The Modern Lovers have a song that goes ‘Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole’. Which is surprising, because the way Pablo treated women you’d imagine that he got called a lot worse than that. Really, this show should be called ‘Picasso, Old Lech’, because his portraits tell a story of a man who didn’t just love women, but consumed them, used them, abused them and then chucked ’em aside. But we’ll get to that.
The first work you see here is a bold early self-portrait of the artist with his palette, his shirt rendered as a slab of off-white, his youthful features full of strength.
Another room finds young Pablo in Paris, lost in a world of art, friends and partying. There’s an incredibly grotesque image of his friend Gustave Coquiot in a swirl of dancers and a genuinely stunning Blue Period portrait of Sebastia Junyer i Vidal.
Then Picasso heads into cubism, thanks in part to the model Fernande Olivier, who features in so many of his works. Portraits of her and one absolute stunner depicting the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler find Picasso on the path to greatness.
You then walk through a corridor of Picasso’s caricatures – which are interesting more than brilliant – and a room of almost totally unflattering portraits of his first wife Olga. But don’t be surprised that a lot of the paintings here far from good. Picasso created a lot of work, and any show of his is bound to include a good fistful of guff.
The last room – the show’s biggest and best – is where everything starts to make sense. There’s a near total lack of men, it’s just Picasso stumbling from woman to woman, from marriage to affair to marriage to affair, and he documents his lust in paint. There’s Dora Maar as a flattened assemblage of soft lumps, Marie-Thérèse Walter as a gently undulating collection of primary coloury, a stunning fragile vision of Nusch Eluard, a twisted rendering of Lee Miller and an image of his last wife Jacqueline Roque in a headscarf staring straight out at you, patient as a saint.
This room is a document of lust, of avarice and selfishness, of love that bloomed and faded. Regret only seems to shine through in one painting, depicting his by-then ex-lover sat behind their children as they draw – it’s the only image tinged with a sense of ‘whoops, maybe I should’ve been a bit less of a shit’.
You might be thinking that all this is irrelevant, that you should take the paintings at face value. But that’s the thing about portraiture: it’s never just about the paint on the canvas, it’s about the story being told, the person being depicted, the why, the when, the how. You don’t leave this show thinking Picasso was any worse an artist than you went in thinking he was, but you might leave thinking less of him as a person. Even when they’re not all great, getting to walk through room after room of Picassos is always going to be a treat. It’s just a shame he was such an asshole.