The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso

The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso

June 17, 2007 to September 16, 2007

From Vincent van Gogh to Pablo Picasso to David Hockney, the artistic giants of modern times have put people at the center of their art, reinventing the age-old traditions of portraiture in daring and provocative ways. Telling this story for the first time, The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso was the most dazzling collection of modern portraits and self-portraits ever assembled—100 masterpieces of painting and sculpture from 75 collections across Europe and North America. This spectacular exhibition was on view at the Kimbell Art Museum—its only U.S. venue—from June 17 to September 16, 2007.

Commented Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “There have been exhibitions and books on the portraits of leading modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse, but The Mirror and the Mask is the first wide-ranging study of portraiture as an international phenomenon of the modern age. It is a landmark exhibition, both for the art-historical understanding of 20th-century art and for the popular appreciation of this subject.”

Featuring works by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Chaïm Soutine, Frida Kahlo, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, and many others, The Mirror and the Mask used the work of Picasso as its recurrent theme, following the changes in his style in relation to trends in portraiture throughout Europe.

As a form of art, portraiture is steeped in tradition and closely tied to the idea of truth to nature (“a good likeness”), yet in the hands of even the most wildly experimental artists of the later 19th and 20th centuries it continued to flourish. It is striking how many great and famous works of modern art show simply a “sitter,” often literally sitting in a chair, as portraits have done for hundreds of years. Each of the old categories of art known as the genres (landscape, still life, and so on) had its own story of survival within the modern movement. While landscape played a vital role in the growth of abstraction, the traditions of portraiture were to be the main pattern, though honored as much in the breach as in the observance, for modern art’s engagement with the human figure. The Mirror and the Mask showed the remarkable staying power of portraiture and the fascinating transformations that it underwent in this period of radical change.

One of the most basic shifts in the practice of portraiture was that modern artists largely dispensed with commissions, which to most portraitists of the past would have seemed absurd. Typically their sitters would be friends, relatives, or themselves (in the case of self-portraits), rather than paying clients. Often they would give portraits away as gifts. When they sold them, it was not necessarily to sitters or their families; it was mainly to the same dealers and collectors who bought other kinds of work. There were some age-old aesthetic reasons why they should continue with portraiture on this new footing. The painting and sculpting of portraits stemmed partly, as ever, from the urge to make art from everyday experience, including the company of others and one’s own physical appearance. But there were also reasons to do with the particular tendencies of modern art, and one of these was the desire to engage in original ways with art of the past. Having largely renounced the commission, modern artists responded with creative freedom both to their sitters—now more often bohemians and workers than nobility—and to the very idea of portraiture as a genre.

For artists looking to challenge the conventions of representation in art, what better arena could there be than portraiture, which for most people was all about likeness?  In this sense it was the most subvertible of the genres. When artists couched a painting or sculpture in portrait-like form, or merely used a title containing the word “portrait,” they could count on firm expectations on the part of the viewer and, if they chose, flout those expectations to effect.

The attitudes of artists toward portraiture were further complicated and enriched by the questioning, so germane to the modern experience, of old ideas about identity. Were likeness or even character really the absolutes previous generations had assumed them to be?  One of the commonplace sayings traditionally associated with portraiture is that the eyes are the windows of the soul. In the modern age a different metaphor emerges, that of the portrait as a mask, a likeness and identity created for the occasion and changeable. In this sense modern portraiture is a panorama of masks—like all portraiture to some degree, perhaps, but different in that it is openly and self-consciously so. For Picasso, Matisse, and others, the excitement of discovering African art was not only its “primitive” appearance but also the suggestiveness of the ritual mask as an agent of magical transformations.

The other keynote idea represented in the title of the exhibition, that of the mirror, points up the means by which artists usually make self-portraits but also, more figuratively, the tendency of the modern artist’s style and sensibility to dominate even when the subject of the portrait is another person. As the artist Basil Hallward remarks in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.”

The Mirror and the Mask was organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, with the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, and the Fundación Caja Madrid. It was on view at the Thyssen from February 6 to May 20, 2007, prior to its presentation at the Kimbell—its only American venue.

Paloma Alarcó, curator of modern painting at the Thyssen, and Malcolm Warner, senior curator at the Kimbell, curated the exhibition. Both have a longstanding interest in portraiture. Warner wrote an introductory book on the subject, Portrait Painting (Phaidon, 1979), and both he and Alarcó have curated exhibitions of the work of major portraitists, respectively John Everett Millais (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1999) and Oskar Kokoschka (Thyssen, 2001).

The lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue features essays by the curators Alarcó and Warner and other authorities in the field of modern art and the history of portraiture:  Francisco Calvo Serraller, John Klein, and William Feaver. The English-language edition is published in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza ($75 hardcover; $40 softcover).

The Mirror and the Mask was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support for the exhibition in Fort Worth was provided by American Airlines, The Dallas Morning News, and WFAA-TV.        

Caption: Joan Miró, Portrait of Heriberto Casany (detail), 1918, oil on canvas. Kimbell Art Museum. © Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris