Picasso Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 6 October 2016 – 5 February 2017; Museu Picasso, Barcelona, 17 March – 25 June 2017. Curated by Elizabeth Cowling.

How do you solve a problem like Picasso, with his legendary energy, his tremendous, seemingly immeasurable body of work, and phenomenal longevity? Examples of his industry, even in his very late years, are not hard to find. In two months between December 1953 and January 1954, for instance, he produced a set of 180 drawings, reflecting on his own mortality; some fifteen years later, from March to October 1968, the year in which he turned eighty-seven, he made 347 etchings, known as Suite 347; in 1970 he completed his final series of prints, titled Suite 156 (named after the number of pieces it contains). Juvenilia survive from 1889–90, when he was still a child (he was born on 25 October 1881), and he continued working right up until his death in April 1973. The only catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s oeuvre was compiled by his friend, the Greek scholar Christian Zervos. First published in thirty-three volumes between 1932 and 1978, ‘the Zervos’, as it is known, was re-released in 2013, priced at $20,000 (original sets fetch as much as $200,000). It lists more than 16,000 paintings and drawings, but is nonetheless incomplete. Since 2003, Diana Widmaier Picasso, granddaughter of the artist and his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, has been working with a team of researchers on a catalogue of Picasso’s sculptures that documents more than 2,000 pieces. The statistics are dazzling, but it’s not about the numbers, of course. Most importantly, it’s about the sheer quality of the work: the indefatigable imagination, the utter mastery of forms, the apparently effortless ability at every stage of his life to make the adopted media, whatever they may be, speak so eloquently of Picasso’s inmost concerns. In every respect, therefore, the immediate and immense difficulty faced by the curator of a show dedicated to Picasso is to find a way of managing the teeming abundance of work. Picasso Portraits is the first retrospective devoted to the artist’s portraiture since Picasso and Portraiture (New York and Paris, 1996–7), curated by William Rubin. That ‘vast and revelatory’ show, Elizabeth Cowling notes in the introduction to the beautifully illustrated catalogue she has written to accompany the present exhibition, included figure paintings, nudes and narrative scenes that might, strictly speaking, have been excluded from a survey of portraits, conventionally understood. By contrast, Cowling explains, the focus in Picasso Portraits has been confined ‘to works in which the subjects are identified individuals and in which the artist engaged directly – albeit transgressively – with the established compositional norms of European portraiture’.

‘Less is more’ doesn’t amount to a curatorial thesis, however. That comes in the second strand of Cowling’s plan of attack: exploring connections between Picasso’s portraits and the widespread culture of visual caricatures that he grew up with in Spain and returned to repeatedly during the course of his long life. ‘Caricature’, it has been remarked, ‘was Picasso’s mother tongue’, and the artist himself helpfully provided a rationale for the emphasis on its role in his portraiture: ‘All good portraits are in some degree caricatures’. It’s a gnomic comment because Picasso isn’t simply suggesting that portraits inevitably partake of the comic wit and satire associated with caricatures in newspapers, for example. In the same way, when he says that, having been taught to draw like Raphael, it took him many years to learn to draw like a child, he certainly doesn’t mean to suggest that his work is infantile. More to the point is the idea that, trying to make art from ‘many realities’, to adopt Picasso’s own words, leads to perceived distortions. One familiar aspect of this was highlighted by Dora Maar, who pithily said: ‘All his portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar’. For any modern artist the quest for artistic achievement is to a greater or lesser extent a journey of self-discovery. Picasso’s primary concern, in his portraits as in the rest of his oeuvre, was with his own vision. With respect to the role of caricature in his portraits, that suggests a spectrum of possibilities: at one end are the pure caricatures, made for comic or ironic effect, that he produced at all periods in his career, some of which were kept in a ‘private, commemorative collection’ of caricatures of close friends; at the other end are the distorted portrayals that were Picasso’s way of negotiating artistic conjunctions with the world around him.

The artist and writer Jaume Sabartés enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Picasso, and eventually became his secretary and biographer. Over the years he was the subject of many witty caricatures, often bawdy, and always good-natured in tone. On Christmas Eve 1938, in Picasso’s flat in Paris, where the artist was bedridden, suffering from sciatica, the two friends discussed portraiture, and Sabartés expressed a whimsical desire to be portrayed ‘with ruffs, like those gentlemen of the sixteenth century, and with a plumed hat to cover up my bald head’. The following day Picasso made a drawing in pencil – Jaume Sabartés as a Gentleman of the Age of Philip II, described by Cowling as ‘an excellent likeness as well as a clever pastiche’. Ten months later Picasso and his entourage, including Sabartés, were staying in Royan, north of Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast, nervously monitoring the escalation of hostilities at the beginning of the Second World War. On 22 October Picasso painted Jaume Sabartés with Ruff and Cap , a ‘disturbingly monstrous’ portrayal that amalgamates a range of viewpoints. Sabartés initially had misgivings, but they soon gave way to admiration as he realised that the portrait was a brilliant distillation of his ‘most essential’ facial characteristics, infused with ‘great lyricism’. Accordingly, when the picture was later referred to as a ‘caricature’, Sabartés disagreed:

A caricature is a kind of ‘minimum’ portrait, done with the avowed purpose of ridiculing a person, whereas a portrait is the ‘maximum’ expression of a personality, the qualities of which the painter emphasizes by means of lines, colours or both, as in this case, without, however, overlooking certain features which might seem ridiculous to anyone else; for no one is perfect … But when we are caught upon the canvas by a real artist we are surprised to find what he discovers, and prefer to consider it a caricature.

Sabartés distinguishes between caricature as ridicule and the painter’s ability not merely to record a likeness but to express the sitter’s personality. For the ‘real artist’ the process is one of discovery, and in this case that must include Picasso’s ongoing engagement with a roll-call of distinguished artistic predecessors – the opportunity to use the Sabartés likeness to reflect on portrait conventions from Spain’s Siglo de Oro was presumably a significant inducement for Picasso. What Sabartés does not mention is that the deformations in Jaume Sabartés with Ruff and Cap doubtless also derive from the reaction of artist and sitter alike to the alarming military and political situation developing all around them. To adapt Sabartés’ excellent term: ‘maximum expression’ suggests a coming together of these several realities.

After 1910, the year in which the splendid Cubist portrait of the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was painted, Picasso took a break from portraiture that lasted about five years. When he returned to the genre he startled the avant-garde by working in distinctly classical modes. The first masterpiece in the new style was the portrait he made in 1918 of his fiancée, Olga Khokhlova, a Ukrainian dancer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Made to commemorate the engagement, the portrait was painted in a manner indebted to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in particular his Madame Rivière (1806, Musée du Louvre, Paris), but tempered with areas of bare canvas, unresolved brush-wipings and charcoal lines that reflect the way Picasso built up the composition. The picture was prominently displayed in the couple’s living room in Paris, where it acted as a ‘manifesto-cum-demonstration of the painterly process’.

Two further portraits of Olga evoke less happy moments in their relationship. By the time Picasso painted the Carnegie Prize-winning Portrait of Olga Picasso (1923), regarded as his ‘most formal statement as a portrait painter’, the marriage was under stress. Whereas the Olga of the engagement portrait bristles with self-confidence, in the 1923 picture she seems remote, detached, statuesque – attributes that have been associated with the pair’s ‘growing estrangement’. Then, in January 1927, Picasso chanced upon seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter by the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: ‘You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I feel we are going to do great things together. I am Picasso’. This was the beginning of what the late John Berger in his brilliant Success and Failure of Picasso (due to be reissued in 2017) describes as the ‘sexually most important affair’ of Picasso’s life. The couple’s daughter, Maya, was born in 1935, the year in which Picasso’s marriage to Olga finally reached its bitter end. Around this time Picasso painted a final portrait of Olga, entitled Woman in a Hat, that clearly incorporates elements of caricature – ostensibly minimising Olga’s presence, as Sabartés might say. And yet, the image is infused with deep poignancy. Grotesque, tragic, full of sadness and confusion (to paraphrase Cowling), Olga is agonisingly recognisable in a likeness that certainly distances and objectifies her, but which, at the same time, is imbued with an inescapable sense of pathos.

Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso
Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso.© Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016 Photo: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Rights reserved


Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso, 1935; Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne.© Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016
Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso, 1935; Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne.© Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

As all of this implies, the thesis explored in Picasso Portraits requires delicate handling. The caricature theme – more a play of leitmotif than an article of dogma – mustn’t be allowed to obscure the many realities that contribute to the pictorial textures because, in Picasso’s hands, caricature was not necessarily reductive. caricature and straight portraiture, Cowling puts the matter well when she remarks that Picasso ‘eroded the boundary of decorum between the two genres to a degree that few other artists have dared’. The issues are sensitively laid out in the exhibition, which divides into two parts – the smaller rooms on either side of the Wolfson Gallery’s main corridor are arranged chronologically; the focus in the largest room is thematic – and explored further in Cowling’s excellent and informative catalogue.

Paul Williamson’s recent work includes the libretto of Panathenaia, with music by Thomas Hewitt Jones. Premiered in Stockholm last summer, Panathenaia is scheduled for its first UK performance in the British Museum later this year. Paul is currently editing The New Potato Eaters, a collaborative book about Van Gogh’s early period.

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