms, transversing a series of rooms that each examines a different aspect of his approach throughout his life’s work. The show begins chronologically exploring Picasso’s earliest portraiture from his time as an art student in Madrid, beginning with a small, humble self portrait by the artist which exhibits his early mastery of colour and brush stroke with tense realism. The show continues following Picasso on a path of self-discovery as he began venturing in to the bohemian artist circles and frequenting their taverns and brothels of Madrid. We see his style quickly mature, exploring early forms of Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism inspired by his Spanish and French contemporaries who were at the coal face of ‘contempoary’. What we quickly learn through this exhibition, is that if there is one thing Picasso did, it wasn’t stick to the rules. These early works are full of exploration, which is a theme that never stops throughout his oeuvre. We bear witness before our eyes to Picasso gaining a firmer grasp on art historical traditions, and at the same time excavating the methods for breaking them down – but the key sense of playful genius and witty abstraction is always present, imbuing each work with that Picasso glint, like a wry smile underlying the composition.
The exhibition’s curation feels as if it was borne from a frustration at previous attempts by other institutions to provide a framework for the public from which to dissect the timeline of Picasso – only for each to bare little fruition. Its as if a light bulb went off somewhere above the head of the National Portrait Gallery team, who suddently thought ‘rather than try to make Picasso’s work fit in to some sort of journey we can tell, why not let the work lead the way and see what happens’. The result is a wonderful concophony of twists and turns that surprise at every corner, and provide perhaps the most real and tender insight in to the artist to date. A room filled with portraits of his first wife, the Russian ballet dancer Olga, who he met while working as a stage designer make for a wondrous display of the artist’s breadth of concurrent style and method. It exemplifies how Picasso at one moment could paint her characteristically lifelike in an image inspired by the great Spanish court painters such as Goya whom he was witness to while living in Madrid and working as the director of the Prado Museum, in a work that although feels static, artificial, tight and a little boring, instantly proves that Picasso certainly could paint exquisite realism. I have little doubt that the feelings of restraint in this work reflect his contempt towards Olga at the time who he was in the process of divorcing, mid-affair and is entirely on purpose. However, another painting hanging opposite in the same room is a contemporary portrait of Olga, but this time in an entirely different, but equally arresting hand. She has been reduced to several 2D squared planes of saturated pastel colour, with beady eyes, a disappointed mouth, trademark ostentatious hat and altogether weeping disposition. It exhibits these same emotions towards the sitter – the mother of his children and once great lover, who was by this point a woman he was looking forward to leaving despite looking completely different from the first portrait. Both works translate in to images of sympathy and show just how wide Picasso’s range was in capitalising on realistic versus abstract verisimilitude. He could paint in a different style each day of the week yet maintained a signature look and feel – the genius knack that makes people return to his work adoringly.
The exhibition continues exploring Picasso’s early days of cubism, satirical caricatures, stage designing and portraits of friends on pages torn from his sketchbooks. Particularly charming are the collage works depicting his personal assistant in Paris, Jaumes Sarbates, as a tubby, leering, chancing pervert, scrawled in crayon on a magazine underwear advert appearing to trying to garnish a kiss from the model, whom Picasso has adorned with sprouts of black hair from her armpits and pants. The work, which was never intended to hang in a gallery but was a personal memento – an ‘in’ joke between friends – illustrates how Picasso felt so at home conversing through image, in a technique we can all recall from childhood days of scribbling on newspapers, adding moustaches to the faces. The work is particularly evocative and touching in its sentiment, showing a very light side to the artist, who famously said ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up’.
The show finishes with a huge symphony of a room that explodes in to riots of colour and texture as each of Picasso’s branches of technique comes fully in to its own. Huge cubist portraits in exotic yellows, pinks and greens expelling Southern French light contrast delicate pencil sketches of attractive women, which hang between miniature representations of Rembrandt oils full of tiny detail swirling detail referencing the Dutch painters thickly stubbled technique. Also on show is one of the last works ever created by the man – his self portrait as a skull, foreshadowing his own death in the coming weeks. This work in particular shows how with so few strokes, shades and shapes, Picasso could elicit such strong emotions, in facets that resonate with anyone, from anywhere.
The mind boggling diversity of Picasso’s oeuvre could only be hinted at by such as a show as this, which hardly even touches on several of his most infamous incarnations, such as his Blue Period or Rose Period. But it does provides an excellent celebration of the artist’s many faces. It purposefully swaps masterpieces in oil for lesser known pastels, sketchbook quips and stunning early portraits thick in swirled paint to help an audience gain a sense of the extraordinary output and challenging methods employed by the Picasso we all know and love.
And the Picasso theme doesn’t stop in the gallery – the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait Restaurant & Bar has a new Picasso inspired menu. The stunning restaurant on the top floor of the listed building, which has a panoramic glass wall offering uninterrupted views of Whitehall and further, has added some Mediterranean inspired dishes to its usual seasonal menu bringing a little bit of Picasso’s flavour to the festivities. In beautiful setting with its clean lines and contemporary feel, one can find fused traditional elements such as roasted pheasant breast or seasonal risotto, with modern twists which creates great contemporary British cuisine. On offer throughout the exhibition is Bouillabaisse – the traditional fish stew from Marseille which was a firm favourite of the artist while he lived in the South of France, along with cocktails named after his wives Olga and Paloma that fuse absinthe, Campari, gin and other drinks of the era that Picasso no doubt consumed voraciously in his time spent touring the bars of Europe’s creative hub cities. There is also a Picasso inspired afternoon tea service offering bleu éclairs and rose macaroons inspired by his ‘Blue’ and “Rose’ Periods.
The exhibition is also accompanied with a roster of inspired events from live music, life drawing and talks – it could be the ideal afternoon out for anyone with an interest in discovering more of this captivating artist.
By Harry Seymour
Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 6 October 2016 – 5 February 2017.