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The precocious psychological complexity of the early Picasso portraits anticipate his mature portraiture. In February 1900, aged 18 years old, he held an exhibition at Quatre Gats of numerous rapidly executed, naturalistic drawings of the tavern’s habitués. He also produced miniature caricatures, developing the definitive image through multiple sketches. With their hand-drawn frames, they were destined for reproduction in magazines, although only a few were actually published.
In 1901 Picasso held his first exhibition in Paris. Contemporary portraits, such as Bibi-la-Purée and Gustave Coquiot, reflect his discovery of Toulouse-Lautrec, while breaching decorum in their vulgar, comic tone and rough painterly technique. In 1904 he made Paris his permanent home and his circle of French friends gradually expanded to include, among others, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Salmon and Jean Cocteau. Like his cronies in Barcelona, they were the subject of witty, occasionally scatological caricatures.
Jaume Sabartés was caricatured more often than any of Picasso’s other friends
The portraits of Fernande Olivier reflect the dramatic evolution of Picasso’s art during their affair, which blossomed in 1905 during his romantic ‘Circus’ period and ended in 1912 at the height of the ‘analytical’ phase of Cubism. Since 1914, he had produced the occasional work in a naturalistic idiom and the experience of seeing Classical and Renaissance art in Italy encouraged this development. So did his first wife Olga Khoklova’s -whom he met in 1917- style of beauty, for she reminded him of the society women in portraits by Ingres.
Picasso’s genius for matching style to sitter is exemplified by the trio of portraits of women executed in 1938. For Marie-Thérèse Walter, he employed the meandering, curvilinear style he associated with voluptuous sensuality; by combining this with soft tonal modelling, he suggested her innate gentleness. Nusch Éluard, by contrast, is represented as a patchwork of flat, pinched, angular shapes, the charcoal applied so thinly that the dark areas appear translucent – a perfect equivalent to the actual lightness and delicacy of her bony frame. For Dora Maar, Picasso chose ink and a spidery line: fluid, difficult to control, visually striking, ink suited her volatile temperament.
Picasso’s genius for drawing and painting in monochrome did not preclude the alternative of eye-catching colour and flat pattern. With their vivid, abstracted palette and decorative compositions, the caricatural paintings of Lee Miller and Nusch Éluard grinning mischievously are reminiscent of posters. For the portrait of his ebullient daughter Maya, Picasso parodied the style of child art. But in the portrait of Olga, painted in 1935 when the couple’s marriage came to a bitter end, this caricatural mode produces pathos rather than comedy.Picasso’s liaison with Dora Maar coincided with the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and she became for him the embodiment of human suffering.
Jaume Sabartés was caricatured more often than any of Picasso’s other friends. In conversation with Picasso, Sabartés confessed that he longed to be depicted like the gentlemen in Spanish sixteenth-century portraits. Picasso responded with a tragi-comic painting in which Sabartés’s features were subjected to the distortions characteristic of his portraiture during the war years. In the 1950s, Picasso’s compulsive dialogue with the work of favourite artists resulted in extended series of free variations after their master works. He treated the old masters as irreverently as he treated his close friends – did not scruple to caricature them or parody their work.
Picasso refused to return to Spain while Franco remained in power, but after the war his painting spoke of his allegiance to the Spanish masters. His response involved radical reinterpretation designed to close the gap between their era and his own. The portrait of Françoise Gilot recalls the enthroned Queen in court portraits by Velázquez. Her successor, Jacqueline Roque, is equally regal in the grand painting of her seated in shadow by a door opening onto a sunlit garden: and Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas was the catalyst for an extremely varied series of paintings.