Pablo Picasso’s love affair with women

Mark Hudson looks at how the artist saw the women in his life – as either goddesses or doormats.

 

Weeping Woman (Dora), (60 х 49 cm, 23 ⅝ х 19 ¼ inches) is an oil on canvas painted by Pablo Picasso in France in 1937. Picasso was intrigued with the subject, and revisited the theme numerous times that year. This painting was the final and most elaborate of the series. It has been in the collection of the Tate Gallery in Liverpool since 1987.

 

“For me she’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one.

-Pablo Picasso

‘Women are machines for suffering,” Picasso told his mistress Françoise Gilot in 1943. Indeed, as they embarked on their nine-year affair, the 61-year-old artist warned the 21-year-old student: “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats”.

From Rembrandt and Goya to Bonnard and Stanley Spencer, male artists have drawn obsessively and immensely productively on the faces and bodies of their wives and lovers. But no one used and abused his women quite like the greatest artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso.

Looking at the extraordinary images in a new Picasso exhibition that opens later this month at the National Gallery in London, you feel that Picasso eviscerates his women in the service of his art. Here, alongside images of exquisite tenderness, are women pulled and gouged into tortured shapes, women cut in bits and reconfigured on the canvas. Yet harrowing as these images are, they are nothing beside the real life dramas that led to their creation.

Of the seven most important women in Picasso’s life, two killed themselves and two went mad. Another died of natural causes only four years into their relationship. Yet while Picasso had affairs with dozens, perhaps hundreds of women, and was true to none of them – except possibly the last – each of these seven women shines out as a crucial catalyst in his development as an artist. Each stands for a different period in his career, representing a complementary or opposing ideal that inspired the evolution of a new visual language. Just as they became obsessively involved with him, so he was dependent on them.

Loyal, generous and affectionate when it suited him, Picasso could be astoundingly brutal, to friends, lovers, even complete strangers. Yet he felt real, often anguished passion for each of these women – a passion he explored in tens of thousands of paintings, drawings and prints, in which he attempted to capture not just the way these women looked, but the totality of his feelings towards them.

Fernande Olivier, the first great love of the Spanish artist’s life whom he met in 1904, was far from a pushover. Incorrigibly lazy and promiscuous, but with a lively and independent mind, this statuesque redhead was a popular artist’s model, a kind of “it” girl of the Parisian avant-garde. To the young Picasso, who had arrived in Paris from Barcelona only two years before – and whose experience of women was limited largely to prostitutes and the pious Catholic women who raised him – Olivier must have seemed an intoxicating challenge.

Physically obsessed with her languid, bemused presence, Picasso moved from the poetic romanticism of his Rose Period to a new way of working inspired both by the dynamism of modern Paris and by the enduring values of Mediterranean culture on which he was to draw all his life. In 1906, Olivier accompanied him to the village of Gosol in the Spanish Pyrenees, where the cubistic traditional architecture and her strong, sensual features were endlessly analysed in a vast body of drawings that led to the most influential painting of the 20th century – Demoiselles d’Avignon.

As Picasso worked on this definitive canvas in the suffocating heat of his Montmartre studio, he was consumed with jealousy and anger towards Olivier who had temporarily walked out on him – this emotional violence feeding into a work that blasted the Renaissance idea of fixed perspective out of the window and changed the course of Western art.

When Olivier took up with a minor Italian artist in 1912 in an attempt to pique his jealousy, Picasso began seeing her close friend, Eva Gouel, the most elusive of the seven women. Frail and slender, she appears in only two photographs and her personality remains an enigma. Picasso’s time with her coincided with the moment of synthetic cubism, in which observational elements were synthesised into semi-abstract compositions, often including collage or text. While Picasso never painted Gouel, he paid homage to her in several of these paintings, by including the words Ma Jolie – my pretty one – which is perhaps the most overtly affectionate artistic gesture he made to any of his women. While he was apparently devastated by her death from tuberculosis in 1916, this didn’t stop him carrying on a simultaneous affair with one Gaby Depeyre.

Picasso’s marriage to the Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova in 1915 coincided with a complete reversal in his artistic direction – from world-changing abstraction to relatively conservative neoclassicism. His portraits of Khokhlova have a restraint and serenity inspired by the 19th-century master Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

Yet just as Picasso’s artistic restlessness couldn’t be contained for more than a few hours, so the desire of the socially ambitious Khokhlova to tame the now wealthy artist soon began to suffocate him. As their relationship disintegrated and she became increasingly delusional, his depictions of her and women in general grew ever more hateful – tortured masses of teeth, limbs and vaginas.

While Picasso’s sense that he could do what he liked with absolutely anyone increased as his fame and wealth grew, he stayed with Khokhlova out of a residual desire for bourgeois respectability and the deeply ingrained Spanish idea that however unfaithful, a man doesn’t leave his wife.

Picasso kept his relationship with the youthful Marie-Thérèse Walter – just 17 when he met her – secret from Khokhlova for eight years. Blonde, of equable temperament and athletic physique – but completely ignorant of art – Walter was immortalised in images of melting, idyllic eroticism in which we feel her guiltless enjoyment of her own sensuality and the artist’s complete satisfaction in regarding it.

If Walter offered Picasso little on an intellectual level, his next great muse was the one who came closest to challenging him on his own terms – an artist and photographer closely involved with the Surrealists. He first encountered the mesmerising, raven-haired Dora Maar across the tables of the Café aux Deux Magots, stabbing a knife between her fingers till she drew blood. Picasso asked to keep her bloodstained gloves. When Maar and Walter later met in his studio, the ensuing argument degenerated into an all-out catfight between the two women, an incident Picasso later described as one of his “choicest memories”.

Maar was Picasso’s partner during the period of his greatest political engagement, her inner turmoil standing in for Spain’s agony during the Civil War in Tate’s iconic Crying Woman. She made a photographic record of Picasso’s work on the monumental masterpiece Guernica, and her unmistakable features appear in the banshee-like head swooping into the painting. But in Picasso’s most telling images of Maar, her features are disturbingly reconfigured – growing out of each other in all the wrong places – as though she is literally breaking down in front of us.

When Picasso threw her over for the much younger Françoise Gilot in 1943, Maar suffered a complete mental collapse, followed by nun-like seclusion.

“After Picasso,” she famously declared, “only God.” Lest it should be thought that Picasso had things entirely his own way, the case of Gilot is instructive. This young aspiring artist – just 21 when they met – seems to have handled Picasso’s cruelties and perversities with amazing deftness, and was the only woman to leave him entirely voluntarily, with her dignity more or less intact. She bore him two children, with whom they lived a relatively normal family life for nine years. But was this domestic stability good for Picasso’s art? While he captured Gilot’s features in a series of radiant drawings and etchings, this was the period of his greatest fame, when his millionaire life on the Cote d’Azur was cut off from external reality, and it was all too easy for the artist to “play Picasso” in art and life.

The last of Picasso’s great loves was, on the face of it, the one most in control. Picasso created more than 400 portraits of the demure Jacqueline Roque, who he married in 1961. The most memorable imbue her sharp features with a watchful, almost classical stillness that harks back to his Blue period paintings of nearly 70 years before. Roque, you feel, was the one who finally got Picasso to behave, and created a tranquil base for his last years.

Yet even her story ended in tragedy. In 1986 she killed herself, 13 years after Picasso’s death. Like the other six women, she had collaborated in what is arguably the greatest artistic oeuvre of all time. Whether it was worth the pain, only she would be able to say.

Picasso: a lifetime in muses-

Fernande Olivier
(1881-1966; with Picasso 1904-1911)

Eva Gouel
(1885-1915; with Picasso 1911-1915)

Olga Khokhlova
(1891-1954; with Picasso 1917-1935)

Marie-Thérèse Walter
(1909-1977; with Picasso 1927-1936)

Dora Maar
(1907-1997; with Picasso 1936-1944)

Françoise Gilot
(b.1921; with Picasso 1944-1953)

Jacqueline Roque
(1927-1986; with Picasso 1954-1993)

Video-Art by Alejandro Mos Riera, May 2013

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