Saturday, 22 October 2016

'Picasso Portraits' at the National Portrait Gallery

We took advantage of the 'Friday late' at the National Portrait Gallery to see the new exhibition 'Picasso Portraits'. I quite like going to 'lates' on a Friday at various galleries and museums because they tend to be less crowded that during daytimes but this exhibition was still quite crowded so it's clearly a hot ticket.

The exhibition's on until February so there's plenty of time to catch it. It focuses on self-portraits and portraits Picasso's family and friends in a wide range of media and styles throughout his long life. There seemed to be a lot of paintings and drawings from private collections so this is a nice opportunity to see works that we otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to see.

The first painting you see as you enter the exhibition - because it's straight in front of you - is 'Self-portrait with Palette' from 1906, a painting of the young Picasso who was just starting to become well known. It's a simple self-portrait really, just him dressed plainly and with a plain background and that's possibly what makes it so striking since the only thing to focus on is his face and those exotic eyebrows. He uses the traditional thing of showing himself with the tools of his trade, the palette with some smears of colour, and i wonder how many other artists over the centuries have done the very same thing? But where is his brush?

This is followed by roughly sketched portraits of friends, of thickly worked oil portraits and some jokey portraits, all in different styles and different media as he experimented and challenged himself.

A more 'traditional' portrait is one of his wife, a three quarter pose with Olga gazing away to the side, not engaged with her husband at all. She has a very impassive face in this portrait in contrast to the busy-ness of her jacket and dress with the folds and creases lightly hanging off her. Their marriage was deteriorating when this was painted and it certainly projects a cool atmosphere. I wonder how long it took him to complete this painting?

Many of the paintings are of the women in his life, the ongoing love affairs as they came and went, and not all are terribly flattering. They were his muses as well as lovers and contributed to his continually developing and evolving art.

A painting that grabbed my attention was 'Woman in a Yellow Armchair' (Dora Maar) from 1932 in which Picasso moves away from anything like a graphic reproduction of his sitter and, instead, invests in simple shapes and blocks of colour. It instantly made me think of Matisse and of course, Picasso and Matisse were friends and rivals - remove the figurative elements of the painting and you've almost got Matisse's 'The Snail'. Look at all that rich, warm colour and then notice the simple black and white of the painting on the wall behind the armchair which, once you've noticed it it keeps drawing the eye. Is he, perhaps, suggesting that life is the true art, not the bits of canvas and paper we stick on walls?

The last love of Picasso's life was Jacqueline, whom he married and lived out his last years with. His colour palette changes in those years and I was fascinated by a large painting of her called 'Woman by a Window' in shades of grey, green and brown. It's a complex mixture of shapes slotted together to create the form of a beautiful woman with a rather delicate face, sitting patiently beside a window with a glimpse of a palm tree outside. Picasso used the wooden end of his brush to scrape lines and texture into the paint of the portrait (see the lighter lines running down from the knees, these are scrape marks). Although it's quite dull in terms of the colours used and I'm definitely a creature of colour, it is quite spellbinding and made me go back to look at it several times.

Another portrait of Jacqueline (from 1962 which was one of the later works in the exhibition) was painted onto a standing piece of cut sheet metal with different portraits of his wife on each side, 'Jacqueline with a Yellow Ribbon'. I loved this one and would happily have it standing in my living room. The painting in the background of this picture is his daughter 'Maya in a Sailor Suit'.

So there you have a flavour of this exhibition. There are some lovely and some strange pieces in this exhibition and the curators have obviously put in a lot of work to try and make it different to the 'standard' Picasso exhibition that seems to pop up every few years. Focusing on portraits is a different angle to take and he certainly did enough, including some sculptures that are included in the exhibition. The exhibition is presented in conjunction with the always crowded Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Well worth seeing!

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