I thought I’d kick off my new life as a cultural dahhling by attending one of the most expensive and big deal retrospectives in town – Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. The £19 ticket price made me feel a little queasy but my magic staff card got me a free ticket and I consequently felt a little giddy about the whole business.
I’m ashamed at how little I know about the big fella, besides the obvious: blue period, funny faces, cubism etc. but the exhibition was aimed at noobs like me and was stuffed full of information about the man, his life and influences. What really struck me was his incredible, century spanning life (1881-1973). Here was a man who lived through two world wars, a fascist regime, civil war, innumerable art movements and countless love affairs – all of which was laid bare and beautiful through his portraiture.
Following the initial self portraits and explanations of his early life, the exhibition dedicates a few rooms to an exploration of Picasso the Absolute Lad. The caricatures which are sometimes disregarded as folly are pride of place here and show a crucial element of humour to Picasso’s work; sheer silliness which is so often lacking in retrospectives of artistic behemoths such as this. They seamlessly stand alongside his more serious works. A gorgeous, blue-period portrait of Sebastia Juner Vidal adorns one wall, whilst opposite hangs a deeply cheeky caricature of Angel Fernandez de Soto having his wicked way with a drunken prozzie:
This humanises the work and paints a fuller picture of Picasso’s oeuvre. It also explains how his penchant for caricature feeds into his portraiture and compulsion to portray a person’s character rather than physical attributes, which is evident particularly in his later work (when ppl’s physical features are all over the place). The exhibition is laid out thematically and only loosely chronologically, so it constantly displays his incredibly wide, stylistic scope.
A favourite section of mine was the room dedicated to his first wife Olga, a Ukrainian ballet dancer whom he married in 1917 (a good year to leave Ukraine so sound choice on her part). Her stately slavic beauty lends itself to a classical style and Picasso’s portraits of her are stylistically straightforward. But, standing alone among these beautiful portraits, is an abstract and savagely silly picture of a Woman in a Hat which he painted following their separation in 1935. There’s something tragic about her wide eyed expression and the lack of dignity she’s afforded in comparison to her classically beautiful companions:
This is a great example of the way in which the exhibition manages to tie in biographical and historical context. Olga was as much a victim of history as she was of Picasso’s selfish, womanising ways. Undoubtedly her family were caught up in the events of 1917 just as Picasso himself would become deeply affected by the first and second world wars. All of this is displayed through the work and the information provided and paints a vivid portrait of the artist’s turbulent life and times.
As the exhibition goes on, more and more characters are added to the mix and there’s an almost confusing number of love affairs. These are documented in such a way that Eddy Frankel of Time Out magazine dubbed the retrospective -‘Picasso, Old Lech’. Whilst I feel his ethical assessment is pretty on point, I find myself not really caring that the artist was a bit of a bastard. Clearly the final room is a portrayal of someone unable to make long lasting romantic relationships or enjoy a stable family environment, but this is usually to be expected of any ‘great man’ of the 20th Century. The debate on whether or not we should allow the character of the artist to taint the art is never ending and frankly, another subject for another time.
Instead, I’ll leave you with my favourite portrait of the exhibition, and the only one I bought an overpriced postcard of. It shows a blissful family scene, Picasso’s son Claude is drawing his mother and sister; the artist himself is sadly detached from the scene. It was painted in 1954, a year after he left Francoise and abandoned his second family. It exists as a kind of epitaph for the peaceful stability of family life that he was unable to enjoy. As is so often the way, the portrait reflects more about the artist himself than those depicted.
For me, the exhibition was a solid ARTSY, I was completely absorbed and felt like I learnt loads. Despite the hugeness of this exhibition, and the fact that I saw most of it over the shoulders of someone else, it felt quite intimate and personal.
Picasso Portraits runs until 5th of February 2017
Tickets: £15.50 – £19 (First 100 Tickets on Fridays are only £5)