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