Whatever the claims of Johnny Come Latelys such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, Pablo Picasso remains the most controversial artist of all time, a man seen for much of his long career as intent on destroying the established categories of art. Yet it’s become apparent over recent decades how much of Picasso’s phenomenal energies were devoted not only to reinventing, but also paying homage to traditional genres – most notably the portrait.
The first major exhibition on this vital area in 20 years, this show opens with a classic self-portrait from 1906, the artist’s youthful features and calculatedly naïve expression captured in simplified forms and muted colours that look forward to Demoiselles d’Avignon, his breakthrough painting of the following year. Around it are an exquisitely intense charcoal self-portrait from 1899, and the jokey beginnings of a painting from the following year, in which he sports an 18th century fright wig. If these works give a strong sense of the young Picasso exploring different approaches as he established his identity as an artist and a man, they are the merest drop in the ocean of the mind-boggling diversity and sheer quantity of Picasso’s portraiture as a whole.
Looking at his family, friends, wives and lovers, Picasso shifted his style according to his mood on the day, the artists whose ideas he was cannibalising at that moment and his reaction to the person he was painting. Yet this sense of prodigious invention and energy is only fleetingly apparent in the early stages of this exhibition. There are a large number of small early works on paper from the show’s partner institution, the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, which give fascinating specialist insights into his early development – including sheets of caricatures and a collaborative illustration project – but hardly knock your socks off. The impression of the first few rooms is of too many intriguing footnotes and not enough major plot-points.
When we do get to significant paintings there is one for each major period – and the young Picasso got through major periods the way Anna Wintour does handbags. The early decadent years in Paris are represented by a devilishly smiling, green-tinged image of the writer Gustave Coquiot, the melancholy symbolism of the Blue Period, by a relatively little known portrait of his friend and fellow artist Sebastia Junyer I Vidal. If Cubism is allocated two paintings and a powerful sculpted bust of Picasso’s muse of the period, Fernande Olivier, this feels parsimonious given that this was Picasso’s single most important contribution to the development of art.
The show ups its game, however, with two superb portraits of Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova, both rather cool and formal and heavily indebted to the great 19th century classical painter Ingres. They show how the artist’s apparently impulsive departures in style tended to coincide with wider developments in the world at large – in this case a general shift towards classicism in the aftermath of the First World War.
Picasso’s development of whole new approaches to painting in response to particular individuals –particularly the many women in his life – is brilliantly demonstrated in the second half of the exhibition. The serene, oval features of his much younger lover Marie-Therese Walter, which inspired some of his most frankly erotic paintings, are captured best here in a strong wax crayon-on-canvas composition in which looping, almost doodling lines cohere into an impression of powerful sensuality, despite the eyes being wildly out of alignment.
The troubled personality of Marie-Therese’s rival, the surrealist painter Dora Maar, is evoked using consciously surrealist techniques in paintings such as Woman in a Hat, in which the top and bottom parts of her face are squeezed in different directions to explicitly schizophrenic effect.
If there is a disturbing sense of Picasso destroying these women while painting them – in some cases literally as well as figuratively – by the time we get to his second and last wife Jacqueline Roque, it’s the woman who’s in control, her narrow, deathly pale features imbued with womanly inner knowledge and resilience.
Given its claims as a major exhibition, and the sheer number of Picasso paintings in existence, this show could have used a few more outright masterpieces and a bit less quirky juvenilia. But there are marvellous things all the way through, more than enough to make this one of the year’s must-see shows. You leave astonished at Picasso’s near-miraculous ability to make lines, colours and brush marks do absolutely anything he wanted.
Until Feb 6; 020 7306 0055; npg.org.uk