NEW YORK -- By the time he was in his mid-20s, just after the turn of the century, Pablo Picasso no longer painted portraits. At least not in the traditional sense.
For the rest of his long life, driven by the marriage of his infinite creativity and his giant ego, his pictures of others became reflections of himself and his artistic concerns.
An estranged wife became a devouring skeleton, while the current object of his passion became a balloon-like collection of squeezable curves. Still another lover became a face convulsed, the weeping outlet for his anxieties over the Spanish Civil War.
Picasso's reordering of the portrait's identity is chronicled in "Picasso and Portraiture," the large and imposing exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, with its 220 images in paint and on paper dating from 1895 to a few months before the artist's death in 1973. The accompanying 500-page catalog includes contributions from 10 experts, including Museum of Modern Art chief curator Kirk Varnedoe and Picasso scholars Pierre Daix and William Rubin, who organized both the show and the catalog.
Picasso, with his "ego so vast and his art so rooted in personal experience," as Varnedoe writes, made portraits that were unquestionably about himself. "By redefining the portrait as a record of the artist's personal responses to the subject," writes Rubin, "Picasso transformed it from a purportedly objective document into a frankly subjective one."
In doing so, he redefined other aspects of the portrait as well.
Traditionally, the portrait had been executed largely in sittings at which the subject was present. Picasso often painted from memory, presumably so that the subject would not intrude too much on the artist's concept. In other words, as Rubin makes clear, Picasso made the portrait conceptual rather than perceptual.
When he started to paint his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, in the spring of 1906, Daix reports, after about 90 sittings Picasso still was not satisfied with the head. One day he simply painted it out, saying to Stein, "I can't see you any longer when I look."
The problem wasn't that. He could see Stein all too well. It was where he wanted to go with his art that he couldn't yet see. He spent that summer in the Spanish Pyrenees, undergoing a profound breakthrough (even Rubin calls the hackneyed term appropriate here) in the development of his "primitivist" phase. Influenced not only by African but also by Western medieval art, the Picasso face in this period became increasingly abstract and symbolic.
When he returned to Paris in the fall, he painted in Gertrude's face from memory, as he wanted her to look: Mask-like and
geometric, with large eyes and pointed chin, her visage took on an iconic aspect. "He was painting the archetypal Gertrude Stein," writes Daix, "beyond the circumstances of her daily life, as she would look for eternity. This was how he created for Gertrude Stein a face as a woman of the avant-garde. Her portrait now corresponded to the role that she wanted to play in writing literature for the Twentieth Century."
Traditionally also, the portrait had been commissioned and paid for by the sitter, who consequently could exert some influence over what it looked like. Picasso couldn't stand doing commissioned portraits. Helena Rubenstein, who collected portraits of herself, badgered him until he finally did a few preliminary drawings, but he never did the portrait.
Friends and lovers
He painted, for his own purposes, pictures of the people around him -- his friends (Stein was one), his dealers (Wilhelm Uhde, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler) and especially the successive women who were closest to him: his two wives and the others with whom he carried on relationships.
There were many, the most important of whom were Fernande Olivier in the first decade of the century; Eva Gouel in the first part of the second decade; his first wife, Olga Khokhlova Picasso, in the 1910s and 1920s; Marie-Therese Walter from the 1920s to the 1940s; Dora Maar in the 1930s and 1940s; Francoise Gilot in the 1940s and early 1950s; and his second wife, Jacqueline Roque Picasso, from the mid-1950s until his death.
Because Picasso painted them so often (or, one might better say, used them so often in his paintings), images inspired by these women dominate the show. And astonishingly, the periods of Picasso's successive liaisons correspond closely with successive phases of his art. Yet we must not conclude that changes in women caused the changes in his art.
"Picasso's artistic language was clearly not determined by the entries and exits of different lovers," writes Rubin. "On the contrary, it might well be argued that these entries and exits were themselves determined by Picasso's desire to explore differing realms of artistic and emotional experience."