N.Y. Exhibition Puts a New Face on Picasso's Portraits

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

N.Y. Exhibition Puts a New Face on Picasso's Portraits


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


NEW YORK - Three weeks remain to see "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation," the first comprehensive survey of the portrait work of Pablo Picasso. Showing at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and curated by curator emeritus William Rubin, who has made Picasso his life's study, the exhibit presents a smashing 130 paintings and 100 drawings and prints.

The world has seen many, many exhibitions of Picasso's work, showing the never-ending fascination with this seminal figure of 20th-century painting and sculpture. Last year, for example, we saw "Picasso and the Weeping Woman" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Rubin has curated other Picasso shows for MOMA, including the 1980 landmark "Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective," which included about 1,000 works, and the exhaustive 1988-89 overview "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism."

Now Mr. Rubin has presented us with what he calls "a relatively unstudied aspect of Picasso's enormous oeuvre, enabling us to explore the rich panorama of invention, symbolism, and emotion that drove this artistic genius. The assembled works demonstrate that Picasso redefined the parameters and possibilities of portraiture more than other painters in the modern era."

Portraits. For years they were thought of as objective renderings of realistic likenesses. Mr. Rubin correctly tells us, and shows us, that Picasso transformed the portrait from a primarily objective document to a frankly subjective one. The intimate portrayals of his family, lovers and friends in this exhibition amply substantiate Mr. Rubin's thesis. It was Picasso who created the modernist portrait.

He painted his subjects repeatedly and in widely different styles. Take, for example, Picasso's portraits of two women, both his lovers, painted from memory on the same day and in similar reclining positions. Marie-Therese Walter, with whom he was involved in the 1930s, is shown sympathetically, with her large blue eyes dominating the soft curves of her naturalistically colored face.

The painting of Dora Maar, the surrealist painter-photographer who entered Picasso's life in 1936, is a more conflicted portrayal. Picasso painted her as a boldly colored and slashed angular figure set against an agitated background. The way the artist portrayed both women showed his different and complex feelings toward them.

Mr. Rubin has organized his exhibition around Picasso's subjects, in effect creating a series of small exhibitions. While other sitters - such as Jaime Sabartes, Picasso's childhood friend and later secretary; the poet Guillaume Apollinaire; Max Jacob; and the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler - are included, this show is about Picasso's women: his friends, lovers and wives.

The curator tells us that because Picasso often painted one person over a series of years, his portrayal of that sitter could change radically, as could his portrait style, during the extent of the relationship.

Look at his portraits of Marie-Therese, with whom he had one of his longest, most intense relationships. He could portray Marie-Therese with a poetic, but realistically rendered, pencil drawing. He also could show her in the 1921 "Girl Before a Mirror" as a complex double image rooted in cubism, which reflects light and dark, birth and death.

Mr. Rubin's approach - of focusing on a single woman in an individual gallery - is valid intellectually. It doesn't work aesthetically, however.

We start with Olga Khokhlova, the Russian ballerina who was Picasso's first wife and the inspiration for many of his paintings from 1917 through the 1920s. As with most of the subjects, her photograph is affixed to the descriptive wall labels along with a lengthy description of Picasso's relationship with her.

Interesting in itself, the technique becomes repetitious and even boring. Marie-Therese comes next, with the same kind of descriptive wall labeling. …

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