Hats off to Picasso

'Picasso Portraits' at the National Portrait Gallery

Published 7 October 2016

Picasso’s friends and family are the focus of an exhibition showing how portraiture pushed the artist forward, writes Christopher Baker

  • From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Picasso is the great mercurial chameleon of 20th-century art, whose achievement seems hard to grasp because of its diversity and abundant invention. However, by looking in detail at a particular strand of his creativity, the evolution of his work becomes comprehensible. This is one of the ambitions of a major exhibition this autumn at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

    The distinguished guest curator Professor Elizabeth Cowling has selected outstanding international loans, some of which have never been seen in Britain, for this not-to-be-missed show. It plots the development of Picasso’s portraiture from the splintering of reality in his Cubist period and his grand classicism of the 1920s and ’30s to the more anarchic performances of his late work.

  • Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Hat (Olga)

    Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Hat (Olga), 1935.

    Centre Pompidou, Paris/Musée national d’art moderne/Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016/Photo: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Rights reserved.

  • There was always a mischievous, subversive glint in the artist’s famously coal-black eyes, and it found expression through the witty streak that emerges in much of his portraiture. Picasso could pinpoint a personality certainly, whether it be the ponderousness of Gertrude Stein or the playfulness of a child, but the qualities of exaggeration and deft simplification, which often border on caricature, are never far away (Woman in a Hat (Olga), 1935, pictured).

    The artist did not follow conventional commissioning practices and largely depicted his immediate circle, as well as himself, and so what emerges is a riveting collective portrait of his friends, family and lovers: key figures include Jean Cocteau and Igor Stravinsky, as well as Dora Maar, Lee Miller, Françoise Gilot and Jacqueline Picasso. An intriguing counterpoint to these are Picasso’s studies inspired by seminal portrait painters who were his heroes – Velázquez and Rembrandt – making the show an irresistible draw in a crowded London exhibition schedule.

    Picasso Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, from 6 October 2016 – 5 February 2017.

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