The National Portrait Gallery shows a gentler side to the great Pablo Picasso: his portraits

Words Patrick Hamilton Courtney

We hold Picasso up as an artistic genius. He is one of the most widely exhibited artists in the world, his retrospectives always pulling big crowds. But he wasn’t always this accepted in the art establishment, quite the opposite. For much of his life Picasso was seen, in terms of a traditional artistic trajectory, as being a hugely destructive force. He was the most controversial artist on earth, seen to be not just throwing the rule book out, but burning it altogether.

The thing is, he wasn’t burning anything. We now understand and appreciate that far from being a destroyer, Picasso appreciated artistic legacy and everything he did was humbly informed by it. Not least, his portraiture. It is this that makes his work so captivating. His cubism was unlike anything that preceded it, and yet now we can fit it into art history effortlessly as if it were the next natural step in painting’s journey.

Picasso wasn’t always a cubist, earlier works show a more realistic, painterly technique. The NPG has gathered portraits from every stage of the artist’s life. A young man’s careless (but brilliant) drawings, through to cubist masterpieces from his later life. It’s an opportunity to see a side of Picasso that, dare I say it, doesn’t always rake in the ticket sales – this is the first major retrospective of his portraiture in 20 years.

Littered with masterpieces it is not, but they are there: a portrait of his second wife Jacqueline Roque entitled Jacqueline in a black scarf is sumptuous in colour, with a wonderful and simply caught facial expression. The monochrome Portrait of Nusch Eluard is in the cubist style, yet retains the sitter’s striking beauty and femininity. Two works of his first wife Olga stand out: the first she is depicted in a burnt orange dress, painterly in its style. The second, a foray into cubism towards the troubled end of their marriage. Olga’s expression here is forlorn, Picasso mocks her love of modern hats with a bulbous purple blob-shape on her head.

The Verdict
The curation of Picasso Portraits is careful and clever; smaller, less significant works sing a song as beautiful as the show-stoppers. This is Picasso at his most personal and loving. Certainly worth seeing.

Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery runs until 5th February 2017.
Adult tickets from £17; npg.org.uk

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