Friday, 7 October 2016

Picasso wins.

I was entering the National Portrait Gallery on the opening night of their new Picasso Portraits exhibition as a guy leaving at the same time exclaimed to the gallery attendant 'Picasso wins'. Apparently, he'd been to see the William Eggleston exhibition during the same visit and felt Pablo had come out on top. Art's not a sport but if it was you'd certainly hope to avoid coming up against such a titan of 20th century art in an early round of the cup. That just wouldn't be fair.

No other artist so accurately reflected the changes, the turmoil of that century. But as much as Pablo Picasso was a product of the 20th century the 20th century was, in some ways, a product of Pablo Picasso. Certainly he was at the forefront of nearly every major development in art that took place during his lifetime.

His career spanned decades and never once did he appear to be behind the times. With one eye on the future another was always looking back to the Old Masters whose influence he incorporated but never simply copied. One criticism of his portraiture was that all the portraits, even those of his many lovers, were essentially of him. Whilst, undoubtedly, the eye of the artist is present in these, and all, portraits, this wonderful exhibition makes it clear that Picasso did not simply see his own reflection in the faces of his sitters but strove, and succeeded, in getting to some elemental truth within.

The first couple of rooms definitely are self-portraits. Quite literally so. Some inspired by gloomy Norwegian Edvard Munch. Others show our hero sombre after Paul Cezanne's death in Aix-en-Provence. Self-Portrait with Palette from 1906, below, shows the young artist in his mid-twenties looking pensive yet quietly confident as he had every right to do.

He'd spent the first ten years of his life in Malaga in Andalusia but his father's work had taken the family to La Coruna, Galicia, in the far north-west corner of Spain. In 1895 they moved again to Barcelona where the young Pablo attended the School of Fine Arts. After a brief spell in Madrid he abandoned academia and joined a coterie of Catalan artists who'd meet at Els Quatre Gats, the tavern at the centre of Barcelona's avant-garde scene.

In 1900 he visited Paris for the first time and in 1904 he moved there. Between these two dates he painted himself in a top hat. Very much the flaneur this louche man-about-town affectation was no doubt influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec who passed away in 1901.

He took a studio in Montmartre and when the model Fernande Olivier moved in with him in 1905 women began to dominate his work. These twin obsessions with women and the work would continue throughout his life and these first few years in the French capital saw an astonishing acceleration in the way he worked. Compare and contrast the two portraits of Fernande below and then consider the first was painted in 1906 and the second only three years later.

When he wasn't painting his lover he was knocking out witty, scatological postcards of Guillaume Apollinaire, the forefather of Surrealism, and watercolours of bawdy sexual escapades. The jollity of these works gave way to a more sombre style, the blue period, after the suicide of a close Catalan friend, Carles Casagemas.

Portrait of Sebastia Jaunyer i Vidal from 1903 is a stunning example of these fin de seicle marvels. The blue filter lending the canvas a sorrowful, yet respectful, approach to the sitters. Picasso would often jest, even mock, his sitters but would always remain respectful.

Even with this 1957 portrait of the composer Francis Poulenc. It could be mistaken for that of a self-important dictator of the time but Poulenc saw in it only the articulation of the friendship that he and Picasso shared. He had a lot of friends and many of them were in high places. Jean Cocteau, Manuel de Falla, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Diagheliv all liked to be drawn by Picasso and he liked to draw them too.

In 1917 while working on a ballet in Rome (music by Erik Satie, of couse) Picasso met the Ukrainian ballerina Olga Khoklova who was to become his first wife. Her classical beauty reminded him of the society portraits Ingres had painted a century earlier and this, and Rome itself, became highly influential to his ever developing style.

In the mid-20s their relationship deteriorated and by 1935 they had legally separated. The three pictures below tell a story of their relationship. From the classical to the independent, sure of herself, woman to the twisted, contorted features of the final portrait. Almost a parody of a Picasso it boldly suggests a relationship, and a life, turned upside down.

As love faded with Olga it grew with Marie-Therese Walter (below in Woman in a Yellow Armchair, 1932). Blonde and buxom she was the antithesis of his wife. Picasso's taste in women was clearly as eclectic and comprehensive as his art.

Around this time he was feeling the influence of Rembrandt, El Greco, and Velazquez. Degas and Rapheael were depicted in Paris brothels. Tumescent cocks and cunnilingus abound. Accusations of sacrilege were countered by Picasso's assertion that the artists of the past were as alive to him as his friends and thus equally ripe for such caricature.

The influence of Velazquez, in particular, was so strong that in 1957 he devoted himself to a series inspired by Las Meninas. Painted in 1656 and hung in the Prado Picasso had not seen the original for over two decades but he didn't let that stop him. Further art historical reference can be read in to the heavy use of red in the painting. Henri Matisse had died in 1954 and the older artist held a strong attraction for Picasso. It's entirely plausible that we have an oblique reference to Matisse's masterpiece, The Red Room.

Velazquez had also been indirectly responsible for another of Picasso's relationships. The critic and author Francoise Gilot had visited the artist, forty years her senior, wearing a dress and a hairstyle that she knew would remind him of Velazquez. It did. They slept together that night and then stayed together for another ten years. That's her, below, in another armchair.

She'd replaced Dora Maar who'd replaced Marie-Therese Walter. In today's language, and culture, Picasso would clearly be considered a love rat - and worse still. Though some of his behaviour was clearly unpalatable it doesn't detract from, nor add to, his work.

Dora Maar was for Picasso the tragic embodiment of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Her grotesquely exaggerated features in Woman In A Hat represents both the frailty of their relationship and the precarious state of Europe at that time. Yet, in his bronze Head of a Woman, we can also see that he saw in her the spirit, fortitude, and courage of a strong resistance fighter. Both these works were made in 1941 and tell of a dichotomy that Picasso seemed unable to reconcile.

He was with Jacqueline Roque from 1954 until his death in 1973. She devoted herself to the older man who painted her more times than any of his previous lovers. Often, as in Woman by a Window from 1956 below, in her favourite rocking chair. This devotion seems to have prolonged Picasso's career at a time others would be settling into their dotage. He saw in her echoes of Goya, Manet, and Delacroix.

In the last year of his life Picasso made a crayon drawing of his own head becoming a skull. A stark reminder to himself of his own very real mortality. Thirty-four years earlier he'd made the almost Peppa Pig like portrait of his daughter Maya in a sailor suit. The juxtaposition of these works, and many others would work equally well, show the range of the great man's portraiture skills. No one exhibition could ever do justice to the breadth of such a stellar career and life but this one gives a very good indication as to just how good he was.

Did Picasso win? Si, gano el premio a la mejor pintura del siglo XX y a causa de esto todos somos mas ricos.

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