Saturday, 4 February 2017

Picasso portraits give a fascinating overview

Self-portrait with Palette
When you live in a large city it’s arguably the way of things that you will not know about every cultural event taking place, but even allowing for that, it was a surprise to realise, at the start of this week, that I’d been unaware of a major exhibition in London.

The National Portrait Gallery, in conjunction with the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, has been staging Picasso Portraits, which ends tomorrow.

With little time left, The Other Half and I booked tickets for last night and duly made our way there after work. And after all, given the Catalan giant’s observation that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” what better way could there be to begin a weekend?

It’s a career-spanning collection that takes us from the end of the 19th century to the 1970s.

Works on display include a small number of photographic portraits to a sketch on a paper napkin to fragments on cards to works in oil to sculptures. It’s an excellent way to get an idea of the range of Picasso’s work and styles.

Self-portrait in charcoal and chalk
The earliest works include some of the most fascinating, including two self portraits – one, sporting a wig from 1897 and the other, in charcoal and chalk from 1889-1900.

Both have an intensity about them, but the latter (reproduction does not do justice to the light of it) particularly caught my eye.

It is difficult with Picasso – perhaps more than with most other artists – to separate artist and art. There is a sense of raw animal power about the subject in both these; of a force of nature that gives you an insight into what he created.

Close by is a 1901 portrait of the French art critic and writer Gustave Coquiot that seems to nod toward Fauvism in its use of green in the subject’s skin, and with a dollop of impasto at the shirt’s throat drawing the eye.

From a personal perspective, I ‘get’ the early Cubist works, but I can’t say I ‘like’ them, with their de-humanising analysis and the muddy palette, though the Head of a Woman bust is more interesting than the canvases.

Far more revealing, for me, are works such as Self-portrait with Palette from 1906, where we see a recognisable style emerging, that combines the classical and the primitive – and leaves us with a sense of the emotion.

Later rooms include one with a range of portraits of Olga Picasso – from the naturalistic to the Cubist.

Portrait of Olga Picasso
And here is the perfect chance to highlight a prime bugbear about this exhibition: the curator’s notes next to each work.

In one exhibit, sitting next to a sketch showing a friend of Picasso in a brothel, the words talk of the friend “carousing with a drunken prostitute”. Well, “carousing” is one way to put it.

Similarly, in a later work – a drawing of the artist Raphael having sex while the pope draws curtains aside to watch – there is no mention of the act, but we are informed that Raphael was known to have an ‘amorous’ character.

This terror of mentioning S.E.X. is only one aspect of the issue: throughout, we’re told what Picasso was thinking as he worked.

Now, it is a fair bet that, when an artist is, say, in a strained relationship, that might show up in their work, but asserting such connections as fact is irritating at best.

However, that is what happened in the room dedicated to Olga – Woman in a Hat (Olga) from 1935 is pretty much definitively described as making a sarcastic comment on his wife’s love of hats, yet also as showing her in such a way as to pity her even as their relationship broke apart.

Woman in a Hat (Olga)
Portrait of Olga Picasso from 1923 has a generally classical approach, yet the eyes have something of the mask-like look of Self-portrait with Palette – but even here the curator is straining to tell us that the formality suggests the relationship was already in trouble.

It’s hardly rocket science to suppose that a self-portrait from 1972 – effectively a skull with a piece missing – was influenced by a sense of his own mortality (he died the following year) but do we really need this stating as though we are incapable of making the links on our own? Indeed, Im going to suggest that such notes detract from the power of just such a work.

I never use audio guides in galleries, in the UK or abroad, precisely because I think that they get in the way of you really seeing the works.

It’s entirely possible that I might miss something that the in a painting or sculpture that had not been upmost in the artist had in mind at the time of its creation, but then that personal experience of art is part of the ongoing process of creativity; part of what makes art more than imply objects.

Self-portrait, 1972
Yet on occasion, the notes skate over what many people might not know, which could be said briefly and might add something.

In another room, for instance, two notes mention Matisse, yet with no mention of the sense of rivalry between them – most of it on Picasso’s part (see Hilary Spurling’s excellent biography of the French artist), thus not giving any real sense of the claim that the colours of one painting are a deliberate echoing of Matisse.

The other problem here is the lack of any works from the Blue Period. It feels like an obvious gap in what otherwise is a successful use of one type of art to give that career perspective.

All this said, there is plenty to delight – not least some of the more informal works Picasso executed for friends, including a 1957 sketch of the French composer and pianist, Francis Poulenc, which shows how he could get away with caricaturing his friends.

Unlike some exhibitions, this is also not so long as to exhaust. You still have time – just about – to catch Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It finishes tomorrow – and then we have until 2018 for Tate Modern’s just-announced Picasso blockbuster.

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