Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Picasso Portraits at The NPG

Kirsty Buchanan, Matthew Collings, Stuart Cumberland, Tori Day, Georgia Hayes, Nicola Hicks, Dominic Kennedy share their thoughts on Pablo Picasso
For the first time in a generation a major exhibition of Picasso Portraits has opened at London's The N. P. G. There are over 80 works to see including portraits of Lee Miller, Stravinsky and Cocteau. For some critics the big deal about the show is that it features Picasso’s painting of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler from 1910. (This cubist masterpiece rarely leaves Chicago.) Other reviewers mention the daft cartoons that have been discovered or they bring our attention to the two portraits of Pablo’s wife Olga – (one painted in 1923 and one in 1935) – which couldn’t be more different from each other. What I liked most about the show is that seeing these paintings made me want to make a new painting of my own. I was curious to know what other artists made of Picasso Portraits so I rounded up some esteemed artists and e-mailed them the same 6 questions. Now read on... 1) What was your introduction to Picasso can you remember about your first encounter with his work?
Kirsty Buchanan: "I really can't remember my first encounter with Picasso, he's sort of an establishment like Jesus so he really just existed since I can remember. I have always been a fan, I find that he always changes for me too, I get sick of some artists but with Picasso he always surprises me, even now." Matthew Collings: "I don’t remember anything about it at all, and for a long time after I was aware of him I didn’t particularly think about him, he was just a name in art. At art-school after a while I might have been quite impressed by various organizational ideas I could see in his paintings: I remember at a party stealing the limelight by turning the pages of a Picasso coffee table book and pointing out structures, and people gradually paid attention." Stuart Cumberland:"I was fortunate enough to be 'of age' when Late Picasso came to the Tate in London. I was 17 or 18 and I travelled up by train from Surrey twice to see it. I bought the catalogue, it was the first catalogue I owned and it is probably my most looked at and treasured. ‘Fan’ is too passive a word for my interaction with Picasso. We come into contact with Picasso before we come into contact with his work because the effect of his achievements changed the world - at the very least changed the appearance of the man made world. In other words I do not think the world would look the same if Picasso had not existed. The adults in his paintings may not appear the way sight constructs them when we concentrate on vision alone but then that is not how we interact and experience others. I instantly recognised the people in Picasso’s paintings on a phenomenological level - that is how Cezanne was his father and how he may have killed his biological Dad but not his artistic one." Tori Day: "I think the first image of a Picasso I remember seeing was when I was a very young child, in an encyclopaedia my parents owned. It was one of those that you collected in instalments and then bought the folder to bind them. It was poor quality and the colour in all the reproductions of paintings was terrible. I remember seeing The Weeping Woman for the first time and being shocked - not only did she have a massive green nose but both her eyes were on the same side of her head! I didn’t know what to make of it. I found it frightening - it was so bold and aggressive and confrontational. Those thick black lines. The hideously deformed face. It was monstrous." Georgia Hayes: "I can’t really remember not knowing about him and I always accepted his work as interesting and special. But when I was young I liked the blue and pink periods which I now don’t like at all." Nicola Hicks:"I can't remember the first Picasso I saw, only the stonking effect of each new seeing of a Picasso,different pieces having resonance at different moments,in fact it could be a defining feature of his work, the fact that every time you see a Picasso, its the first time you’ve seen it,he’s that good in the flesh. Key moments for me have included, realising the cat sculpture was more cat than cat ( about age 11) thinking the Minotaur etchings where awful until I heard Hockney talk about them, it has to be said, in terms of the little agonies of waning machismo, having to write about the young girls of Avignon at school ( secretly hated it, it made me feel stupid and left out) literally crying in Paris at the beauty of his ceramics ,having heart pain the cutout metal sculptures were so good and realising I was going to be a sculptor standing in front of man with sheep or was it the big woman in the white shift?or a metal cut out of a woman with arms outstretched Or perhaps the shift as a student from having always accepted the received wisdom that Picasso was king to actually feeling the greatness myself probably in the Paris museum in the 80s. luckily for me the Tate was my local so I don't remember when or which work,more the blissful feeling that you always recognise a Picasso . In fact you can see that even thinking about looking at Picassos takes you on a rollercoaster ride of memories, almost an assault of images." Dominic Kennedy: "I was lucky enough to go the Picasso museum in Paris when I was about 16 or 17 years old with my Dad. He was taking his art students on a trip there and this was the time I really started to look at Picasso. I must have been aware of his work before then through a few postcards and books at home but this was when his work really started to affect me. Around the same time I borrowed a rather worn and tatty Picasso book from the art room at school. I had it in my possession for so long the teacher gave up asking me for it back in the end and said I could keep it. I've still got it somewhere." 2) When the Tate Gallery bought Three Dancers directly from Picasso in 1965 he told them that he considered Three Dancers and The Young Women of Avignon as his two greatest paintings. Do you rate these two paintings amongst his best works. Are there any of his paintings that excite or impress you more?
Kirsty Buchanan: "I really love his drawings, I have an Avant Garde magazine from the 60s full of erotic drawings." Matthew Collings: "Anyone should be capable of seeing different things at different times in the same body of work. You see what’s of interest to you because of what you’re doing yourself. Picasso’s all about the means of representation being capable of becoming subjects in themselves, the pursuit of shapes and angles for their own sake, and this formal energy always having a psychological correlate, so people he pictures are in a state of metamorphosis, because of the shapes he’s representing them by being so independent, and changeable, even as you’re looking. It’s the same for the two pictures you mention as anything he does after about 1905." Stuart Cumberland:"Those two are among his best - for sure. I particularly like the Dora Maar post Guernica 1939-1942 period." Tori Day: "I do love these paintings – but what a painter thinks of as her or his best works are often very different from what a critic might decide, as we’ve lived it and battled with it and birthed it. As an observer I am (and we all are) speaking from a position that is heavily bogged down with cultural criticism and with the spoonfed ‘preknowledge’ of what experts say. But that said my personal favourite is ‘Blue Nude’. It’s the quietest and most profound and gentlest and saddest of his paintings – it contains grief but without the hysterical drama of some of his later works." Georgia Hayes: "I do like these two paintings, the first was the first Picasso I remember seeing for real and the Women of Avignon was in art books and impressed me then. It still seems very complete and radical so yes among his best but the stand out one for me is Guernica which I found totally overwhelming when I saw it in Madrid. Otherwise two that are new to me I really like which are in the NPG show are Maya in the Sailor Suit and Lee Miller." Nicola Hicks: "I don't particularly rate these two paintings, but I'm not standing in front of them, and it does tend to be the one in the room that stuns you into submission. I don't really feel the blue paintings, but I did have a moment , suddenly wanting to see the one at the NPG on a loud yellow wall paper, some of them need to be one on one in a domestic interior to sing to you.If I was going to buy one I think it might be 'Claude painting Jacqueline and Paloma,'it's just so perfect." Dominic Kennedy: "Oh there are many Picasso's that excite me more but those two works are really important for different reasons, especially the Women of Avignon. Maybe they suffer from being over reproduced and lose some of their impact after a while. I saw the Women of Avignon for the first time a few years ago and it was something else to finally stand in front of it." 3) In the 1920s Walter Sickert said Picasso's work wasn't a patch on Poulbot, Genty, Falke, Arnac, Kern and Laborde. Are there any painters you can think of that you consider vastly superior to Picasso?
Kirsty Buchanan: "I prefer Matisse's paintings, he's more sincere." Matthew Collings: "Sickert was just saying there are other things art does than what Picasso does, which is fair enough. Bonnard, Matisse, many artists are so different to him, he can seem tedious, especially his eclecticism, if you’re thinking about those other people. But also there are artists who just move him aside as part of their successful innovation, Magritte, for example, he makes Picasso’s shape-creating energy seem a waste of time." Stuart Cumberland: "Didn’t know that Sickert thought that. I always though that Sickert was the best English painter, surprisingly good for an English painter who are generally terrible - I should know I am one - then I found out he was German and it all fell into place. Velazquez and Titian are incredible but it’s difficult to compare." Tori Day: "Impossible to say, as he was of his time and no one had ever done what he was doing. I could list many whose work I would prefer to look at but not one of them had the staggering ability and neverending breadth of skill, he was proficient in so many techniques and forms of image making and master of them all." Georgia Hayes: "No I think of him as a giant alongside Matisse and Valasquez." Nicola Hicks: "Unlike Sickert,or any of these names that are not on my radar, you can't tie Picasso to an era or a movement he out lives everyone, except for painting by painting, comparisons are useless, as you move through his years you see most of the greats reflected, Ingres, Gauguin, Braque, Matisse then Miro, Calder, Herron, Frink, Moor, Hockney, Hepworth Lautrec, Dix, Guston and you realise you're whizzing about improbably through time,Picasso is the bench mark the constant mirror. In his time or out of it. The Bon atelier." Dominic Kennedy: "I think when you get to this level of achievement and greatness, 'better' or 'lesser' seems irrelevant. He is untouchable in many ways. Sickert's quote seems a bit premature to say the least." 4) Some of the work included in The National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition of Picasso Portraits are comic. Have any of Picasso's paintings of his children or his cartoons made you laugh? Can art that makes one laugh be regarded as important or of value?
Kirsty Buchanan: "YES, humour is so important." Matthew Collings: "He’s very frequently funny, but not always. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is funny -- as well as all the other things it is -- but you couldn’t say Weeping Woman in Tate Modern is funny, or Guernica, or works from The Blue Period. When he’s funny it’s a savage humour. The Portraits show is full of jokes. One of the earliest pictures of himself as a stunted monkey with a little penis is funny, and tells us we’re all the same monkey." Stuart Cumberland: "Picasso made terrible images of children, his methods are too adult to be adapted to rendering children. I’ve laughed at loads of Picassos. Oscar Wilde said that if you make someone laugh you’ll be considered a trivial fellow but if you bore them in just the right way they’ll consider you a genius. Laughter is very important and of value. We laugh at truth." Tori Day: "I’m not really familiar with the paintings you mention as I haven’t been to see the show. I think it’s good for art not to take itself too seriously, and it can be life affirming – which is why I like your work, Harry, and why I like the work of Charlie Day, Gary Goodman, and Gus Watcham, herself a massive Philip Guston fan. I’m also a fan of text and imagery together, especially if it’s a joke that really hits the spot. David Shrigley and Graham Rawle for example." Georgia Hayes: "Yes, for example Woman in a Hat in this show, made me laugh even though it is also sad and poignant. The cheeky inventiveness of it but also tragic expression. And that mixture is often there in his art. I think that it is of great importance and value. Humour is a human emotion that we share and it brings relief to the tragedies of life." Nicola Hicks:"Humour is a basic element of life so of course it must be present in art. The trick is finding the humour that endures, the one that's mixed with pathos ,the truth in human frailty needs humour .what to avoid is spelling it out. I find Picasso s bull made from bike seat and handlebars hysterical, but I also found 'Jacqueline in a black scarf quite funny, Picasso is surely showing his slip, women sadly really aren't that deep/enigmatic/submissive .still it was magical to see his romantic need made flesh." Dominic Kennedy: "Oh yes definitely. I went there yesterday and some of them are really funny. I rather liked the painting of his daughter Maya in the show, the way in which the legs and shoes are flattened out. This made me laugh. Some art we find comedic often has pathos and humour in equal amounts so that it's a hollow laugh in the end, with humour used as a way of disarming the viewer. I'm thinking of late Guston for example."
5) The NPG show features one painting that rarely leaves America and some other paintings from private collections that haven't been exhibited in the U.K. before - but the admission price is almost £20. Do you think the NPG is asking too much or is £20 a bargain?
Kirsty Buchanan: "I think we are so lucky to live in a country where we can see art for free, and I have really taken advantage of that since I've lived in London and I feel that our National collection belongs to me. But because of our government that is now threatened and I understand that charging for special exhibitions is unavoidable. £20 is expensive but if you compare it to other entertainment like a Justin Bieber concert or a play then it's really not." Matthew Collings: "No it’s far too much but I don’t know what anyone can do about it." Stuart Cumberland:"The admission price is too high. The show is not good enough - it’s a hodge podge!" Tori Day: "Of course it’s too much, it’s bloody extortionate. How is this bringing Picasso to the masses? Massively wealthy more like. I couldn’t afford that." Georgia Hayes: "At first I was horrified at the ticket price but thought it pretty good value when I came out. The trouble is people (artists especially) can’t necessarily afford it and I wanted to go again but bought the catalogue instead to help remember the show. I think if paying that price was the only way to put those paintings together maybe that is ok and anyway it is much better value than Caravaggio. Also if you compare it to a theatre or concert ticket its fine but i believe where possible art and museums should be free." Nicola Hicks:"Most of me is cross that all shows aren't free, if you don't have much you should at least have museums but I'm doing ok so enjoy being 'friends' with our public galleries. I can't bear to think that people will miss shows because they can't afford to go,truth is our world is so messed up twenty quid is either nothing or unobtainable. But art opens windows in the head and you never know what the view will be, we need to help people to it not price them out." Dominic Kennedy: "Yes I think it is too much. Maybe it's the times we live in and organisations are forced to make as much money as possible because of cuts. I don't know but people shouldn't be deterred from seeing a show like this because it's £20. Even with a discount it's expensive for what is, in essence, a small show. Maybe the sponsors could contribute more." 6) What's special about Pablo? In what ways has Picasso inspired you or had a positive impact on your life?
Kirsty Buchanan: "He's amazing. I love him. Look at the You Tube video for Jonathan Richman's song Pablo Picasso Never Got Called an Asshole..." Matthew Collings: "The energy of invention is very impressive. I doubt of he’s really had an impact on me more than art as a whole system, and thinking about art history in all its aspects." Stuart Cumberland: "Picasso was an utter cunt and he was generous and kind enough to allow that part of him to make his paintings, sculptures and drawings. When he was being nice he made those boring ceramics . . . zzzzzz. Phoebe Unwin said to me that she thought Picasso was amazing because after all of the accolades and all of the accusations Picasso’s work is not egotistical - I think that is impressive. It’s why I find Richter and Polke boring (for example) - too much ego. Picasso developed clumsiness as a possibility." Tori Day: "He had been able to paint like a master whilst still a child. He was so prolific and such a polymath - printmaking, ceramics, painting. Seeing a Picasso in the flesh is exciting, is exhilarating - like eating a steak after a long time or like water when you’re thirsty, or like sex. It speaks to something wordless and deep down and passionate and rich and raw. But it is also awe inspiring to see the dedication and the skill. I saw the series of lithographs ‘Bull’ at the Gagosian a few years ago and it was like looking into his mind - a visible dissection of the creative process." Georgia Hayes:"He was incredibly inventive and always changing - breaking new ground and managing to break away from the classical, academic strictures he was steeped in. He made me realise that you should have the courage to use anything and break the rules but with a seriousness that is not just about novelty for the sake of it. All through his life he made different kinds of work in different styles but still recognisably his. For example the wonderful sculptures made out of found objects and cardboard which I think he was the first to do. Unlike many of us he didn’t stick to painting the same painting over and over again with minor variations, so I think his work feels wonderfully alive and risky and utterly modern even a century later." Nicola Hicks: "Picasso is a phenomenon his work is as ingrained in my being as the school curriculum or a sense of the gospels. You can take a Picasso from any era and find a comparable master or master piece, but he just keeps living and evolving and stealing and inventing rolling along painting the pants off everyone else , so yes there are comparable even superior works and indeed life's works but for the artist as viewer he is the voice of authority for every age, and every ism, a lesson in confidence, a constant fixed point of excellence somewhere between benchmark and naughty God. Incidentally, the only book I've ever really rated on Picasso is 'Lump the story of the dog that ate a Picasso'An awed photographer on a commissioned photo journal shoot arrives at Picasso's with by twists of fate a broadly unwanted small dog. Picasso is so transfixed and delighted by the crotchety pooch that the ensuing photos are unguarded and intimate not just of the man but his studio and household .it's a book that I'd choose as quite frankly the only manual on life and how it should be lived. Picasso is the master, whether you like him or not always alive to new beginnings, art simply being his language. No one else comes close, although I probably get more pleasure from Calder and more practical help from Rodin for size the only thing comparable in excellence would be the ancient Greeks." Dominic Kennedy: "He's just this huge presence. His contribution to art was enormous. He was a complex character, flawed in many ways but his work and his drive to realise it were just incredible."
Six of The Best: Here are some examples of Pablo at his most Fab........... Painting One: Doora Maar 1937
Painting Two: Claude et Francoise et Paloma 1954
Painting Three: Maya in a Sailor Suit 1938
Painting Four: "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" ("The Young Women of Avignon") 1907
Painting Five: The Three Dancers 1925
Painting Six: Guernica 1937
Thank you to everyone who answered my Picasso questions. Find out more about the artists by visiting their websites:,
Picasso Portraits at NPG is on until Feb next year.

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