“I have never considered painting as a simple pleasurable art or distraction […], through my weapons of drawing and colour I have always wanted to further understanding of the world and mankind, so that this knowledge will free us a little more each day. Yes, I am aware that I have always fought like a revolutionary through my painting.” (statement to New Masses, 24 October 1944)

Ever since his teens Picasso was able to draw respecting the rules he learned at the Fine Arts Academy in Barcelona but some of his drawings reveal a boldness and independence of spirit at an extraordinarily young age.

Although he was to tackle all genres throughout his remarkably long and prolific career, the human figure never ceased to hold a special place in his oeuvre, portraits in particular. As models he used his friends, but above all the various women, wives and mistresses that were a constant feature of his life. One of his friends and biographers, John Richardson, emphasised Picasso’s Andalusian temperament, which could be discerned in his mirada fuerte (‘strong gaze’), the equivalent of raping a woman with his eyes. He was characterised by his machoism, which oscillated between tenderness and cruelty, and by the ambivalence of his duende (genius, inspiration), switching from intensely dark broodiness to an unexpected luminous radiance. The power of this sensuality, which is linked viscerally with the human element, was probably something to do with his never denied refusal to go as far as abstractionism, even though he brushed up against it on more than one occasion.

Having discovered most of the artistic novelties – then for the most part Parisian – at the turn of the century, first at the cabaret El Quatre Gats in Barcelona, the epicentre of Catalan modernism, then in Paris during his trip in 1900, not forgetting the museums, Picasso experienced a first phase of assimilation that heavily featured the use of pure colour and pointillism using large touches of the brush. This astonishing foreshadowing of fauvism was followed by a shift towards an art affected by an austere symbolism, in the wake of the suicide of his friend Casagemas (the Blue period followed by the more serene Pink period).

The year 1905 was marked by a series of shocks: a visit to the Van Gogh retrospective in Holland in the summer, the Salon d’automne where the scandal of Fauvism was matched by a Manet retrospective and Ingres’s Turkish Bath, and finally an exhibition of pre-Roman Iberian art at the Louvre that took him back to his roots.

The following year was no less intense in terms of discovery. Picasso had made friends with the Fauves Matisse and Derain. During a trip to London in spring, Derain discovered a collection of sundry objects that he called the “Negroes of New Guinea, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Congo” (letter to Matisse of 15-16 March 1906). That year the Salon d’automne paid tribute to Gauguin by showing more than 250 of his works that disclosed to all these young artists the first research carried out by the “savage” in art, as in life.

Incited by these assorted sources of stimulation, Picasso took a decisive change in direction towards primitivism in summer 1906. He simplified the face to the point of turning it into a mask with large, well-defined eyes inspired by Iberian sculpture (e.g., the Lady of Elche), and brushing to one side all the personalised or psychological aspects of his model to focus on pure plasticism. This turning away from “classical” figuration marked a revolution that was to have multiple developments in Picasso’s art, as elsewhere. This moment represented the transition from perceptual portraiture to the transformed or conceptual portrait (in the words of William Rubin), from individuality to the universality of form.


Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1905-1906 (MoMA, New York)

Very quickly, savagery was not only expressed through the lines of the face but also in the fact of tinkering with the pictorial matter: in his Self-Portrait of summer 1907, he used the tip of the brush handle to create the lines in his hair, and this invention that “makes the paint cry” (in the words of Pierre Daix) would be seen again during the difficult periods known by the artist.


Self-portrait, summer 1907 (Narodni Gallery, Prague)

At a visit in May-June 1907 to the Trocadéro ethnographic museum, Picasso was highly impressed by the African and Oceanic art, which he began to collect. It provided him with inspiration to create strongly geometrical volumes, then, in early 1908, he met Georges Braque, who was fired up by his study of Cézanne’s constructions (a Cézanne retrospective had been held in autumn 1907), which had revealed to him that volumes could perhaps be created by gradations of colour.

The elements were all in place for the invention of cubism, a new pictorial space in which objects were deconstructed and shown in planes using different perspectives to create a geometric reconstruction of the various forms. Despite the difficulties involved, Picasso immediately wanted to apply this deconstructive technique to the human figure, for which he turned in particular to his mistress Fernande Olivier (photo 3), engendering new discoveries. He arrived at freeing form from its structure: the hidden profile of the face of the Girl with a Mandolin (photo 4) was flattened onto the plane of the canvas, and the right eye is depicted frontally whereas the left eye is seen in profile, inaugurating a praxis that he would broadly make use of in the reconstruction of faces until the late 1930s.


Femme aux poires, 1909 (MoMA, New York)


Jeune Fille à la mandoline, 1910 (MoMA, New York)

By taking ever further and increasing the planes of reality, this analytical cubism ended by approaching abstractionism as the image became increasingly hermetic. With the purpose of maintaining the connection between the subject and reality, the two painters then had the idea of including elements or attributes of the figure in the painting, such as a moustache or pipe, or of reintroducing classic trompe-l’œil, but also of employing a completely new means: the inclusion of words or numbers, perhaps painted, perhaps stencilled, and objects extraneous to painting, like printed paper, pasted paper, and so on, which he would later imitate in paint.

Femme en chemise assise dans un fauteuil, 1913 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

Femme en chemise assise dans un fauteuil, 1913 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

The plastic means employed in this synthetic cubism once again opened the way to a new language that allowed conceptual figuration to be combined with natural imitation in a process of decorative creation freed from all restraints (e.g., the portrait of Eva Gouel, his mistress, photo 6), which heralded what the Surrealists were to call automatic painting.

Femme en chemise assise dans un fauteuil, 1913 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

Femme en chemise assise dans un fauteuil, 1913 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

In reaction to the appalling butchery of World War I, as from 1917 Picasso anticipated the Return to Order with his own quest for a humanism to rebuild, and he also married the Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova. References to Ingres began to appear in his work (photo 7), and, during a trip to the Côte d’Azur in 1920 when, he said, he was “caught up again by Antiquity”, he developed an art characteristic of Poussin, Renaissance Italy and ancient themes, going beyond classicism – notably through the use of exaggerated proportions – but always with the freedom he had acquired during his cubist phase.

Portrait d’Olga dans un fauteuil, 1917 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

Portrait d’Olga dans un fauteuil, 1917 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

Femme assise, 1921 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart)

Femme assise, 1921 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart)

Was it due to the European political situation that was threatening the peace or to the crisis of his marriage? As though he was unable to stay in one place, Picasso once again broke with his style in the mid-1920s, shifting fundamentally towards the transgressive dislocation and permanent reinvention of the human figure, which from this time on would cut loose from all tradition and be displayed in a prodigious burst of creative diversity. Indications of aggressiveness, such as women’s fingers in the form of iron nails, revealed Picasso’s inner tensions. Painting became his means of approaching the primitiveness embedded deep in our psyche.

I cling to resemblance, to a deeper resemblance, more real than reality, one that attains surreality” (to André Wernod, 1945).

It is not surprising that Picasso was invited to take part in the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925 by André Breton, who had long admired his work.

Like his friends Miró and Masson, and perhaps influenced by the discovery of Neolithic art, in the years that followed Picasso began to play with biomorphic elements in a surrealistic transmutation that reflected the events in his personal life: rounded, erotic and rhapsodic images that evoked the gentleness of his new mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, contrasting the sharp, angular and aggressive forms he used to depict the furious jealousy of Olga.

Femme au fauteuil rouge, 1932 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

Femme au fauteuil rouge, 1932 (Musée Picasso, Paris)

Femme avec autoportrait, 1929 (localisation non connue)

Femme avec autoportrait, 1929 (unknown location)

Later, the intensity of his anguish and despair at the escalation in destruction (the bombing of Guernica by Nazi planes in 1936, the Spanish Civil War, and then World War II) found an outlet in his portraits: more than with Marie-Thérèse, his secret mistress, the faces of Dora Maar, his new official lover, could be dehumanised, given trunk-like noses or a snout like that of his Afghan hound Kazbek (photo 11), or made to express suffering directly.

Buste féminin, 1940 (localisation non connue)

Buste féminin, 1940 (unknown location)

Femme qui pleure, 1937 (Tate Modern, Londres)

Femme qui pleure, 1937 (Tate Modern, London)

“I did not paint the war […]. But there is no doubt that war exists in my paintings.”

When in 1946 it was the time of Françoise Gilot, Picasso could not stop himself from giving her a moon-shaped face.

Femme-fleur, 1946 (localisation non connue)

Femme-fleur, 1946 (unknown location)

He said:

“It was the same with the portraits of Dora. I couldnt make a portrait of her laughing […]. For years I painted her using tortured shapes, not for reasons of sadism, nor with pleasure. I was simply obeying a vision that imposed itself on me. It was a profound reality” (cf. Daix).

As from the mid-1950s, the portraits of Jacqueline Roque, whom he would marry in 1961, sometimes betray the serenity Picasso found in a tender and devoted companion (photo 14) but others reveal an imperious and steadfast need to reinvent reality.

Jacqueline assise avec son chat, 1964 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montréal)

Jacqueline assise avec son chat, 1964 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montréal)

Very early on, Picasso felt the need to “clean painting of its tricks”, by which he meant getting rid of the academic rules that prevented the artist from reaching to the essence.

“I dont work from nature, but before and with nature” (to Tériade, 1932).

One of the keys to Picasso’s art is transformation, the constant regeneration of the notion of resemblance. It was important to him to transcribe the reactions and states he experienced before his model rather than paint objectively. As from the 1920s he would slip between the different manners of representation he had developed to suit his mood: after making realistic preparatory drawings (compare photos 12 and 15), he might produce an almost generic portrait in which it is difficult to identify the model (despite the frequent inclusion of attributes given to each of his women, such as Dora’s painted fingernails and Marie-Thérèse’s almond-shaped eyes). In the same arc of time, he would produce a cubist work and another inspired by classicism.

Portrait de Dora Maar, 1937 (localisation non connue)

Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937 (unknown location)

“Style is a straitjacket”.

There is nothing more pointless than to try to divide up Picasso’s production into successive stylistic periods! As was made clear at the 1980 retrospective, rationality is more to be found in his creative process, which consisted in drawing from a range of forms (and themes) honed by his different inventive approaches, and these he tended to return to at moments sometimes quite far apart. The motivation for this was his permanent concern to avoid the norms of “good taste” by returning to primitivism, his reaction to the virtuosity of which he knew he was capable.

Richardson informs us: “What never ceased to amaze him is that he could begin a drawing at any point, and continue to draw it in an apparently illogical manner but always manage ‘mysteriously’ [to use his term] to produce a logical image: I have no idea what imperatives my hand obeys. His creative process remained for him a total mystery.”

“Painting is stronger than me, it makes me do what it wants” (27 March 1963, notebook)

This “outlaw” of painting (André Breton), who never ceased to explore the nature of pictorial representation by throwing over the established rules, succeeded more than any other artist of the twentieth century to propel the art of portraiture to the limits of its possibilities.

Bibliographic selection

Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso : œuvres, Vol. 1 to 33, 1942-1978

Christian Zervos, Dessins de Picasso, 1892-1948, Cahiers d’Art, 1949

John Richardson, Vie de Picasso, 1992

Picasso et le Portrait, catalogue de l’exposition du Museum of Modern Art, New York et du Grand Palais, Paris, 1996

Pierre Daix, Pablo Picasso, 2007

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