Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Picasso Portraits

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Picasso Portraits

Article excerpt

As a chat-up line it was at least unusual. On 8 January 1927, a 46-year-old man approached a young woman outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris and announced, 'You have an interesting face; I would like to do your portrait. I feel we are going to do great things together.' The approach was successful, even though the woman in question, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was bewildered by his subsequent announcement, 'I am Picasso!', since she had never heard of the famous artist.

Undeniably, great works did result from this chance meeting -- as well as an intense affair, which lasted for years. Several are included in the splendid Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG. Marie-Thérèse appears in multiple guises: as a majestic bronze head from 1931, a tenderly intimate pencil drawing of 1935, as the subject of 'Woman in an Armchair', a large oil from 1932, with colours borrowed from Matisse, in which her anatomy is rearranged so that her head is in profile but not her torso.

These are all, in their quite different ways, marvellous works of art. Some, however, might quibble about two matters. First, are these all really portraits? And second, were they truly done 'together' with the subject? That is, was she truly a participant in their creation?

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) certainly had an idiosyncratic conception of portraiture. For him, it was not so much a question of getting a conventionally recognisable likeness -- though he sometimes did that too. Certain faces, bodies and personalities permeated his consciousness so completely that at times everything he made was -- in an extended way -- a portrait of the person who was on his mind. Marie-Thérèse so pervaded his art at one point that even a still life of a jug and fruit turned into her softly voluptuous forms.

Perhaps wisely, the exhibition does not include such portraits in disguise. Even so, the range of permutations of the form on display is very wide. For example, Picasso's earliest portrayal of his first wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, 'Portrait of Olga in an Armchair' (1918), was a brilliant pastiche of Ingres. In contrast, Olga's final incarnation, 'Woman in a Hat (1935)', painted after the marriage had broken down, is a series of geometric shapes in bilious colours, from which two black discs of eyes stare out, with a short, oblique line for a mouth below.

The question arises: which of these was the best likeness? …

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