By Sam Diss
Apr 27, 2023
Illustration by John Molesworth
Pablo Picasso’s legacy is, as they say in the business, a little complicated. His most famous works—the hysteric cubism that play with a sitter’s face like drunken Tetris—have often lapsed into parody, warping the profound impact of his dramatic reinvention of painted portraiture through overexposure, relegating them to the status of the novelty tote bag. But his earlier work remains striking in its simplicity, and in its love of menswear.
Teenage Picasso lavished in the tension between structure and abstraction present in everyday clothing, recording telling details in his copious notebooks: the strong lines of a winter coat cuffed against the wind, the starched collar of a self-important art dealer, or raffish young cad in a bowtie, eyes deadened after a long night doing heaven-knows-what. “My work is like a diary,” Picasso said later. “It’s even dated like a diary.”
The intimate sketches of the very late-19th and early-20th Centuries show Pablo Ruiz Picasso exploring his new surroundings, having escaped the brooding purview of his father—the painter José Ruiz y Blasco—for Barcelona, and the milieu of starving artists that made-up the city’s modernist scene. His group, writes historian John Richardson, “was modelled on the Spanish tertulia—a circle of professional cronies, who meet day after day in a particular café and pass the time, gossiping, arguing, exchanging jokes and more often than not boring each other to distraction.” It’s in this mundanity that Picasso’s work flourished: to the scent of stale beer and fish soup in the tabernas of the city’s piss-slaked back-alleys, the 17-year-old drew friends and fellow patrons, proudly displaying his work in the same establishments they got hammered in.
He often drew himself, too, albeit in unashamedly generous renderings of his own features. Picasso reimagined his character actor face as something altogether more refined. Faces mattered little to Pablo, even back then; his shit-faced sitters’ countenance often outlined with a light, smoky hand. Physical appearance was not actually all that important to the artist. Their attire was a different story.
He drew what he saw: clothing as an outward expression of the inner self. Peers drawn as rat-faced characters cloistered in balmacaans clutching sketchbooks, scurrying after women. Another, in a page haphazardly ripped from a notebook, shows a character smoking a pipe and walking his intrepid terrier in a shot nursing an unmistakable hangover; a shot that could’ve easily been frosty morning jaunt on the way to pick up a decaf oat flat white this past weekend.
The coats on display in sketches of brothers Ramón and Jacint Reventós—close friends whose family were instrumental in introducing him to Catalan Modernisme—are dapper, rakish, and brimming with personality. Tellingly, his father is presented as an altogether more majestic presence: bearded, askant, hands thrust into an almighty peacoat, a copy of the picaresque French novel Gil Blas proudly on view.
An avowed Anglophile, Picasso’s old man was known as ‘El Inglés’ and the son drew him with the formality he felt that title deserved. But take the impressionist oil-on-canvas Fairground (1900) as a counter-punch: a crowd of watching an exotic dancer on-stage; schematic faces and giant coats of varying fabric in the foreground, lines of outerwear expressed as simple strokes that portray unmistakable shapes. Created on 19-year-old Picasso’s first trip to Paris, Fairground shows the young man faced with a community he both does and does not recognise, but one he would soon make his home. It was a million miles away from his padre’s studied temperance.
In the coming years, Picasso’s diary of work grew darker. The death of his friend—the Catalan painter and poet Carles Casagemas—in the French capital in 1901 inspired the entering of Picasso’s Blue period, the first of his major epochs. One of the more famous portraits of that time is of the painter himself. The face bears little true resemblance; Pablo could only wish for such cheekbones. But what stands out most is the enormous winter coat buttoned at the clavicle, collar up, shielding its wearer against forces within and without, rendered in midnight shades of black, navy, and shadowy teal. Even in his darkest moments, clothing remained fundamental to Picasso's storytelling.
As success came in the post-Blue years, his mood lifted. But it is not until the 1950s that Picasso’s personal style began to flourish. It’s this later-period that retains its foothold in the public perception: the artist squirrelled away in a sun-blanched studio on the French riviera, straw hat over his potato-shaped head, dressed in Petit Bateau stripes or camp collar shirt with ubiquitous short-shorts. But before the critical and commercial success, before he’d dropped the patrilineal ‘Ruiz’ from his name, Picasso’s formative late-teens—a setting which, depending on who you believe, ranged from near-abject poverty to a romantic wallowing in a mess of one’s own making—were cold. Coats were armour. In the winter of his years, clothing featured less obviously in his work, but more overtly in his character.
While his personality remained wearying (his granddaughter Marina said Picasso would “squeeze people like a tube of oil paint”), the tyrant’s wardrobe seemed to represent a playfulness he could rarely stand to extend to the tertulias he never grew out of. Finally he did not need a sitter; did not need someone or something to squeeze. An obsessive collector of ancient artefacts, influenced by the mysteries of classical culture, he now turned his mythologising inward, his stocky little frame into yet another canvas, embracing the medium of photography as a prodigious sitter with a sense of drama and good humour, the chameleonic Picasso is transformed once more: as a man finally able to look himself in the mirror.