The earliest surviving portraits by Pablo Ruiz y Picasso (1881–1972) date from around 1891, when the artist was ten. They were scrawled in the margins of school textbooks, and may have been funny at the time. But Picasso always struggled with likenesses. On the rare occasions he attempted ‘realistic’ drawings of friends, lovers or himself he could never quite get faces or bodies right. Picasso was never very good at pictures that looked like their subjects; the fact might have something to do with why he devoted his career to ‘non-representational’ art.
When Picasso was fifteen he entered art school in Barcelona. He was granted early admission either on account of his precocious genius or because his father was a well-known art teacher. Either way he failed to distinguish himself. The few paintings that survive from this period betray no exceptional ability. In autumn 1897 Picasso spent the better part of two months copying one of Velázquez’s more modest portraits of Philip IV of Spain (1653; Prado, Madrid). The result is not a success: the colours have been inaccurately reproduced; the range of tones is not quite right; the texture is rough and sketchy and nothing like Velázquez’s confidently polished finish. Picasso’s Philip IV doesn’t even look like Philip IV, except for the moustache.
Most of Picasso’s early paintings scarcely deserve mention, except for a relatively memorable 1900 self-portrait in which he depicts himself as an imperious eighteenth-century gentleman in a powdered wig. It would have been much funnier if he hadn’t given himself the face of a swollen-nosed forty-five-year-old (he was not yet nineteen when this was painted). Apparently this picture was meant as some sort of ironic homage to Goya (1746–1828) – the greatest Spanish painter after Velázquez. A comparison between the two painters does Picasso no favours: at least Goya’s self-portraits depict a recognisable Goya.
Picasso’s drawings and paintings of himself throughout his career make one suspect that he had little idea of how he looked and didn’t bother checking a mirror to find out. In 1899 he completed a striking self-portrait in charcoal and chalk that looks like it was drawn from a photograph – of the filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900–1983). Still, at least some effort seems to have gone into it; most of Picasso’s oeuvre from this period consists of rapid sketches. He seems to have thought himself a virtuoso at this point, though his technical skills were in truth rather modest. As a draughtsman Picasso never developed a sure hand: the ghosts of erased pencil lines are visible even in his most accomplished mature drawings.
In spring 1898, after an attack of scarlet fever, Picasso decided to give up art school and hang out instead at a seedy café with some ‘avant-garde’ ‘bohemian’ ‘intellectuals’. If Picasso learnt nothing from them, at least he enjoyed their flattery: they gave him the courage to forgo further formal training and start calling himself an artist. The most important of these new friends was Carlos Casagemas (1880–1901).
Casagemas and Picasso travelled together to Paris in autumn 1900. They shared a cheap flat in Montmartre; Picasso began trying to copy pictures by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and other such fashionable painters whilst Casagemas set about pursuing a doomed love affair with a dancer from the Moulin Rouge. Both men failed: Picasso produced a truly dreadful self-portrait in a top hat; Casagemas shot himself in le Café de l’Hippodrome, after failing to kill his love interest. The latter event shocked Picasso profoundly, and helped bring on his ‘Blue Period’ (1901–1904).
Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ is characterised by grim, sombre paintings of drunks, beggars and prostitutes in cheap cafés; these are relieved by the occasional depressing image of a mother with an unhappy child (or children). Degas and Manet had been painting absinthe-drinkers and other hopeless Parisians since the 1870s; but they did so realistically, and in full colour. The palette of Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ is characterised by gloomy shades of blue-black and blue-green; indeed these pictures are almost monochromatic. The most original element in ‘Blue Period’ paintings is their regressive primitivism: figures are stylised and ill-proportioned to the point of clumsiness; backgrounds are vague and murky, as though Picasso couldn’t be bothered to deal with the complexities of depth and simple perspective.
In 1904, Picasso met Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), a Surrealist poet and occasional art critic who would later be accused (in 1911) of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Apollinaire was a useful publicist for Picasso and his friends, and was rewarded for his efforts with a series of often-insulting caricatures, few of which look very much like him (though in one cartoon from 1905 Picasso has done a good job with Apollinaire’s dog). He also introduced Picasso to Fernande Olivier (1881–1966), who became the artist’s first live-in mistress: he painted her over sixty times before dumping her in 1912.
Olivier was pretty and photogenic, but not in Picasso’s pictures: in Woman Ironing (1904; Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York) she is represented as a dismal, bony hag. Even when Picasso wasn’t painting her as a drudge or servant he made her look weary and defeated. A 1906 gouache portrait (Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Sweden) is aggressively unflattering; Olivier is given a matronly neck, a petulant squint and a sour, mannish face. This looks like a preparatory sketch for Picasso’s famous 1906 oil painting of Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), who was at least twice Olivier’s weight at the time.
Picasso’s eye for beauty seems as little in evidence in his ‘Pink Period’ (1904–1906) as his ‘Blue Period’. By winter 1906 he was beginning actively to look for ways to reject Western traditions of naturalism, realism, illusion and other such conventions for which he had no talent. Luckily he and his friend Georges Braque (1882–1963) discovered archaic and primitive sculpture. If Picasso and Braque couldn’t compete with the Old Masters, then they would regress backwards into deliberate barbarity.
‘Cubism’ remains one of the most brilliant innovations in the history of art, at least in the eyes of artists who can’t draw. The ‘Cubist’ painter chooses a subject, then breaks it down to its essential constituent parts before trying to represent it on canvas. His aim is to depict an object from multiple viewpoints all at once. ‘Cubism’ sidesteps issues of perspective, proportion and scale, which happen by coincidence to be among Picasso’s greatest weaknesses as a draughtsman; also, ‘Cubist’ art tends to neglect the representation of light and colour. No doubt this has nothing to with Picasso’s failure to master these key aspects of traditional painting.
During the First World War, Picasso began to experiment with spare, ‘realistic’ line drawings in pencil; subjects included the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), whom Picasso drew in 1917 and 1920. In these portraits, individual features are often accurately rendered (noses and lips for example); but they are all out of proportion with each other so that the faces are distorted. The 1920 portrait (private collection) is a fine example of Picasso’s tendency to make hands too big and heads too small. He had a weak grasp of anatomy, and never quite learnt how to render drapery, as can be seen on Stravinsky’s sleeves here. The face, at least, looks like Stravinsky’s, but the body is deformed and misshapen. Picasso’s line drawings are strained and uncomfortable, and demonstrate an alarming lack of basic technique.
Picasso’s 1917 pencil portrait Olga With Her Hair Down (Musée Picasso, Paris) looks like a teenager’s drawing of his girlfriend from the morning after they both lost their virginity. This impression is almost accurate – the subject, the unfortunately-named Olga Khokhlova [sic] (1891–1955), became the artist’s first wife. On 25th July 1921 Picasso drew her with their infant son Paolo in her lap. Olga, a former ballerina, is represented as a thick-ankled, heavy-set matron with a massive neck and mannish head. Paolo’s legs are almost as big as his mother’s forearms. Her hands are simply monstrous, as is the chair she sits on; her left foot is propped up on a cushion (or suspiciously smooth rock), which was likely added to the composition at the last minute to hide an error of scale.
Incredibly, Picasso’s stiff, wooden, 1923 oil painting of Olga (private collection) won him the Carnegie Prize in 1930. One wonders what the other entries were like. Picasso has attempted a pastiche of Piero della Francesca, and depicted a bored-looking Olga sitting in a Victorian ‘balloon-backed’ dining-chair and staring into space against a dull grey background. There is little sense of volume or space; Olga’s dress looks more like a curtain stapled to a tablecloth than a piece of clothing for a human body. Perhaps Picasso had already lost interest in her; though it was not until 8th January 1927 that he met his next mistress, a schoolgirl named Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909–1977).
Olga did not find out about Walter until 1935, when a friend told her that her husband’s mistress was pregnant. Around the time of the divorce, Picasso drew a lovely pencil portrait of Marie-Thérèse (private collection). She was the only subject who ever inspired him accurately to capture human features on paper; his drawings of her glow with affection. When Marie-Thérèse gave birth to their daughter Maya, he celebrated by cheating on her with Dora Maar (1907–1997), who suffered a nervous breakdown in 1946 when Picasso left her for Françoise Gilot (1921–).
In the aftermath of a bitter breakup, Maar observed: “All his portraits of me are of him. They’re all Picassos; not one is Dora Maar.” It is hard to disagree: not only are Picasso’s portraits the work of a selfish, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, egotistical monster; they’re not even particularly competent. The ‘philistines’ are right, and have been right for over a century: Picasso couldn’t draw, and wasn’t much of a painter either (never mind his ghastly sculptures). That said, he clearly was a genius. How else could he bamboozle so many people into thinking that he had any talent? What an admirable fraud.