Picasso Portraits: Humour is Key

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The exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery differs from William Rubin’s one on Picasso’s portraits twenty years ago at MOMA by defining Picasso’s portraits more tightly.  Picasso’s incorporation of his circumstances and surroundings in his art led Rubin to include art in which the present show’s curator, Elizabeth Cowling, feels he was addressing other themes than that of pure portraiture – the theme of artist and his model, for example, addressed in the Vollard Suite.  While both artist and model are often identifiable, Cowling argues, these works are not portraits per se.  However, she adds an element that Rubin did not: caricature. Humour, she says, is key and seen throughout.  Never vicious, his parodies do not trivialise, his subjects are not victims.

Chronological in order, the exhibition covers the artist’s entire career and begins by showing how Picasso, the breaker of rules, had a very traditional training.  His early efforts were overseen by his father who guided his son’s early attempts at salon-scale genre scenes.  Moral and sentimental in nature, they had the effect on his portraiture that, as Cowling says, “he grasped early on the importance of evoking a state of mind as well as describing a physical appearance”.  This is clearly apparent in images of his father who was subject to depression.

With a room filled with self-portraits, Self-portrait with Wig shows him explore how costume changed character.  Yet these and other early portraits make clear that producing a likeness of the artist came easily.  Cowling found no preparatory studies showing him struggling to achieve it.  She did, however, find trials scattered over sheets of sketches that showed him struggling to master the art of caricature, to grasp the core of a personality, distil it and portray it into a few, firm lines.  What this struggle taught him, as this exhibition makes clear, gave Picasso a skill that informed his lifelong practice.

Launching his career among Barcelona’s avant-garde, his eye for caricature lighted mainly on his male friends and he directed it at insiders of the circle frequenting Els Quatre Gats.  Many of the works, like that of Santiago Rusiñol, are minute masterpieces of the genre.  It is here we have a first glimpse of his lifelong friend Jaime Sabartés, the butt of many jokes, here depicted as a Decadent Poet.

From 1900 on Picasso began visiting Paris, settling there permanently in 1904.  These travels gave rise to humorous works that parodied himself and his friends, their ambitions and activities.  One shows the artist as a grinning, scratching monkey, paintbrush tucked behind his ear.  Again, the Picasso and Sebastià Junyer I Vidal series portray the group’s journey to the art capital – comic strip style – with Junyer selling his work to Durand-Ruel, the famous impressionist dealer, and ‘collecting the dough’!

Fig. 5: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, 1903 Oil on canvas, 49-3/4 x 37 inches
Fig. 5: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)
Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, 1903
Oil on canvas, 49-3/4 x 37 inches

This period also saw Picasso experiment with a number of other artists’ styles including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.  His two portraits from this period of Gustave Coquiot, a French art critic and writer, and Bibi-la-Purée, an actor turned vagabond and petty thief, both verge on caricature.  Only their faces appear to be in focus, painted carefully and in detail.  The background of the former’s portrait shows a mirror reflection of what Coquiot, known for his risqué stories as much as for his arts and social reportage, leers at beyond the picture frame: a display of lascivious, exotic dancers.  Whereas Picasso used rough strokes to costume Bibi like a circus clown with an overly large floral jacket that match his ruddy cheeks and red lipped grin.

But from 1901 the riotous colour seen in these portraits fades, replaced by blue, giving Picasso’s subjects a sombre air.  His blue period portrait of his friend and target of the previously mentioned series, Sebastià Junyer I Vidal appears cold, alone and hungry.  Despite being seated beside a lady of dubious morality the painting shows none of the joie de vive or sexual promiscuousness of Picasso’s brothel scene caricatures of the de Soto brothers.

With his move to Paris’ Montmartre in 1904, new male friends became the focus of his caricatures, like Guillaume Apollinaire.  But with women it was different.  At that time he did few caricatures of women.  Cowling surmises that it was perhaps a hangover from an old chivalrous code condemning caricaturing women, though not a code Lautrec had adhered to.  However, during the time Picasso lived with his first long term mistress, Fernande Olivier, women began to replace men as his primary subjects.

Yet with Fernande Olivier with Black Mantilla, Picasso’s priority seems less to be truth to appearance than symbolism.  The painting is done using thin, fluid paint that has trickled and dribbled over the surface like a veil of black lace.  She embodies feminine mystery and melancholy and foreshadows images of his first wife, Olga.  This ‘unfinished’ state makes her seem to move, keeps her alive.  Feeling that a ‘finished’ work was inert, Picasso liked the potential, the energy that a ‘provisional’ state had.

Pablo Picasso, Fernande with a Black Mantilla, Paris, 1905–06
Pablo Picasso, Fernande with a Black Mantilla, Paris, 1905–06

The right side of his 1906 bronze bust of Olivier also looks unfinished.  Marks of the sculptor’s knife and figures are evident.  Her right eye is just scratched in, small lumps of clay simply pressed in place form the back of her head, contrasting to her left eye, eyebrow and hairline, which are finely modelled and incised.  Cowling suggests these differing ‘sides’ indicate Olivier’s public and private faces, the “knowable and unknowable aspects of her personality and the shifting moods to which she was prone”.

The bronze is displayed beside a magnificent gouache of Olivier’s head, with a straight Roman nose and the erect bearing of an ancient sculpture, yet the same scraped and scumbled lack of finish.  1906 saw him explore artistic traditions beyond the classical of academia: Egyptian, Etruscan, Romanesque, archaic Greek and Iberian.  Sadly, his 1906 Portrait of Gertrude Stein for which he drew on ancient Iberian art could not be loaned for this show.  It is said, having completed that portrait, Picasso never painted from a posing sitter again.  The many sittings Stein’s portrait involved put paid to that with her powerful and gossipy personality disrupting the power balance between artist and sitter.  Although he preferred not to, Picasso did in fact continue doing portrait drawings from life.  Drawing being quicker, the intrusive power of a sitter was less of a problem.  Kahnweiler certainly posed for his cubist portrait.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso 1905- 06
Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso 1905- 06

Picasso’s portraiture decreased with the revolution of cubism and the nude became central to his figure painting.  But he photographed friends in his studio, contrasting the ‘reality’ of the photographed figure against backgrounds of radically primitivist and cubist art.  But Picasso did begin to explore portraiture with cubism.  With Kahnweiler’s portrait we see a revolutionary style but with a conventionally posed sitter.  Surely it was his eye trained for caricature that produced the upright stance, neat line of the moustache and combed hair, precise line of the watch chain and the pill bottles (not a wine bottle), at the dealer’s side – all references to Kahnweiler’s precision and abstemiousness.

After 1910, portraiture virtually disappears from Picasso’s oeuvre until January 1915 when he did drawings of Max Jacob and Ambrose Vollard, referencing Ingres’ exacting, realist style.  By 1917 he had met Jean Cocteau and joined Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe to collaborate on the ballet Parade with Cocteau.  Drawings he did of Cocteau that year and the 1920 series of the composers Igor Stravinsky, Élie Faure and Francis Poulenc show Ingres’ influence and the firm line of the caricaturist’s eye turned on his male friends.  The elimination of unnecessary detail came from his skill as a caricaturist, but it was also in line with modernist portrait photography at the time.

Yet with his engagement to the Ukrainian ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova, his portraits of her show her as untouchable.  Granted drawings of her derived from group publicity photographs are humorous, depicting elephantine dancers as the very antithesis of Les Sylphides.  His engagement portrait of Olga leaning elegantly across a tapestried chair shows a lifeless and melancholy figure despite the non-finito he used previously to bring images to life.  It contrasts sharply with the photograph he worked from where she appears alert and confident.

The 1923 portrait of Olga is Picasso’s most formal portrait in the grand tradition and won him the Carnegie International Exhibition prize in 1930.  Again, she is distant, her mind on other, sadder things.  A serious injury to her right foot at the time of her marriage ended her dancing career, and we now know news from her family, on the losing side of the Russian Revolution, gave her much anxiety.  But home movies show Olga as much more animated than the one Picasso depicted. This Picasso controlled her image.  With the acrimonious breakdown of their marriage, his eye for caricature returned with a vengeance. Olga in a Hat captures the spirited being of the photograph and film despite its non-realist style much more than realist styled ones.

Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso, 1935. Photograph: © Succession Picasso/DACS London
Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso, 1935. Photograph: © Succession Picasso/DACS London

From the mid-1920s to the Liberation of France in 1944, women dominated Picasso’s imagery. His depictions of Marie-Thérèse Walter are strikingly different.  They evoke complexity, and as Cowling puts it, “the longer and better Picasso knew her, the older and more experienced she grew, the more she eluded a consistent representational formula”.  For Picasso, women could represent the human condition in ways men did not.  He used women to convey the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

With the graphic portraits he made of Walter, Nusch Éluard and Dora Maar, each were given graphic styles to show his vision of them.  Thus the slender, delicate body of Nusch, the one time travelling acrobat, is represented in light veils of charcoal, giving her the transparency of glass.  Even the tight pen-stroke curls of her hair contrast to the heftier oil and wax crayon he used for Woman with Joined Hands (Marie-Thérèse Walter) or the strident ink, gouache and oil for Dora Maar Seated.

Now, as in his Portrait of Lee Miller, women were not spared Picasso’s analysing eye born of the caricaturist.  Of course, Picasso did not stop having male friends but it is Jaime Sabartés, who returned from South America in the mid-1930s, re-entering Picasso’s life, becoming his secretary and companion, who we see most of.  Unlike the somewhat stiff portrait Picasso did in 1904 on Sabartés’ departure for the Americas, when they had no idea if they would meet again, on his return Picasso used his friend to refer to their shared Spanish heritage, depicting him in ruff and cap as in the age of Philip II.  Despite the twisted form Picasso gave him it is undoubtedly Sabartés and he would come to be the butt of a great deal of humorous and licentious pieces.

After the Second World War, most of Picasso’s portraits depict his lovers, Françoise Gilot, his children, and his second wife Jacqueline Roque.  His lithographic portrait of Gilot, with its ‘sign language’ originating in Cubism, refers to Velázquez.  His depiction of Jacqueline in Woman by a Window has different styles on the right and left that draw attention to the painting process and, consequently, to the passage of time.  Increasingly he looked to the Old Masters and their followers whom, in his mind at least, were now his friends: Degas, Rembrandt, El Greco.  He battled with Velázquez’s most famous group portrait, Las Meninas, producing over fifty different versions.  Still his comic verve did not desert him, be it in the cross-eyed depiction of the Infanta Margarita Maria, substituting his dachshund, Lump, from the royal mastiff, or the photomontage of Las Meninas that included himself and Sabartés.

But the exhibition ends without humour with Picasso’s Self-portrait, made ten months before he died.  It is a devastating likeness with the strange, right angled absence giving his skull an absence of much more: of memory and of life.

By Clare Finn


The exhibition runs until 5 February 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It then transfers to the Museu Picasso, Barcelona from 17 March to 25 June 2017.