The portraiture of Pablo Picasso is the subject of a major new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, with works from all periods of his career –pictures of family, friends and lovers. Jack Watkins went along to inspect…
If I’d been Lee Miller, back in 1937, I’m not sure that I’d have been particularly impressed with Pablo Picasso’s portrait of me. Lee Miller as l’Arlesienne depicted the notoriously free-spirited photographer with yellow skin, blue-green hair and a hideous wide grin displaying, as my old granny used to say, ‘a mouth full of teeth’. There’s no accounting for the taste of the arty set, however. Miller’s ecstatic husband, the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose, remarked that this mess was “undoubtedly her, but with none of the conventional attributes of a portrait.” You can say that again, mate! This is the sort of tat I wouldn’t pay two bob for if I uncovered it in a stall in Petticoat Lane.
Incredibly, Miller herself was delighted. “She loved having it in her home,” Penrose recalled. “People would say to her quite openly, “God, that’s awful,” but she didn’t care in the slightest what anybody thought about it.”
As art critic Mark Hudson wrote in the Daily Telegraph, in advance of the new National Portrait Gallery show, whatever the claims of Johnny Come Latelys like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, Picasso remains the most controversial artist of all time. Ostensibly, his seemingly interminable career – it began in the 1890s and ended only at his death, aged 91, in 1973 – waged war on hitherto well-established painting genres. Yet the closer you get to Picasso the more palatable he becomes, as you appreciate that, unlike many of the current controversialists, he was formidably well-grounded in the works of the past giants: so much so, in fact, that by the time he’d reached his last decade, he openly considered himself to be the last great classical master, the upholder of a line going all the way back to Velazquez and Rembrandt. Rather than being a shockaholic, he had taken the time to master the rules and techniques he so often broke.
We shouldn’t get too reverential, however. It’s a relief to find that the Lee Miller picture (one of a series of six colourful portraits Picasso painted of her) was genuinely intended to be light-hearted, with elements of caricature. So too was Maya in a Sailor Suit, painted in 1938, and intended as a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the art of children. It still looks like gunk to me, though.
Let’s not soft soap here. Woman By A Window, for example, has a certain statuesque memorability, but we are told it’s reminiscent of those old portraits that were commissioned to show a sovereign on a throne surveying their realm. Only someone who has spent too long pouring over their art books or talking to their fellow academics could honestly draw that comparison.
Perhaps it was just my mood on the day of my visit which made me react to the works in this way. “A picture has a life like a living creature,” Picasso once remarked, “undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.” And this exhibition, the first substantial one on Picasso’s portraiture for twenty years, and carefully curated, is at pains to show us as many sides of his approach as possible. There are over 75 portraits in various forms of media, including oils, drawings, caricatures, and photographs.
While all phases of his career are covered, though, you couldn’t say the aim is to show his ‘evolution’. Picasso simply didn’t work in that way. Frequently quizzed on the matter, he replied that, to him, there was no past or future in art. “If a work of art cannot always live in the present it must not be considered art at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”
Having sounded very negative about some of the works in this show, the best of Picasso is still resoundingly alive. There are some real knockouts. The man from Malaga was a superb portraitist at his best, not least because his craft was founded in drawing, and years and years of looking at and copying the Old Masters. “They say I can draw better than Raphael,” he once told his friend Gertrude Stein, “And they’re probably right.”
Ingres, the French master, was one of his heroes, and in a room of early self-portraits, one, painted in 1897 when he was at art school in Barcelona, shows him as a fop in a wig, echoing 18th century fashion. Even so,
Self-Portrait with Palette, from ten years later, cuts a more recognisable picture, the rough application of the paint underscoring an image of the artist as a plain, artisan-like figure, with cropped hair and muscular build, a habitué of Montmartre, rather than the man about town he purported to be during the 1920s.
Picasso had arrived in Paris in 1904, already with firm ideas of his own. He recoiled from the still widely preached French Academy view that portraiture should adhere to a fixed, conventional representation of beauty, and look ‘finished’. Some of the caricatures, which he’d first started doing as a child of eight to amuse family members, became acts of subversion in response to the stylistic straitjacket his teachers had tried to impose.
Even so, he did not entirely give up classic drawing and painting from life. “We are heirs to Rembrandt, Velazquez, Cézanne, Matisse. A painter still has a father and a mother. He doesn’t come out of nothing,” he remarked. A room here dedicated to his first wife Olga Picasso shows how good he was when working in traditional mode. Portrait of Olga Picasso reflects Olga’s classic elegance, which reminded Picasso of the society women who inhabited the portraits of Ingres. It’s quite an icy piece, however, perhaps indicative of a cooling in their relationship. Much warmer, almost with a touch of Merchant Ivory romanticism, is Portrait of Olga in an Armchair.
Possibly the most famous work in the exhibition is a Cubist painting of the early champion of Picasso’s work, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, completed in 1910. Apparently this took between 20 and 30 sittings to create. Picasso added the suggestion of eyes, a wave in the hair, an ear lobe and clasped hands to help the spectator find some element that could be understood, hoping this would sustain interest and encourage them to look more closely at the overall effect.
It remains a difficult work, however. “There are so many realities that in trying to render them visible, one ends up in the dark,” Picasso told Kahnweiler many years later, in 1957. “That is why, 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 is nothing at all,”
Picasso didn’t paint to commission, and it was this, and the fact that he tended only to depict those within his close circle of intimates, that gave him such artistic licence. For me though, his best works were his simplest. Jacqueline Roque was Picasso’s second wife, and Portrait of Jacqueline in a Black Scarf (1954) pictured her as one of the archetypally sombre, black-costumed Spanish women he remembered from his youth. Everything about the painting, apart from Jacqueline’s garb, is modern, and truthful, yet it’s sublimely executed. The great masters, I am sure, would have nodded their approval.
Picasso Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery from 6 October to 5 February • www.npg.org.uk/whatson/picasso-portraits/exhibition.php