Wall Street Journal
October 10, 2016
It’s likely that any Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) show will assure the exhibiting museum of high visitor numbers. Nevertheless, such a project requires the Sisyphean task of plowing through the work of one of art history’s most prolific and protean artists. So it’s a relief that the judicious selection of 87 works in “Picasso Portraits,” which recently opened at the National Portrait Gallery, is tighter and more focused than the 200-plus works in MoMA’s memorable 1996 Picasso portraiture survey. It’s a persuasive case for the “less is more” advice that NPG guest curator Elizabeth Cowling, a University of Edinburgh emeritus professor and Picasso authority, says she was given during the planning (and, presumably, winnowing) process. The resulting manageable, and even somewhat unexpected, Picasso survey includes works both familiar and previously unexhibited in a range of mediums, deftly organized in a chronological, yet also topical, installation.
A perceptive teenage self-portrait of 1896, executed while Picasso was studying art in Barcelona, asserts the maturity of his juvenilia. This, in turn, prepares us for the constant shifting of depictive modes with which the artist, over the course of his lifetime, shocked and delighted viewers while concurrently confounding curators and scholars. A large and familiar, completely different, self-portrait of 1906 not only channels Cézanne but also prepares us for Picasso’s lifelong dialogue with other artists, seen throughout the show, even while he was being very self-consciously inventive.
By the time of his 1910 Cubist portrait of noted art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the artist has forcefully challenged our understanding of portraiture’s possibilities. Reportedly the outcome of 20 to 30 sittings, the Kahnweiler image fuses an assemblage of tonal geometric forms in so-called Analytic Cubism, the most radical painting of the day, with the most conventional pose of a gentleman in waistcoat with watch chain, hands clasped, sitting for his portrait. It’s astonishing to note how far Picasso has moved from the several 1901 portraits on view, which range from suggestions of Toulouse-Lautrec to the brilliantly colored smirking image of Bibi-la-Purée, the “King of Bohemia” in artistic Paris.