Picasso Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, until February 5

The last portrait Picasso made was of himself, about to die. He had previously been the secret agent of art – with enough identities in his briefcase to roam all territories available to him. He would hide behind a moustache and sketch himself as Stalin for the cover of a communist magazine; peer out from behind a silk cravat and wig in an art-school picture, in the style of Goya; and paint himself kohl-dark almond eyes like the ancient Greeks in Self-Portrait with Palette.

His last self-portrait, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery’s Picasso Portraits, shows the humility of his frightened left eye, in union with his worried, squeezed mouth, as he reconciles himself to his fate. This final death sketch, with its textual clarification, comes with no catalogue conclusion after it. It’s tempting to infer a hint of poetic malice at this towering genius reduced to death and the ignominy of self-depiction as a skull. Yet maybe he awaited the higher plane he always hinted at, in his high-voltage volleys of creative charge.

The show’s curator, Elizabeth Cowling, has divvied up his portraits into roughly the following sections: early realism; art-school caricature; Blue Period and Lautrec-inspired large-scale portraits; Cubism; return to a form of realism; photography; collage; and playful interplays in cartoon with Rembrandt, Raphael and Dégas.

There is so much beauty and genius here. His portrait of Dora Maar, in pencil, half-in profile, half-looking out at an angle, seems to transcend time, as well as perspective, as it is imbued in a sepia colour.

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