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
NEW YORK — 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. Resemblance or recognizability was not a primary aim in such primitive art; it was concerned with a quite different kind of potency. Thus, when Picasso was pressuring Francoise to have a third child against her wishes, it has been hazarded that he made sculptures of pregnant women: A superstitious magicianship unquestionably entered into this artist's instincts.
Probing the psyche
His famous portrait of Gertrude Stein involved in its final state (after more than 90 sittings) a mask-like face. This derived from the artist's concurrent investigation of primitive art which was to lead him toward Cubism.
But it also freed him in his attempts - pursued for the rest of his career - to find painterly means of expression that would abandon illusionistic representation of a person and probe her (or his) psyche. And also that psyche's relationship with his own. Although he described and often painted Dora Maar as a "weeping," anguished woman, he also used her in his art as a means of expressing his own misery concerning the political state of his homeland.
Some telling comparisons are made in this exhibition between "portraits" by Picasso of different women with whom he had simultaneous relationships. The painting of 1937 called "Dora Maar Seated" has a contrasting companion-picture of this sort in "Seated Woman (Marie-Therese), January 6, 1937." The sharp angularity and brash, hard color of the first are only the most obvious features differentiating it from the second, with its soft, rounded contours and quieter color harmonies.
A face becomes pretext
On a longer time scale, those 1930s pictures could hardly be a greater contrast with, for example, the 1917 "Olga in an Armchair." This is a painting of an elegant, fashionable, bourgeois young woman, and it seems on the face of it to be photographically realistic. It was derived from a photograph, in fact, but Picasso has altered it subtly, as well as leaving it (surely deliberately) "unfinished." It is not the direct portrait of a sitter it seems to be. The artist wants the viewer to see it consciously as a painting of Olga. He does not want you to believe - taken in by clever illusionism - that it is actually Olga.
Picasso continued throughout his life to take portraiture where it had never been, though always swinging back and forth between degrees of naturalism and extraordinary invention, between convention and originality, in the process.
Sometimes a face (or figure) becomes little more than a pretext for his expressive act of painting. This is specially so with his most naive paintings of his children - painted as if by a child. At other times his eyes probe deeply into appearances and even highly transformed images are recognizable "portraits."
Picasso was not usually inclined to subject his women (as Cezanne did his wife) to endless sittings, however. He worked far more from familiarity or memory than from posed encounter.
The Museum of Modern Art is wise to open this show a month before another great show opens in Philadelphia, after being seen by spectacular crowds in Paris and London. A month, that is, before the only artist's name to be on the lips of everyone in America is not just Picasso, but - Cezanne.
*'Picasso and Portraiture' is at New York's Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 17; then at the Grand Palais, Paris, October to January 1997. 'Cezanne' opens May 30 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It continues through Sept. 1.
A Chronology of Women: Fernande to Jacqueline
Some of the women in Picasso's life and art, the year he met them, and their children:
1904 Fernande Olivier
1912 va Gouel
1917 Olga Khoklova (his first wife)
1927 Marie-Therese Walter
1935 Dora Maar
1943 Francoise Gilot
Children: Claude and Paloma
1953 Jacqueline Roque (his second wife)