Perspectives on Picasso: 1973 - 2023: Transformations in Portraiture

Perspectives on Picasso: 1973 - 2023: Transformations in Portraiture

Picasso Celebrating 50 Years

P ortraiture comes to the fore at Sotheby’s Face To Face season this summer—coinciding with the long-awaited reopening of the National Portrait Gallery in London—when sought-after works by Elizabeth Peyton, Kerry James Marshall and Alberto Giacometti will be presented in Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction, featuring Face to Face: A Celebration of Portraiture. This sale rounds off a season of related exhibitions and events including Portraits from Chatsworth: A Loan Exhibition, on view until 4 July in London.

Meanwhile, the third in our online series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death examines how the artist revolutionised the genre. 'Defining the limits of Picasso’s portraiture is not a simple matter,' writes Elizabeth Cowling in the introduction to her catalogue for the 2016 exhibition Picasso’s Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, London, and Museu Picasso, Barcelona).

'Defining the limits of Picasso’s portraiture is not a simple matter'
- Elizabeth Cowling

Cowling was not wrong; from the outset and before his revolutionary reshaping of the canvas via Cubism, the artist’s portraiture at the turn of the century is an impressive tale of trial and error in painting techniques.

Three examples convey this sense of experimentation and adventure: Aunt Pepa (1896) may be steeped in Realism, but dares to be innovative; comprising a series of subtle layers from the encompassing funereal dress, to the crevices of the aunt’s face.

Self-Portrait With Wig (1900) meanwhile, made during his time frequenting the Els Quatre Gats bar-cum-gallery in Barcelona, is an Expressionistic mass of messy but tactical brushstrokes. Lastly, a charcoal drawing made around 1899 floors the viewer with its focus on the artist’s deep-set eyes and handsome hairline.

Picasso Pablo (dit), Ruiz Picasso Pablo (1881-1973). Etats-Unis, New-York (NY), The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 47.106. Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein (Detail), 1905-06, oil on canvas. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA. © Succession Picasso 2018.

Two works in particular, both self-portraits, lay the groundwork for the epochal disruption of Cubism, which exploded on to the art landscape in 1907 with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) shows the eponymous US writer with a mask-like face and drawn features, foreshadowing Cubist techniques. The same immovable stare is evident in his famed monochromatic self-portrait of the Blue Period (1901).

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Olga Picasso, 1923. © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2023.

The dissolution of form inherent in Cubism finds its apotheosis most succinctly in Picasso’s subsequent portraits. Reducing faces and features to a mass of angular planes could in theory erase any distinguishing features. But a portrait painted in 1910 of the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler is typical of Picasso’s art of the time, requiring detective work to decipher the Cubist picture via key clues, from his wavy hair to the crossed hands. This Cubist explosion must rank as one the most effectual subversions in art history.

What art historians tend to forget though, is how Picasso reverted to more formal modes of representation after 1910. The mannered Portrait of Olga Picasso (1923), Picasso’s first wife, the Ukrainian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, is a world away from the breakdown of forms found in Cubism. This sure, delicate Ingres-esque work may well be a carefully engineered foil to Cubist anarchy, a reminder from the artist that he can skilfully switch back to more traditional narratives and styles.

Cowling writes that, 'during the last decades of Picasso’s life, his approach to portraiture remained largely unchanged'. One of the most striking and telling pictures from this period depicts his partner Françoise Gilot - the French painter who met Picasso aged 21 in 1943 - as a flower in an abstract form (La Femme-Fleur, 1946).

'Matisse told Picasso and Gilot during a visit that if he were to paint the latter’s portrait he would make her hair green. Throwing this gauntlet down prompted Picasso to "transform Gilot’s luxuriant chestnut hair into large green leaves"'

The work, which draws on Cubism with its angular, flat forms and rectilinear composition, was influenced by Matisse who told Picasso and Gilot during a visit that if he were to paint the latter’s portrait he would make her hair green. Throwing this gauntlet down prompted Picasso to 'transform Gilot’s luxuriant chestnut hair into large green leaves', Cowling comments.

Another picture of note from the post-war period is Paloma and Her Doll on A Black Background (1952), which is notable for its dark and frightening undertones. The lithograph of Picasso’s child born in 1949, which is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, is startling in its nihilistic view of life, echoing possibly the artist’s concerns about his domestic situation - his relationship with Françoise was falling apart - and the wider world (the Korean War preoccupied him).

Scholars have highlighted how Picasso turned to the Old Masters and artist peers in portraits dating from the 1950s onward, which brim with references to Old Masters such as Velázquez, Raphael and El Greco. In 1957, over four months, he produced a series of 58 works inspired by Las Meninas (1656), creating numerous variations of Velázquez’s masterpiece.

One of these works, dating from 15 November 1957, replicates four figures and the dog from the original 17th-century work, including Infanta Margarita, their contours demarcated against a luminescent red background thought to be a knowing nod to the master of colour, Matisse.The faux-naïf style is disarming, the crude slabs of colour unsettling, but for all his wildly differing approaches, this portrait with its penetrating insights is quintessential Picasso.

Janie Cohen, a US-based Picasso scholar, says 'Picasso brought each new style into all of his subject matter, including portraiture. It strikes me that his radical approach to portraiture, overall, came from two factors. At a certain point, Picasso selected to work in whichever style he felt best served his subject, his frame of mind, and the context for the portrait. But additionally, the tenets of caricature permeate most of his portraiture, whichever style he chose to use.'

Picasso did not stop experimenting though, even at this later stage, switching styles in a series of portraits showing Isabel de Velasco, the maid of honour in Las Meninas, in different poses and from various perspectives. His reconfigurations re-frame her dress and face in revealing ways, using blocks of colour to shift emphasis and engage the viewer.

Picasso in his studio at 7 Rue des Grandes Augustines, winter of 1944-45 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021

Picasso’s portraits in his final decade are laced with two elements: bawdy humour and melancholy, underpinned again by a reverence for the Old Masters and a fondness also for Edgar Degas, who is seen nervously surveying a group of prostitutes in a series of prints known as Suite 156 (1971).

But this masterful caricature of Degas, the rigid moralist as voyeur, is not just mockery. The 19th-century artist’s act of looking led to the creation of 'the searingly truthful monotypes', such as The Madame’s Name Day (around 1876), which Picasso considered Degas’s greatest achievement as an artist, observes Cowling.

Crucially, Rembrandt haunted Picasso’s portraits as death approached. Old Man Seated (1970-71) looked to the Dutch Old Master’s self-portrait of 1658 as a springboard. Picasso’s corpulent depiction, with its exaggerated outlines and blazing colour - an act of defiance before life expires - is offset by the fraught, final self-portrait of 1972, a skull drawn with coloured crayons. A thread can be drawn between the aforementioned gaunt self-portrait of 1899 and this naked head; the eyes and mouth are distinctive in both, denoting the hunger of existence in the earlier image and later, death with all its ghoulish implications.

Portraits from Chatworth - A Loan Exhibition Pablo Picasso

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