Picasso's Portraits Reveal His Moods as Much as Those of His Subjects the Spanish Artist's Paintings Demonstrate a Penetrating Eye and Psychological Depth That Keep His Work Vividly in the Public Eye

By Christopher Andreae, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

Picasso's Portraits Reveal His Moods as Much as Those of His Subjects the Spanish Artist's Paintings Demonstrate a Penetrating Eye and Psychological Depth That Keep His Work Vividly in the Public Eye


Christopher Andreae, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In "Father of the Bride II," George Banks (alias Steve Martin) ricochets from the devastation of imminent grandfatherhood to the even more cataclysmic prospect of second-wind fatherhood.

He is sure he is too young for the first ... and far too old for the second. To reassure him that older fathers are OK, someone (Mrs. Banks, if I recall) cites Picasso.

"But," sputters Banks, "Picasso was an artist. He could do whatever he liked!" (or words to that effect).

The fascinating exhibition just opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art - "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation" - suggests Banks was quite right: Pablo Picasso did whatever he liked, in his art and in his life.

On one level this (mainly) chronological selection of Picassos that relate variously to portraiture offers an astonishing catalog of his sexual relationships.

It presents a procession of the women in his long life (1881 - 1973). As William Rubin, curator of the show and editor of the book published with it, writes: "We have chosen to emphasize the multiple portrayals of persons central to his life...."

Women furnished the impulse

Women (or perhaps more generically, Woman) can indeed be called central to his life. There were friends, too, of course: writer Gertrude Stein, art dealer Ambroise Vollard, writer-dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, poet-critic Guillaume Apollinaire, writer Max Jacob, and poet Paul luard. There were Picasso's mother and father. And there were his children.

And then there was himself. One gallery is filled with self-portraits.

Many works that do not relate obviously to the show's theme have been omitted. So have many that do - portrait-sculptures for instance. But what is shown more than confirms the overwhelming impression that not only was the great Spaniard obsessively attracted to women, but that they were the very impulse of his art.

Other exhibitions in recent years have concentrated on specific aspects of Picasso's oeuvre: still-life, Cubism, landscape, late works, sculpture, sketchbooks, photographs, and so forth, not to mention the full-scale retrospective Rubin organized at the museum in 1980. But this portraiture exhibition seems to go persuasively to the heart of the artist.

Pierre Daix, author of some catalogues raisonnes, in 1966 and 1979, of Picasso's work, writes: "For Picasso ... the face was the ultimate test of the validity of pictorial experimentation, and the portrait would become the ultimate stake." Daix had in mind a comparison of Picasso with Georges Braque. Braque and Picasso together (like "mountaineers roped together") invented Cubism. Braque's lack of interest in portrait painting helps to explain how it was that almost the only time Picasso's work veered radically away from the human figure and face as subject or object, was when Cubism was at its most intense - and most relatively "abstract." But Picasso was never an abstract artist. And after Cubism he recovered, as it were, faces and figures in his art. He did not, however, paint them in the same way as he had before Cubism, however "realistic" they might (sometimes) seem.

This exhibition is ground-breaking. Many of Picasso's paintings drastically reconstitute faces and figures, subjecting them to his own highly personal pressures and needs. So the convention of "likeness" may be left far behind. Identifying which woman a given painting connects with has required some degree of analysis. But the labels to the paintings, as well as their sectional arrangement in this show, now make clear whether they are "of" Fernande, or Marie-Therese, or Dora, or Olga, or Francoise, or Jacqueline - to name a few. Picasso was married only twice in his life - to Olga and Jacqueline. But most of the other women were clearly much more than mere models.

This show makes clear that the roots of primitivism in modern art - the influence of Iberian primitive sculpture, or African art - were crucial in enabling Picasso to shift the ground underneath the traditions of portraiture. …

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