Picasso Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery, October 6, 2016 – February 5, 2017

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Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso, 1906; Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1950 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016; Photograph and Digital Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York  

At one stage or another during his long career, Picasso fit different models of what an artist could be. Picasso’s versatility as a painter, and ultimately his appetite for dramatic shifts in style, sometimes within the same day, lead observers either to find fault with his work or to deify him. His impulse to change his style – an impulse the artist indulged in to a mischievous degree – and his tendency to rework his own innovations at a later date in the form of irreverent parody, have been a source of frustration for Picasso biographers, with some writers refusing even to acknowledge certain periods in the artist’s career.

Picasso’s range, and his undoubted mastery of every style and medium he worked in, attract the accusation of a lack of serious long-term intent or commitment to any path in particular. At the same time this free-wheeling ease of movement between styles and refusal to be categorised, seem to be his strongest selling points to large art audiences. Even within his own lifetime, Picasso stood in uneasy relation to many of his peers, including artists to whom he was compared, such as Matisse. Whilst Picasso and Matisse shared a similar range of subject matter, Matisse was undoubtedly playing a long game when it came to his exploration of his primary medium – paint. Matisse’s commitment to optics and the investigation of how the painted mark functions was one which led him to tackle his subjects in series and with a forensic obsession for testing, time and again, his own discoveries. For Picasso on the other hand, subject matter takes precedence over the medium of paint, leading the artist off on one route of exploration after another. His virtuosity meant that any one of the artist’s periods could have served as a starting point for a lifetime of incremental development and exploration within that style alone, had he wanted to explore it further. But Picasso’s compulsive restlessness would not allow it. It is only at fleeting moments of calm, when comparing both artists’ treatment of the same subject and having blocked out the background chatter about Picasso’s life and personality, that Picasso and Matisse can truly be appraised side by side. The great Picasso versus Matisse debate is as frustrating as trying to imagine what is happening at the same moment on opposite sides of the planet.

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Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910 by Pablo Picasso, 1910; Art Institute of Chicago © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016; 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York  

If Picasso’s virtuosity and his hyperactive style shifting are some of the main points of departure between him and Matisse, then it might be tempting to find an alternative point of reference and comparison in the form of another of Picasso’s peers. Francis Picabia, the privileged and flamboyant artist to whom Picasso gravitated in the 1920s when Picasso was staying in Juan-les-Pins, shares some of the same characteristics of artistic range and sudden dramatic changes in style. Whilst Picasso biographer John Richardson dispatches Picabia as a ‘jack-of-all-styles turned dadaist pioneer’, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the influence Picabia has had on the contemporary art world – contributing in no small way to the creation of a model of the artist as highly self-aware, informed, socially savvy, and having an enormous range of media and forms at their disposal. In as much as the Picasso / Matisse comparison breaks down on the point of each artist’s commitment to medium over subject matter, the same incompatibility arises when we try to find common ground between Picasso and Picabia. Picabia’s irreverence was disruptive in nature. It was not just towards the art that he absorbed but towards his very own creations, and as such is of a very different order to Picasso’s playful interludes. So trying to find a context for Picasso that encompasses all aspects of the artist’s career is an effort which is frustrated by his versatility. Better to try to fit other artists, and even movements to which Picasso was briefly associated such as Surrealism, around Picasso himself.

The exhibition Picasso Portraits – at The National Portrait Gallery in London until the 5th of February – demonstrates the sheer breadth of Picasso’s stylistic mastery of given forms such as classical portraiture. It also affords us an opportunity to see his innovations signposted clearly throughout the artist’s changing treatment of the same subject, the portrait. Looking at the range of styles here highlights the accelerated developments Picasso’s work experienced, with each abandonment of one style yielding within a short space of time to another, almost fully articulated, visual form. The fairest assessment however, must be the one which rests primarily on the evidence of the paintwork. Amidst the noise and distraction of this ambitious show, there are moments of visual clarity, where it is possible to view a series of paintings from the same period which show the artist as researcher, exploring methodically the possibilities of paint. Nowhere in the exhibition is Picasso’s successful balance of medium and subject more evident than in the artist’s reworkings of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. These paintings, produced in 1957, offer a more distilled version of the signature painterly vocabulary which Picasso had developed – almost to the degree of parody – in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They also come just a few years before the artist’s too easily dismissed late period canvases. This quiet corner, towards the end of a packed and visually exhausting survey exhibition, silences all argument over Picasso’s commitment to the medium of paint.

Picasso Portraits is at The National Portrait Gallery, London until February 5, 2017.


Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in Madrid

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