Pablo Picasso believed “all portraiture was caricature”, and his ability to select and exaggerate details in his sitters enabled him to produce portraits that penetrated to the very essence of their character. He had been making quick doodles since childhood, sketching his friends, dealers, and rivals on the back of napkins and scrap bits of paper. Now these humorous caricatures have been displayed alongside his drawings and expressive paintings in the wonderful exhibition “Picasso Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Almost entirely focused on his friends and lovers, Pablo Picasso’s portraits happen to be many of the most strikingly vivid works of his extraordinarily prolific and brilliant career.

Many of the most moving works trace the arc of his relationships from their beginning to their often unflattering conclusion, so that one of the great loves of Picasso’s life, Russian-born Olga Khokhlova, is initially painted as a great neoclassical beauty in the statuesque “Portrait of Olga Picasso”. Ten years later, however, and having by now discovered Picasso’s affair with the youthful Marie-Thérèse Walter, Olga becomes a post-cubist gag, with quizzical black eyes and curt slit for a mouth.

On the left, Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Olga Picasso, 1923 and on the right Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Hat (Olga), 1935

The curator Elizabeth Cowling believes that Pablo Picasso’s portraits reveal the full emotional range of his work which is “as large as that of great playwrights and novelists.” Picasso organically developed his own pictorial vocabularies for each of his mistresses, and naturally accentuated their differences. Walter, who was only seventeen when they first got together, was almost always rendered with sensual curves and pastel shades, compared to the intellectual Dora Marr, who was portrayed with sharp edges and gripping color.

Much of the exhibition becomes a document of Picasso’s gargantuan lust and of his loves as they bloomed and faded. The artist’s treatment of the women has been well-documented, and despite the ruthless manner with which many of the women swept in and out of his life, this exhibition does much to in fact humanize Picasso; it weaves a rough narrative of his life and art and reveals intimate experiences through a form of pictorial autobiography.

It has been said that Picasso’s egocentric tendencies ensured that he never actually painted his sitters—his preference for working from photographs revealed his desire to rework the world all in his own image. Dora Marr even went so far as to say of her portraits that “They’re all Picasso’s, not one is Dora Maar”. 

On the left Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait with Palette, 1906 and on the right Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Hat, 1941

But this is of course part of his artistic persona; his unerring faith in his capacity and skills was what marked him out as such as radical force. Even as a struggling artist he refused to paint commissions, and on the rare occasion that he did paint someone notable like Stravinsky or Gertrude Stein, it was because they were in his circle of friends. In any case their names would be eviscerated from the title. One of the most striking works on display is his Self-Portrait With Palette from 1906 which greets the viewer on first entering the exhibition. Emphasizing his own mass and strength without a paintbrush Picasso is setting himself up as the artist champion of the 20th century—his inner vision superseding his own physical dexterity.

On the left Pablo Picasso, Head of Woman, In Profile / Tête de femme, de profil, 1905 and on the right Pablo Picasso Boy with a Crown of Leaves, 1962. Available to buy now on fineartmultiple

Pablo “Picasso Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery can be seen from the 6th of October through to the 5th of February 2017.  

Katja Taylor — FAM Editorial