An illuminating display of over 80 works portraying the artist’s family, friends and lovers reveals his experimental approach to portraiture.

What does a Picasso portrait look like? It’s a question that’s been perplexing the curator of this exhibition, Elizabeth Cowling, who says that her final selection of 75 works may surprise some. For example, Weeping Woman is not included as – unlike a portrait where the focus is the sitter – this painting is about the fear and suffering of the Spanish Civil War. It’s a very necessary distinction, given that Picasso often used his lovers (in this case Dora Maar) as models for his work.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that Picasso was a highly experimental artist who sought to challenge the very notions of what might constitute a portrait. Because he never worked on commission, he enjoyed total freedom of expression as he explored new ways to depict his subjects – usually other free-minded individuals from his close inner circle.

The display presents the full range of his oeuvre, from the typically realistic pieces he produced as a young boy to the bold abstract compositions he tended towards in old age. Some were based on live sittings, while others were called from his memory of the individual. Picasso’s personal relationship with his subjects lends his portraits a special kind of intimacy; comparably his mistress Marie Therese Walter is portrayed using bright, pastel tones and sensuous curves, while Maar – his subsequent relationship – appears in acidic colours and angular forms. Picasso is said to have referred to her as ‘beautiful, sad Dora’. Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Olga and Jacqueline Picasso, Lee Miller and Nusch Eluard and a group of self-portraits also feature.

National Portrait Gallery

St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE

020 7306 0055

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Saturday - Thursday: 10am – 6pm
Friday: 10am – 9pm
Closed 24 – 26 Dec

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