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(c) Succession Picasso/DACS London

Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

14 October 2016 | Helen Dalton

This Autumn, the National Portrait Gallery stages a major exhibition dedicated to the portraiture of Picasso. Featuring more than 70 of the artist’s paintings and drawings of people, this is the largest exhibition devoted exclusively to Picasso’s portraiture to take place in the last twenty years. With many images depicting Picasso’s friends and families on display, it is a unique exhibition with a personal and intimate atmosphere.

The new Picasso Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery highlights the enormous breadth of Picasso's works and ability by choosing to focus solely on his portraits. Far from being reductive, this allows the exhibition to glance – albeit briefly – at a huge range of the styles and media that Picasso experimented with during his prolific career. As well as the ground-breaking Cubist images for which he is perhaps best known, there are formally poised portraits, expressive pencil sketches, and even ‘humourous compositions’ made from images taken from magazines. In fact the exhibition’s biggest strength is probably the striking range of the works on display, which will undoubtedly challenge many viewers’ preconceived notions of the ‘type’ of artwork that Picasso produced.
 
The exhibition’s sole focus on portraiture also serves to direct our attention to Picasso as a person. Many of the pieces on display show his friends and family, highlighting the ways that the artist's personal life influenced and inspired his work. Particularly striking is a large painting of Picasso’s first wife Olga, showing the sitter gazing away from the viewer, seemingly poised between sadness and reflection. It is easy to read into this piece the distance and dissatisfaction that was growing between the artist and his wife at the time it was painted. Throughout his life, Picasso had scores of girlfriends and mistresses, as well as two wives, and an awareness of his love-life gives added levels of meaning to many of the portraits here. A nice touch is the screen showing ‘home movies’ of Picasso and his family at home, offering a tantalizing glimpse into the artist’s life. Happily, however, the exhibition generally chooses to only provide brief biographical hints rather than creating any sort of sensationalist or salacious story of Picasso’s life, leaving his artworks as the central pull of the exhibition.
 

Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso, 1923; Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016;
 
While we are shown many of Picasso’s friends, family members, and lovers in the pictures on display, it is perhaps harder to get under the skin of the actual artist himself from his portraiture. A number of the images on view are self-portraits displaying the artist at a range of ages, but these generally give us more insight into how Picasso experimented with different styles and refined his craft than as a glimpse into his life or character. For example, the bland, mask-life face of his Self-Portrait with Palette gives little away, apparently intended to show the artist without feelings or character. However, much can actually be garnered from the apparently impersonal picture when we know that it was painted at around the time of the death of Cezanne, an artist whom Picasso greatly admired. Perhaps we do not learn much of Picasso the man, but in the gorgeous, peachy colours of his painted skin we see a clear tribute to Cezanne and his favoured colour palettes.
 

Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso, 1906; Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1950 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016; Photograph and Digital Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York  

Picasso Portraits covers a very broad range of works, but it does not have the chance to really delve deep into any of Picasso’s obsessions or styles. For example, there are only a handful of pieces that display the cubist style for which Picasso is still most widely known. However, those cubist pieces on display do include the famous Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910, depicting Picasso's art dealer. As the first large-scale exhibition of Picasso’s portraiture in the last twenty years, this is a gentle introduction to the wide range of the artist’s work, presenting a comprehensive overview of his portrait painting and drawing.
 
Picasso Portraits is showing at the National Portrait Gallery 6 October 2016 - 5 February 2017.
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