The sheer prodigious output by Pablo Picasso is one reason he’s regarded by many as the greatest artist of the 20th Century.
A gift for curators, his rich catalogue can be examined from all manner of starting points. It is surprising then, that this survey of his portraits is the first large-scale exhibition on the subject since Picasso and Portraiture in 1996 at the Museum of Modern Art.
The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is thoroughly impressive, covering all major phases of his career, represented by strong examples – some never previously seen in the UK – along with smaller, more intriguing side-projects.
His renderings of his lovers Olga Picasso and Jacqueline Roque, for instance, run the gamut through doodled cartoons, Cubism (which, for all its importance, is strangely underrepresented here) and pure abstraction. Olga Picasso in 1923 has a simplified, classic linearity, in stark contrast with her depiction in Woman in a Hat in 1935, which is a hard, flat Cubist abstraction.
That Picasso was never commissioned to produce portraits perhaps indicates why there is such unconstrained freedom to depict his sitters however he wished. Picasso was a dominant figure in his relationships – sexual and otherwise – and many of his portraits display a distinct lack of empathy; though a comic character, Bibi la Purée, painted in 1901, depicts the famous Parisian reprobate grimacing grotesquely at us. Similar savagery is evident Maya in a Sailor Suit (1938), which is singularly unflattering in its naiveté.
Many of the pieces here are loaned from the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, supplemented by a staggering number from private collections; the lesser-known doodles and cartoons are as unmissable as masterpieces such as the Cubist Daniel Henry Kahnweiler (1910). A must see.