Last weekend we went to see the Picasso Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Nick and I love Picasso, believing him to be the greatest artist of the 20th Century. We have seen his work in Spain and France, and we always jump at the chance to see his work in London. So we had to go. I won’t say much about the exhibition – which opens with a stunningly competent self portrait of a 14 year old Pablo and ends with a self portrait of the 90 year old man, close to his death in 1971.
I was unaware that Picasso spent two short periods in Britain, firstly in the summer of 1919. He came to London with Serge Diaghilev, of the Ballet Russe. This period of history is most interesting to me as a time when very futuristic and ground breaking ideas were occurring in the arts and dance. This was the year after the Russian Revolution, and music, dance and art collided in the work of Diaghilev. In 1919 Diaghilev was staging his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, and Picasso was commissioned to produce both the sets and costumes for the play, which premiered at the Alhambra, Leicester Square, on 22 July. During 1919 Picasso spent 10 weeks in London with his first wife, the Ukrainian ballerina, Olga (one of Diaghilev’s dancers), painting at a studio in Covent Garden. The studio was at 48 Floral Street, and belonged to Diaghilev’s set-painters, Vladimir and Elizabeth Polunin. Picasso produced many costume designs, sets and the drop curtain. He also made drawings of dancers rehearsing Boutique Fantasque, and portrait drawings of company members – some of which are featured in the NPG exhibition.
Here we have a photograph of the pair of them in the studio. Isn’t it marvellous? Her large checked costume and straw hat is pretty neat (although it makes her look much bigger than I believe she was). His dress is more interesting however. At the NPG exhibition I learned that, while in London, Picasso fell for the traditional English gentleman’s way of dressing, and had a suit or two made in Savile Row. With spats.
In another photograph of the same studio (taken at a different angle), Picasso, then 37, sits with Diaghilev and Polunin, dressed in his three piece English suit, with a watch chain and brogues, his hair greased down.
Finally we have a photograph the couple outside the theatre. You can see the poster behind them of one of the costumes. with his wife Olga Khokhlova, a dancer with the Ballet Russes, in Leicester Square. Picasso is again dressed in a three-piece suit, accessorised with a bowler style hat, pipe and cane. The actual costume from the show is available to see at the V&A, so (if you like this kind of thing) fabulous.
Chris Stephens, the curator of modern British art and head of displays at Tate Britain, says: “Picasso developed a fascination with “Englishness” during his visit in 1919. He asked his friend, the art critic and curator Clive Bell to take him on shopping trips to Savile Row and the East End, where he would buy suits, watch chains and bowler hats, which began his lifelong love affair with British style.”
Though Picasso visited Britain only twice, in 1919 and again in 1950 to attend a peace conference in Sheffield, he continued to expand his collection of bowler hats and British-made clothes. Picasso’s father, Jose Ruiz Blaso, an artist and art teacher, was also said to be such an Anglophile that he was nicknamed “El Ingles”. His taste for English furniture and clothes is believed to have influenced Picasso, who in 1915 painted Man in a Bowler Hat Seated in an Armchair. At Picasso’s request, Clive Bell took him to the East End of London and to Savile Row to buy a suit and bowler hat in the style of ‘an English gentleman’. Apparently the shop they went to was Anderson & Sheppard (A&S) at 30 Savile Row. Clive Bell was a member of the Bloomsbury group, a collection of artists and novelist with whom I am fascinated, in part for their clothes.