Jackie Wullschlager on Picasso at London’s National Portrait Gallery

Representation and transformation, or power and sex? Picasso, over seven decades, turned those close to him into a pyramid of broken angles (his girlfriend Fernande Olivier), a puzzle of cubist forms (his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler), arabesques of ripe, bulging shapes promising pneumatic bliss (Marie-Thérèse Walter, an additional lover), a Maori carving studded with nails and scars (his three-year-old daughter Paloma), a Sphinx folded into sheet metal (his wife Jacqueline Roque).

These are amongst scores of nevertheless astonishing metamorphoses of the human kind starring in the National Portrait Gallery’s Picasso Portraits. Portraiture was central to Picasso’s concerns, so this lively, engrossing show is inevitably a retrospective in miniature. It is also psychodrama. For the artist who acknowledged that “every act of creation is initial an act of destruction” juggled types, disconnected and rearranged characteristics, with a prodigality that opened up undreamt of possibilities for 20th-century painting, in techniques that had been necessarily ruthless — formally, aesthetically, emotionally.

You see the cruelty, as properly as the comic impulse, at after in the initial salvo of post-Impressionist portraits produced on a go to to Paris in 1901, when Picasso was not but 20. Brushed in broad gestural strokes the much better to highlight a grotesque countenance, “Bibi la Purée” depicts in jarring colours a pathetically grinning elderly Montmartre tramp. As biting is the large-scale portrait of jowly middle-aged writer Gustave Coquiot with lascivious expression and twirling moustache, black eyes boring into a frieze of writhing nudes in harsh electric light, which we see as a mirror reflection behind him.

A virtuoso composition about searching and voyeurism, this was a thank you for a flattering review, and drew on the myriad giants — Degas, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec — who were still living presences in the fin-de-siècle French capital. The NPG stages an impressive laboratory of experiments to show Picasso exhilaratingly playing out such influences. The melancholy “Fernande with a Black Mantilla” co-opts both symbolism and a Spanish identity for his Montmartre girlfriend. The blue period “Sebastian Junyer i Vidal” exaggerates the bulbous forehead and shocked mien of Picasso’s friend and positions him alongside a scrawny prostitute — replacing a dog — to evoke Degas’s alienated genre image “L’Absinthe”.

‘Woman in a Hat (Olga) (1935) © Succession Picasso/DACS

In 1906 the Picasso we recognise breaks by way of: Philadelphia’s spare, raw “Self-portrait” constructed in enormous, blocky types reminiscent of Cézanne — who had just died — but going further in simplification and flattening. The clenched fist declares strength, the face like a carved ancient Iberian mask with its stylised eyes and hypnotic gaze implies a magical connection with the premodern art that would be foundational to cubism. The illusions of classic representation are gone.

The work’s immediate, figuring out precedent was the monumental portrait of Gertrude Stein — the NPG’s most important omission — on which Picasso laboured from 1905-06, placing a comparable mask head on a realistically delineated body. “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will,” stated Picasso, and so she did. Picasso understood currently “there are so many realities that in attempting to encompass them all one ends in darkness. That is why, when one particular paints a portrait, one particular should stop somewhere, in a sort of caricature.”

‘Maya in a Sailor Suit’ (1938) © Succession Picasso/DACS

The cartoonist’s power is everywhere here, running through whiplash drawings — preening Cocteau as a cuboid dandy former acrobat Nusch Eluard with claw-like hands, lithe as a cat Picasso himself at 90 decreased to a staring skull — to the quixotic redeploying of idioms from his own and Old Master paintings with which Picasso primarily sustained the figurative endeavour.

The NPG unpicks the legend that Picasso changed his style each and every time he changed his woman, emphasising rather a protean restlessness of manner. His very first wife, icy Ukrainian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, starts as a remote neoclassical beauty: the statuesque, naturalistic “Portrait of Olga Picasso”, whose restrained chromatic harmonies and delicate brushwork surprised absolutely everyone and won the Carnegie Prize. As the marriage unravels, she becomes a post-cubist joke in “Woman in a Hat (Olga)”: ashen and toxic green geometric segments, holes for eyes, mouth a turned-down black slit, all created more piteous by a jaunty purple hat.

‘Portrait of Olga Picasso’ (1923) © Succession Picasso/DACS

This was painted in 1935, following the birth to Marie-Thérèse Walter of Picasso’s daughter. The marvellous “Maya in a Sailor Suit”, crudely painted in a pastiche of children’s art, areas the shrieking toddler astride a log with a butterfly net, a cap signed by her father and a vagina-shaped knot amongst her legs, and offers a moment of light relief in the principal gallery dominated by a battle of the muses.

Walter and her successor Dora Maar came to physical blows in Picasso’s studio, and they tough it out here, as well. Blonde, supple, submissive Marie-Thérèse is transformed into bright, eroticised patterns — Picasso’s answer to Matisse’s odalisques — in works such as “Woman in a Yellow Armchair”, but looks perpetually sad (“I usually cried with Picasso,” she said.) By contrast Dora, tense, tough, intelligent, is depicted in broken planes and austere wartime colours harking back to Picasso’s Blue Period. “They’re all Picassos, not a single is Dora Maar,” she complained. But Picasso certainly chose her for her prospective to become the “Weeping Woman” of the second globe war.

‘Gustave Coquiot’ (1933) © Succession Picasso/DACS

In “Woman in a Hat” Maar’s face is a spiral of violent corkscrew twists and her torso is fused with a wooden chair suggestive of an instrument of torture. The sinister motif is reprised in MoMA’s “Woman by a Window” (1956), portraying Jacqueline in abbreviated linear type melded to her favourite rocking chair whose curves rhyme with the art nouveau architecture of Picasso’ s Villa La Californie. Regal, rigid, vigilant, her huge eye scanning studio, garden, viewer, Jacqueline is a postwar neurotic, a monarch-mistress surveying her domain, an archaic goddess.

Enthroned by Picasso, Jacqueline colluded magnificently with her art-historical manipulations: she becomes a harem figure right after Delacroix, a version of Manet’s “Lola de Valence” and, in rippling contours and elongated kind paying homage to El Greco, Picasso’s future widow, wreathed in funereal garb in “Jacqueline in a Black Scarf”. This was painted when she was 27 and had just moved in with Picasso. As his actual widow 30 years later, Jacqueline shot herself. Walter also committed suicide after Picasso’s death, even though Maar, following a breakdown, became a religious recluse with the explanation “After Picasso, only God”.

Even though neither definitive nor supplying new insights, this show is a extremely great recapitulation of how Picasso as a god of forms vitalised portraiture right after photography, unpacking the expressive potential of cubist fragmentation via miracles of deformation to proclaim that painterly distortion is truth.

National Portrait Gallery, London, to February 5 npg.org.uk Museu Picasso, Barcelona, March 16 -June 25 2017

Photographs: Succession Picasso/DACS

Section: Arts

Picasso Sculpture, Museum of Contemporary Art, New York

'Baboon and Young' (1951) and 'Head of a Warrior' (1933). Photo: 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York©2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights

‘Baboon and Young’ (1951) and ‘Head of a Warrior’ (1933). Photo: 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, New York

Picasso, that perpetual wizard, enchants New York when again with a show of his exuberantly creative, category-busting, mind-expanding sculpture. Just when items at the Museum of Modern Art were beginning to get actually depressing, curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland have mounted a heady expedition across what seemed like nicely-scouted terrain. “Not another Picasso blowout!” I muttered when it was initial announced, but I was incorrect to grumble. This show burbles with the joy of an artist cavorting in his personal imagination. I wended my way via each gallery with a smile affixed to my face, savouring the jokes, the sensuous physicality of his labours, and the obvious pleasure he took in his talents.

I thought I knew Picasso, but I had no concept of the riches his sculptures include. They have been not much seen in his lifetime, and they make up a reasonably tiny proportion of his enormous output: “only” 700 works, compared with 4,500 paintings. Nevertheless, even if he had by no means place brush to canvas — if he had in no way made “Guernica” or invented cubism or had a Blue Period — I would revere him on the strength of this show alone.

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Picasso spat out sculptures in brief bursts, then abandoned the medium for years at a time. Each phase in his paintings finds a parallel in wood, paper, plaster, ceramic, and bronze but the sculpture exudes an expansive spirit, a free of charge-flowing experimentation that he kept consolidating in paint. In the very first room, we see the influence of African sculpture on his early wood carvings, whose ravaged surfaces make Gauguin’s appear polished. A female “Head” from 1907 resembles a figure from “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, painted that same year, but she appears more crazed and jagged, her eyes gouged with passion, her mouth scooped into a hideous leer. Picasso tapped into the sacred and magical aspects of African sculpture even as he thrilled to its purely formal qualities. Later on, lengthy after he had left “primitive” art behind, he cherished his sculptures’ totemic presence, maintaining them about the property as domestic spirits until his death.

Untrained as a sculptor, he felt none of the academy’s constraints. From the scarred wood statuettes he progressed instantly to the classic types of “Apple”, a deconstructed plaster fruit that might have sprung from Cézanne’s boldest futuristic dreams. In “Guitar” (1912), Picasso broke new ground with disarming nonchalance. A few scissor-clips were all he necessary to totally free the line from the page, yanking it into 3 dimensions and springing it from the constraints of illusionism. The sound hole juts forward — not a void but a thing projected into the viewer’s domain — although the instrument’s physique dissolves, plane by plane, into space. Early viewers had been mystified by this cardboard construction and a sheet-metal sequel of 1914: “What is that?” they asked, according to the poet André Salmon: “Does that rest on a pedestal? Does that hang on the wall? Is it a painting or sculpture?”

Picasso blasted open the gate amongst painting and sculpture. “We were . . . liberated from the imbecilic tyranny of genres,” Salmon wrote. “The Orator”, a plaster-and-stone building from 1933, confronts us with the sweep of an urgent arm. But stroll about him and you’ll see that he is all façade his flattened rear remains as unadorned as the back of a canvas. Other pieces are thoroughly conceived in the round. The museum has gathered all six versions of the painted bronze absinthe bottles, which corkscrew spasmodically, demanding to be circled.

Picasso swings dizzyingly from commanding volumes to feathery wisps. The heavy bronze “Woman with Vase” (1933), is an assembly of blobbish body parts shooting off in all directions. Later, he tore a crumpled napkin, poked it with a burning cigarette to generate haunted eyes and a twitching nose, and dubbed it “Head of a Dog”. But even such a small and perishable scrap can loom. Brassaï photographed the paper pooch, turning it into some thing huge, ancient and menacing, like the golden mask of Agamemnon. He performed the very same trick on “Relief”, transforming a small corrugated wedge of plaster into a wonderful ruined temple. (The curators have broken out 25 Brassaï photos of Picasso’s sculptures into a separate little show that, unbelievably, manages to enhance the prodigious originals.)

However he flirted with abstraction, Picasso constantly cherished his subjects: people, beasts, bottles and guitars emerge out of lines and planes. He comes across here as a godlike imp, blowing life into inanimate components, developing a planet out of detritus. During one specifically mischievous period in the 1940s, he gathered pebbles and carved cartoon eyes and attributes into their polished surfaces, turning them into prehistoric talismans or Cycladic figurines.

I was taught to think of Picasso as the Ur-modernist, the initial and greatest of the 20th-century avant-garde. But his sculpture teaches an totally different lesson. The radical cubist phase, when he dissected space and time, was just one particular short episode in a quicksilver career that spilled into every conceivable style. Baroque, classical, rococo, “primitive”, outsider — all run by means of a body of function united by his unmistakable hand and uncommon sense of humour. I can think of only a handful of other artists — Leonardo, Daumier, Klee, Dalí, Koons — whose work twinkles with the exact same good cheer, and none with such an in depth comic arsenal. He was a virtuoso at caricature, visual puns, and the wild assemblage of unlikely parts into a flawless whole. The giant neoclassical “Head of a Warrior” (1933) charms us with its bulbous nose, hint of a grin, and protuberant tennis ball eye.

One particular of my favourites is “Baboon and Young” (1951), in which the simian mama’s smiling muzzle is composed of two model cars. Her ears come from broken cup handles, and her tail is an automotive suspension spring. MoMA’s bronze iteration smooths more than the rough meeting of components, but the spirit of sublime silliness persists. Possibly that’s the secret of his genius: Picasso’s gifts were cosmic, but he treated them like toys.

To February 7, moma.org

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Section: Arts