Picasso Portraits

420_picassobannerI always have a little problem with Picasso. Yes, I know that he is the genius of the 20th century and all others pale alongside. But there is always a feeling of slight ickiness when it comes to women.

No matter what biographies I read, whether the autobiography of Francoise Gilot or Ariana Stassinopoulous’s hatchet job on him, or the works of the brilliant John Richardson, there is always a slightly bitter aftertaste. Picasso could draw and paint like a cruel angel. No matter who the subject, he captures the essence, but never in a straightforward joyous way, more in the way of a boa constrictor choking the life out of his subjects. Women cry. They relieve themselves. Women are willing and subservient. Women serve. Women are blank pages. Women are voluptuous and women are defiant. But they are most certainly never equals in the relationship. His early talents as a caricaturist enabled him to isolate a defining characteristic, a knowing and inevitable flaw, as well as utter sensuality and submissiveness. He can turn their faces into checkerboards and still define their personalities. One squiggle and you know not only what they are thinking, but what he is thinking. His shorthand marks are astonishing.

The show at the National Portrait Gallery is an important one because he was so prolific and his portraits were never for pay. They are always about him and his lovers. And his lovers are always about him. All the girls are there from Fernande Olivier to Marie-Thérèse Walther, to Dora Maar, ballerina wife Olga included, to the last love, Jacqueline Rocque. They were the template on which he practiced his art, his illusions and obsessions. They are objects of veneration and appetite. They were the caregivers. The normal ways of evaluating this artist cannot be utilized. Picasso is a volcano of emotion and technique. He plays mind games with the viewer. At times you must look away from this incredible overwhelming vitality. It is like looking into the sun. He is the greatest of the 20th century’s modernists. But I have a problem with him and probably always will. Still, I wouldn’t mind something from the Rose Period over my mantel piece.

Kaaren Hale

One Response to “Picasso Portraits”

  1. sadly, he was the visible manifestation of how our society mistreated, disenfranchised and imprisoned women during the 20th c (not to mention 19th, 18th…). picasso is the microcosm – and reflects, represents …- the larger patriarchal macrocosm. remember, women couldn’t even vote (in us) until he was almost 40. this doesn’t excuse his behavior, but does help explain it as he certainly wasn’t alone.
    thanks for great review- although if we are picking the visual arts genius of 20th c, i think it’s duchamp.

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