Gallery Visit: Picasso Portraits

National Portrait Gallery 11th January, 2017

I don’t need to know whether a particular portrait is a good likeness or not. Years, centuries, pass and then it doesn’t matter whether the features are exactly those of the person portrayed. The artist loses his way in the futile attempt to be realistic. A work can be beautiful even if it doesn’t achieve conventional likeness. Picasso, Quote from exhibition notes

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) drew prolifically throughout his life from being a small child. Over a 78 year period, in which he created: 13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints and engravings, and 34,000 illustrations which were used in books. He also produced 300 sculptures and ceramic pieces. It is also estimated that over 350 pieces which he created during his career, have been stolen; this is a figure that is far higher than any other artist throughout history. (

This intimate exhibition of 80 works focuses on his portrayal of family members, friends, lovers and celebrities of his day. There are amusing and charming small drawings and caricatures on small pieces of paper and napkins included in correspondence or done whilst out socialising with friends. There are works done for commission – by 1920 the celebrities of his day aspired to have their portrait done by Picasso. And there are moving drawings and paintings of lovers and friends some in a more classical style and others  where he takes the whole genre of portrait apart to show not realism in the usual sense of ‘likeness’ but to communicate something of the character and personality of the subject. – what she or he was like –  or what he or she meant to him. I want to discuss a few paintings which I believe demonstrate this ability as well as Picasso as such a creative and  ground-breaking artist.

It can be seen, for example, in his pencil sketch of the composer Igor Stravinsky.picassonstravinsky where Picasso has brilliantly captured the elegance and aristocratic demeanor of the composer, the sense of someone who commands attention and respect,  well described by Michael Tilson Thomas an American conductor who worked with Stravinsky and who wrote of him, “At a concert, rehearsal or recording session, Stravinsky’s manner was elegant and aristocratic, very much like older St Petersburg artists I had met. Whether he was making a musical point, relishing a special word or taking out a hard candy or small pencil from his vest pocket, he was like a court jeweller pleased with his precision and command.  (

Picasso achieves this with simple, elegant lines and the focused and piercing eyes enhanced by the monocle, as well as the well groomed, oiled hair. I think the image is an arresting example of Picasso’s fascination with humanity in all its many facets and forms.

You won’t learn from this exhibition what Picasso actually did to the portrait as a way of seeing. He tore it apart, stabbed it in the eye, turned it inside-out and then put it back together again. He demolished everything people had believed a portrait to be for the past 2,000 years or so. Then he carried on painting portraits.
Jonathan Jones, Guardian


As the Telegraph art critic (see below) put it, “You leave astonished at Picasso’s near-miraculous ability to make lines, colours and brush marks do absolutely anything he wanted”.

This review is to be completed


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