Picasso Portraits 6th October 2016 - 5th February 2017
As a portrait painter I don't automatically think of Picasso when I think of this genre but that is because his body of work is unique and refreshing. There were no distinct boundaries. He never accepted a commission. He painted what he wanted, when he wanted and how he wanted. He refused to be defined by a certain genre or style. He changed his style with the predictability of the changing seasons. His art work was a direct response to the age in which he lived and he lived through two World Wars, so experienced the associated turmoil and conflict. This means his work was always relevant and fresh. His lovers, family and friends were an important part of his life and he expressed this through his canvases, sketches, sculptures and caricatures. In this exhibition, Elizabeth Cowling, the curator, has thoughtfully assembled together 75 artworks that she feels represent Picasso's contribution to portraiture.
The exhibition features Picasso's sensitive portrayal of Olga Picasso whom he painted in 1923 when he was 42 years old. Olga was a star of the Russian ballet and he met her when designing a stage set and costumes for the Ballet Russes. Picasso's portrait of her is an image surprising for it's realism because as an artist who appeared to reject classicism, contrived harmony, and the cliche of traditionally represented beauty, here was a painting that displayed all those elements. However, Picasso was a man in love and as his wife was a classically trained ballerina so the style of this work reflected her character. He was also a classically trained painter and spent much time in the Prado viewing the work of the great masters and this portrait of Olga also reflects this background. Another portrait of Olga painted 12 years later, whilst in the final stages of their relationship, depicts her sharply and geometrically in acidic hues. The two portraits of Olga are handled very differently by an artist whose emotional response to his wife can now clearly be seen. Picasso believed "art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth." In his work Picasso swung between woman loving and woman hating and in these two paintings that is self evident.
As one of the undisputed geniuses of the 20th Century Picasso also had a flair for self promotion. His marriage to a ballet star helped to make him more high profile. He was very conscious of his position in the art world and made his own copies of highly regarded masterpieces. Velasquez's Las Meninas which he'd have seen in the Prado as a child, is highly regarded and thought to be one of the world's greatest group portraits. Picasso's own visual interpretations of Las Meninas can be seen in his signature bold and dynamic, colours and shapes.
Picasso chose his portraiture subjects for their interesting characteristics. He did not pander to their insecurities and some of his depictions were remarkably daring and unkind. Throughout his career he retained a youthful energy to his work, which could at times be sensitive and analytical, innovative and ambitious or critical and aggressive but he always enjoyed complete freedom of expression whatever his mood or subject. He painted several self portraits, one when he was 26 years old and living in Paris in which he depicts himself wearing the clothes of the humble and ordinary french worker. This belied his ambition for success and recognition.
What Picasso did to portraiture was to stretch the boundaries of representation. He reinterpreted and reinvented it according to his creative desire. He pushed the obligation to produce a realistic resemblance to a new level. It was about his personal interpretation of the human condition without an adherence to the traditions and accepted conventions of the genre. Picasso chose to paint other free minded characters from his circle of friends and acquaintances. Of special note is Picasso's portrait of the art critic Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910) This portrait is predominantly a three quarter length cubist monochrome with a juxtaposition of triangular shapes. Kahnweiler wrote extensively about his friend Picasso and helped the world to perceive him as a conceptual artist.
There are other famous faces too. Igor Stravinsky is cheekily recognisable. Jean Cocteau the poet and artist for whom Picasso designed ballet sets is also depicted. Dora Maar, the photographer, whom Picasso referred to as "poor sad Dora" is depicted in angular forms. There are numerous sketches and caricatures in which Picasso has captured the essence of his subjects.
Pablo Picasso was a modernist and a revolutionary figure in 20th century conceptual art. His contribution to portraiture is noteworthy and Elizabeth Cowling's selection for this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery creates absorbing viewing.