Review: Picasso Portraits, National Portrait Gallery. A Genius Underplayed


I never imagined that I would ever, could ever, be disappointed with a Picasso show. The guy was not just the greatest artist of the twentieth century, he was by far the greatest artist of the twentieth century.

Picasso exhibitions should hum with energy. He was a dynamic, radical artist who transformed art. That revolutionary spirit should be just bouncing off the walls. So something has gone more than a little bit wrong at the National Portrait Gallery as Picasso Portraits is a flat, pedestrian affair which does not display Picasso’s approach to portraiture at its best.

As you walk in, you notice two things: first, the impressive Self-Portrait with Palette, 1906, where all of Picasso’s admiration for Cezanne’s colour and form is blended with his own interest in African art, evident in the mask-like features and the big brown eyes.

The second thing you notice is that there isn’t much art about. In fact, the walls seem quite bare. For though this show has been supported with generous loans from overseas galleries and private collections, these loans seem to been spread very thin indeed.

The whole ground floor of the NPG has been put aside for this show, but the works could easily have been condensed into two-thirds of the space. There are great gulfs of wall space and corridors where there are no works, and one of the smaller galleries, well, you walk in to see only six 6”x4” photographs in waist-height vitrines and a quote stencilled onto the wall.


And there are some pieces included that, well, it’s a stretch to include them in a show on portraits. Picasso did a reinterpretation of Velazquez’s Las Meninas and though that final piece is not on show here (obvs), some of the supporting works are included, largely because they are close-cropped studies of Infanta Margaret Theresa. Hmmm, I suppose they are portraits as they are focused on one person, but in their final form, they are part of a far bigger composition.

Overall, there’s a very heavy bias towards Picasso’s classical-esque earlier works, before his distinctive radical style was honed and perfected. These works, though elegant and beautiful, only give hints of what was to follow. And so there are portraits of the characters he met and knew in Montmartre, such as the sombre painting of Sebastia Junyer I Vidal (complete with a prostitute as a table companion) from Picasso’s Blue Period, and a rather disturbing one of actor-turned-vagabond, Andre-Joseph Salle, where the actor grins out at you like one of those scary masks. But you’d not consider either to one of the great man’s best.

The show is at its strongest with the works of his various partners and lovers. Dora Maar once said that when Picasso painted your portrait, he painted Picasso, not you. And occasionally you get glimpses of that tension between painter and sitter, such as in the vivid Woman in a Hat, 1935, which is a painting of Picasso’s first wife Olga during the last years of their relationship, her face distorted almost into complete abstraction and any sense of identity or personality removed.

And there’s one of Dora herself, (also) Woman in a Hat, 1941. Here Dora – Picasso’s enduring muse of suffering and anguish – is sat rigid in her chair, her face squashed into a rectangle, and any sumptuous curves representing love and affection lost in a body of angles and sharp edges.



And these contrast well with the more seductive pieces of his other lovers, such as the affectionate bronzes of Marie-Therese, and the respectful portraits of Jacqueline, his partner in his later years, such as the elegant portrait of her as the archetypal Spanish woman in her black headdress.

When Picasso liked you, he loved you. And when he didn’t… Well, it showed.

But sadly these are amongst the few highlights in a show that really needed a few more dynamic pieces to give it the energy and the spirit it is so desperately missing. Too many low-key drawings, and too much from his earlier years.

Overall, Picasso Portraits is a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s true to say, as the National Portrait Gallery advertises, that as Picasso did not work to commission, he had far more latitude and freedom in the execution of his portraits. Absolutely, that’s true. And the result of this was that he was able to paint dozens and dozens of radical portraits. Ones that really ripped up the rule book on portraiture.

That radicalism, sadly though, is not captured here. Far be it from me to dissuade anyone from going to a Picasso show but, if you are planning to go, it might be wise to manage those expectations.

National Portrait Gallery, London to February 5, 2017
Admission £17 (concessions available)

Image Credits:
1. Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso, 1935; Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art modern. Copyright: Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016 Photo: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Rights reserved
2. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910 by Pablo Picasso, 1910; Art Institute of Chicago. Copyright: Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016; 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York
3. Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso, 1923; Private Collection. Copyright: Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

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