Picasso. One mention of this elusive name sparks headlines of paintings selling for millions. But who was he? Beneath the external skin of artistic genius, who exactly was the painter of the enormous Guernica (1937) or the earlier, highly controversial Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)? Who was Pablo Picasso? The National Portrait Gallery’s latest Picasso Portraits exhibition seeks to address this elusive question, introducing us to his friends, colleagues, and, of course, his equally famous lovers and muses.
Using a little over 80 works in the London version, the exhibition is separated into sets of people he encountered throughout his career and his various types of portraiture. One particular room focuses on his portraits of male friends in the years 1900-1903, featuring tiny drawings of his friends at the Els Quatre Gats café in Barcelona: Pere Romeu, Santiago Rusiñol, Miguel Utrillo, Josep Rocarol i Faura, Angel Fernández de Soto, Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, and Jaume Sabartés. These were also the years he experimented in Paris where he met the art critics Guillaume Apollinaire and Gustave Coquiot.
He began to experiment with colour and form, especially the distorted individual. In a conversation with the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in 1957, Picasso said that “when one paints a portrait there comes a moment when one ought to stop, having attained a sort of caricature. Otherwise at the end, there would be nothing at all.”
Picasso’s portraits are never truly ‘realistic’; they are caricatures of varying degrees, playing on the sitter’s physiognomy and even their personalities and interests. In his Blue Period Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal (1903) (on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until 7th November), the artist minutely emphasised his friend’s large forehead and handlebar moustache. The woman beside him is also disproportional in various places. For a drawing of Jean Cocteau, Picasso drew him in the style of Ancient Egyptian art to tease his notorious vanity. As for the short, gnome-like Sabartés, he has been drawn on to a number of pin-up images of movie stars, each the object of his devotion.
Picasso was not afraid to mock the great artists of the previous generations either. In fact, he saw them as tributes to their genius. His etchings make fun of the apparently amorous Raphael, the Rembrandt of many muses, and even Edgar Degas surrounded by prostitutes. He created a series of variations in 1957 around Diego Velázquez’s enthralling masterpiece and highlight of the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Las Meninas (1656), two of which are on show. Picasso’s engagement with artists of the past – and present – forms an artistic dialogue and an attempt to place himself within the artistic canon.
These artists were almost always those his particularly admired. A Portrait of Jacqueline in a Black Scarf (1954) recalls the elusive portraits of El Greco; a Las Meninas variation with its generous splosh of red paint looks back on Henri Matisse’s paintings of red rooms and studios; and Old Man Seated (1970-71) is a colourful self-portrait of Picasso in the splendour of a Rembrandt Self-Portrait (1658) in the Frick Collection, New York, shunning the artist’s beret for a straw hat evocative of Vincent van Gogh. Above all, Picasso saw the Old Masters as equals and rivals for his place in art history.
One small room is dedicated to Picasso’s Cubist period and his first muse, Fernande Olivier, is the protagonist. A gouache profile sketch records her distinctive features in a realist manner: almond eyes, Roman nose, high cheekbones, strong neck, and wavy hair. A quick turn to the left and we are faced with the same profile cast in bronze in the same year of 1906. Jump forward three years later and her features have been transformed into sets of angular peaks, dynamic and expressive of psychological tension. In a consciously paired display consisting of the painted Cubist Head (Portrait of Fernande) (1909-10) and the bronze Head of a Woman (Fernande) (1909) from which it was based, we can see the exceptional progress Picasso had made towards his caricatural aims.
The juxtaposition of bronzes and paintings continues in the exhibition’s final room dedicated to portraiture after the 1930s. It opens with the colourful Woman in a Yellow Armchair (1932), a patchwork portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter inspired by the work of Matisse. Literally around the corner can be seen a bronze of her from 1931. The curator of the exhibition, Elizabeth Cowling, writes in the catalogue that Picasso “instinctively saw her as the incarnation of a Raphael Madonna – serene, innocent, gentle, candid”. It certainly does seem true that his portraits of Marie-Thérèse appear more pleasing to the eye than his portraits of other women. Nearby portraits of Lee Miller and Nusch Éluard appear far more grotesque and take some getting used to. His portraits of Jacqueline Roque come a close second; even at their most stylised, they at least retain a human-like appearance. Finally, the portraits of Dora Maar embrace the classic nobility of her profile, setting her up in formal-looking, posed portraits as in Dora Maar Seated (1938).
Olga Khokhlova also gets her own room. Immediately upon entering the room we are faced with two exceptional portraits which I was more than elated to see next to each other: Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1918) and Portrait of Olga Picasso (1923). These two large paintings show two sides of Picasso’s vision of Olga: as the ballet dancer and fiancée Olga Khokhlova, and as Olga Picasso, his first wife. The two were married on 12th July 1918.
In Portrait of Olga in an Armchair the sitter faces us frontally. Wearing a black, floral-patterned dress and sitting on an equally vibrant chair, Olga stands out against the painting’s unfinished background, lost in her own thoughts. She is sensitively painted and she stands at the heart of a process during which Picasso devoted all of his attention to her.
Portrait of Olga Picasso shows something else. Their son Paulo is now two years’ old and Picasso had finished designing costumes and sets for the Ballet Russes’ productions of Le Tricorne (1919) and Pulcinella (1920). Picasso was at the height of his classicism and Olga was his classical muse. Unlike the previous portrait, Olga is now poised and stiff like a Greco-Roman statue, as if plucked straight out of the Parthenon’s east pediment. Her gaze runs out into the distance and she commands our attention with her sheer presence. She is stern and lacks expression. She’s had enough. Six years later, Picasso would begin an affair with Marie-Thérèse, then only 17 years’ old. This was the beginning of the end of their relationship; Olga filed for divorce in 1935.
Of the famous six, Eva Goeul – also known by her invented Parisian name Marcelle Humbert – is the only muse not represented in the exhibition. She posed for Picasso from 1911 until her death in 1915. Françoise Gilot is only minimally represented in the child-like stick figures of Claude Drawing, Françoise and Paloma (1954). On the other hand, a little pony-tailed star resonates near the middle of the final room, one could say centre stage: Sylvette (1954).
Then only 19 years old, Lydia Corbett was a shy teenage girl whose painter-sculptor boyfriend, Tobias Jellinek, had a workshop near Picasso’s studio during the summer of 1954 in the small town of Vallauris near Cannes. The 72-year-old artist was living with Françoise at the time. Since speaking to Picasso for the first time when he bought armchairs from Tobias, Lydia (then called Sylvette David) modelled for the already-famous artist that summer. During those brief few weeks she became ‘The Girl with the Ponytail’.
Sylvette is a sheet-metal sculpture, cut out, bent, and painted on both sides. On one side we see a Cubist image with an authoritative Ancient Egyptian profile merged with half of a full-frontal face – Picasso’s signature ‘double profile’. On the other, long wavy lines lineate her ponytail, and across an expanse of white paint – and a bend in the metal – is a face resembling a raw emoji. Her displayed location in front of Claude Drawing, Françoise and Paloma is a reference to the fact that Lydia used to play with Claude and Paloma, Picasso’s two children with Françoise Gilot. The emoji-like face of the ‘back’ of the sculpture also hints at this, as well as to her age. The materiality of the sculpture is also in itself a testament to Picasso’s encounter with Tobias, whose own practice inspired the elder artist’s creation of sheet-metal sculptures.
The exhibition begins and ends with self-portraits. At the earliest is an 1896 painting made during his first year at La Llotja, Barcelona’s School of Fine Arts, when he was 14 or 15. He is portrayed as a young man, eager for posterity to know him yet also deeply anxious; there is a concern that others will dislike him. Picasso was always conscious of how the public perceived him. The last self-portrait is Picasso’s acceptance of his own mortality. Dated 2nd July 1972, the haunting crayon drawing depicts a metamorphosis of his face into a deathly skull. With a little less than a year to live, the self-portrait-as-skull stares back at us with empty eyes filled with scribbles of white crayon. Two days earlier, he had made a similar self-portrait (not exhibited), one with bulging eyes, stubble and a beard. But the expression is the same. Gripped with fear, the wide-eyed genius was to confront the very thing he could not control. But he could still paint, and so he did until mere hours before his death on the morning of 8th April 1973.
Behind the grand, public exterior of Picasso’s fame lay an individual whose aim in life was to connect with people. A history of Picasso is a history of his friends, whose features and sentiments he so faithfully immortalised in quick sketches and time-consuming masterpieces. Picasso Portraits shows us that he embraced the individuality of every one of his models and sitters. He did not see them as ‘beautiful’ or ‘not beautiful’. He saw them as they really were: people with unique personalities and traits whose souls could be as dark as evil, or as innocent as a child. He also knew that these people had the potential to change, for better or for worse, and we see those clearly with every variation. Having a portrait done by Picasso was a privilege; having him do it by choice was his “thank you”.
Picasso Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 5th February 2017, http://www.npg.org.uk. It then moves to the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, from 16th March to 25th June 2017, http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat.