From Muse to Fodder: The Women Behind Picasso

by Viva Bianca

Legend has it that Picasso was one of the most seductive men of the twentieth century. Olivier Widmaier Picasso (Pablo Picasso’s grandson).

He would have liked to have a big chateau, with each of his women in a different room. Like the Arabs. With children, of course. I tell you, he was the devil. He was a devil…” Marie-Thérèse Walter (one of Picasso’s mistresses).

“Behind every great man there is a great woman.” While greatness may not have been the case for every Pablo Picasso muse (although it was for some), each and every one of them impacted his art in a profound way, and remain immortalized by his paintbrush. Along with “Guernica,” Picasso’s countless portraits of Fernande Olivier, Eva Gouel, Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque are arguably his colossal masterpieces. And while we, his audience, continue to consume the genius that is Picasso, few of us have given thought to the throws and exploitations that battled behind the paintings. Brilliant as he was, it is fair to say that the Spanish-born artist was also an all-consuming, self-serving narcissist who fed off lust, sex, and power, and drank the final drops of life from each of the women who had the “privilege” of entering the “electric charged field of his presence,” as described by Françoise, until he’d used them all up. Of his eight significant muses who almost never departed from his orbit, only two became his wives and the rest were his mistresses. And while these women exist now as framed goddesses in art galleries all over the world, two killed themselves, one went mad, two wrote bitter memoirs, and one filed a law suit.

As a 21st century, liberal-minded woman researching Picasso and his unorthodox relations with women, I couldn’t help but question the ethics surrounding the phenomena. The women in Picasso’s life cannot be ignored. One may wish to separate the artist’s work from his personal life, but since his art is overtly fuelled by and inundated with intimate portrayals of his luminous lovers, to ignore them would be ignorant. That being said, when both history and Picasso’s art respectively elude to a narrative of misogyny, emotional abuse, infidelity, injustice, and ultimate abandonment, is it ethical that as a culture we continue to enthrone such a perpetrator? Of course, Picasso is not alone in as far as crazy, abusive geniuses are concerned—look at Lucian Freud, for instance. But since Picasso’s narrative features such an extensive and tortured harem—and since each victim inspired so much of the work we continue to venerate today—the illumination of his story, and in particular, the story of his monumental muses, rings relevant. Well, it does to me anyway.

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One of Picasso’s paintings of Fernande (source: pirazhvu.wordpress.com)

“I wonder whether Picasso still remembers the young friend who sat for him so often, who at one time could not leave the house for two whole months because she hadn’t any shoes. Does he remember those winter days when she had to stay in bed because there was no money to buy coal to heat the icy studio?” By 1904, Picasso, a struggling artist, had moved to Paris and in that same year met bohemian artist, model, and recent divorcee, Fernande Olivier. They moved in together a year later and remained entwined in what has often been characterized as a “tempestuous relationship” for seven years. “We’re managing to survive on 50 francs a month and sometimes we have enough left over to pay the bill at the paint shop,” wrote Fernande in her memoir Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier. Living hand-to-mouth, this was arguably one of Picasso’s most exciting artistic periods, categorized as the Cubist period. It was during this time that Picasso became fiends with the likes of Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Gertrude Stein, and—as the story goes—began not only to sell his work, but to also gain recognition in the Paris art scene. “Picasso’s financial situation was improving all the time, but despite this he became more and more moody.” Not withstanding the volume in which Fernande featured in Picasso’s work throughout the Cubist period (he painted over 60 portraits of her), she remains relatively undocumented. Unlike some of his later muses, Fernande was poor and came from humble origins which meant that when Picasso finally left her—it is believed that when he found success, Fernande only reminded him of his previous hardship—she sort of melted away.

It wasn’t until some 55 years later—in response to the publication of her book that was subsequently shut down by Picasso’s lawyers in 1930—that he agreed to pay Fernande, now deaf and suffering from arthritis, a modest pension in exchange for her “silence.”

Often described as the “great love of his life,” Eva Gouel, who’s real name was Marcelle Humbert, met Picasso in 1909, and embodied, perhaps, the most pure and happiest period in Picasso’s life. The antithesis to Fernande, Eva was small, bright, and balanced. Symbolically, she was everywhere: “Female Nude ‘J’aime Eva’,” “Woman in an Armchair,” “The Painter and his Model,” “Portrait of a Girl,” and her initials, along with her nick name “Ma Jolie”—the title of a popular song at the time—appeared in many of his paintings. Eva also symbolized the beginnings of Picasso’s newfound celebrity status—a world which she graced with ease.

But this sweet love was a short-lived tragedy. Along with the onset of the First World War, Eva developed throat cancer and, in 1915, she died. It is said that Picasso was genuinely guttered by this loss, writing to Stein, “My poor Eva is dead… This has been a great sorrow… She was always so good for me.” And yet in the same breath he had already embarked on a clandestine love affair with Gabrielle Lespinasse and allegedly asked her to marry him only two months later.

“Was it her Russian origins, a paradoxical mix that combined the excitement of the Bolshevik revolution with the prestige of the tsarist empire that was crashing down?” asks Picasso’s grandson, Olivier Widmaier Picasso in Picasso: The Real Family Story. Picasso met 26 year-old Russian ballerina, Olga Khokhlova in 1917 in Rome. Jean Cocteau had persuaded him to design the set and costumes for Parade, a one-act ballet, and Olga was one of the dancers in the troupe. According to Huffington Post president Arianna Stassinopoulos-Huffington, Olga was “an average ballerina, of average beauty and average intelligence.” But she was of high society, her father being a colonel in the Imperial Russian army. For Picasso, professionally speaking, this meant access to a whole new market—old money. Despite Picasso’s own mother having warned Olga against her son (she’s believed to have said: “I do not think that any woman could be happy with him”), the ballerina became Picasso’s first wife in 1918.

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Picasso’s 1917 painting “Olga in the Armchair” (source: paintingandframe.com)

Symbolically, Picasso cemented their union with the portrait “Olga in the Armchair” whereby he depicts her as a traditional Spanish woman, thus welcoming the Russian into his family. The “Olga period” marked a return to neoclassicism: Picasso worked hard at complying to the expectations of a bourgeois girl and even his portraiture of Olga reveals a willingness to respect her formalities and tradition. Widmaier Picasso explains, “Pablo had cleaned up his life, and almost his art.” Olga gave birth to Picasso’s first child, Paulo, who would grow up to be a dissolute motorcycle driver and his father’s chauffeur, yet by the mid-20’s, their marriage had waned.

Picasso’s “secret” mistress entered his life in 1927. Marie-Thérèse Walter was just 17 years old, curvy, gentle, and sweet. “She became the luminous dream of youth, always in the background but always within reach. That nourished his work,” explains Françoise Gilot in her popular autobiography, Life With Picasso. If Olga was all rules and perfection, Marie-Thérèse offered Picasso a return to emotional fluidity. Not yet grown past adolescence, and all at once enthroned as an artist’s muse, Marie-Thérèse became intoxicated by the genius, who was, by this time, a living legend. She also became the mother of Picasso’s first illegitimate child, Maya (who would later become the mother of Picasso’s grandson, writer Olivier Widmaier Picasso). But Marie-Thérèse didn’t belong to the art world and Picasso was a married man, and so for the remainder of her life, Picasso would keep his secret family in the wings, living or vacationing out of the way in unassuming neighborhoods, always waiting and forever dependent on the promise, the sustenance of their “god.”

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Picasso’s painting of Marie-Thérèse “Nude Woman in an Armchair” (source: art-unwashed.blogspot.com)

In his art, however, Marie-Thérèse, blonde and cherub-like, would reveal herself to the world. Often portrayed as resting or sleeping—since by projection, it was respite that Picasso sought in his secret lover—Marie-Thérèse can be identified in paintings such as “Woman Crowned With Flowers,” “The Dream,” and the exquisitely sensual, “Nude Woman in an Armchair.”

Tragically, having lived in lonely devotion to Picasso since her teens, four years after Picasso’s death, Marie-Thérèse hung herself in her garage.

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Picasso with Dora Maar (martinmayhew.com)

Dora Maar first caught Picasso’s attention in 1935 when, at a bar, she cut her fingers while playing “the knife game.” This act so impressed Picasso that he kept her bloody gloves and exhibited them in his apartment. Intellectual and fiercely political, Dora was a painter and photographer in the Surrealist movement. Having lived much of her life in Argentina, being able to communicate with Picasso in fluent Spanish was an added string to her bow. Knowing full well that Picasso was still a married man with a secret mistress and an illegitimate child, “Dora was playing with fire. They both liked danger and its rewards,” writes Widmaier Picasso. “Dora was not your run-of-the-mill mistress of an artistic celebrity,” writes former friend and acquaintance of both Dora and Picasso, James Lord in Picasso and Dora. “Dora possessed the temperament, the personal greatness for the major ordeal.” Indeed, it was Dora who encouraged Picasso’s return to politics and his eventual alignment with the Communist Party. It was also during her reign that Picasso produced one of his most important pieces, “Guernica”—a response to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War—which Dora documented photographically.

But Françoise recalls Picasso saying, “‘It wasn’t that I was so greatly attracted to Dora. I just felt that finally, here was somebody I could carry on a conversation with.’” In stark contrast to Picasso’s soft, loving, and sensual portrayals of Marie-Thérèse, Picasso’s portraiture of Dora is violent, tense, conflicted (their love affair literally took place against the backdrop of war and political turmoil), and dark. But unlike Marie-Thérèse—most likely due to her accessibility in the art world and integration with Picasso’s piers—Dora became his public girlfriend.

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One of Picasso’s paintings of Dora Maar (anc.net.au)

But Dora was infertile—perhaps another reason for Picasso portraying her in such a stitched-up fashion—and would soon become known as “The Weeping Woman.” The artist saw her as sad, and indeed she was. Dora was more like his hired help or “consenting slave,” as Picasso’s grandson describes her, than his lover. They never lived together and “Pablo would telephone her when he wanted to see her. She never knew whether she would be having lunch or dinner with him—but she had to hold herself in a perpetual state of permanent availability so that if he phoned or dropped by, he would find her there,” explains Françoise.

Picasso first met Françoise in 1943, and in 1944, when Dora learned of their affair, she pretty well lost her mind. Left to suffer alone, and often found naked and ranting in her apartment stairwell, Dora was admitted to a psychiatric hospital by poet, Paul Éluard, who was allegedly furious that Picasso had abandoned Dora in such a state. In hospital, Dora undertook multiple electric shock therapy treatments. And later, in contradiction to her early Communist convictions, Dora retreated from society and turned to Roman Catholicism, the religion of her French mother. She is known to have said “After Picasso, God.”

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“La Femme Fleur”, a portrait of Francoise Gilot (source: newsoftheartworld.com)

At 63, Picasso fell in love with the 23 year-old Françoise. She was an upper middle-class Parisian girl who had dropped out of law school in order to pursue painting. What was ultimately so beguiling about Françoise was not only her contemporary beauty, talent, and vitality, but also her apparent indifference to Picasso. “Françoise was evasive without being disrespectful,” writes Widmaier Picasso. As times had changed, she was also—despite her youth—not as innocent as Marie-Thérèse had been. “Pablo resorted to his favorite weapon: Françoise became the sole subject of his work,” continues Widmaier Picasso. Fuelled by Matisse’s desire to also paint her, “La Femme Fleur,” Picasso’s iconic abstract portrait of Françoise whereby he envisions her as a flower, marked a turning point in their relationship. She finally fell victim to his trap and moved in to the Rue des Grands-Augustin—Picasso’s homestead and studio.

But Françoise was quick to determine Picasso’s self-serving “game,” and attempted to leave on multiple occasions. The ever-persuasive Picasso convinced Françoise that her discontent was due to her female need for children, and as a result, Francoise bore two of Picasso’s illegitimate children, Claude and Paloma, which was, as Françoise explains, the beginning of the end. “I realized, as I thought it over, that Pablo had never been able to stand the company of women for any sustained period. I learned from the start that what had principally appealed to him in me was the intellectual side and my forthright, almost tomboy way of acting—my very lack, in a sense of what is called ‘femininity.’ And yet he had insisted I have the children because I wasn’t enough of a woman. Now that I had them, and presumably was more of a woman and a wife and a mother, it began to be clear that he didn’t care a bit for it.”

In her book, Françoise details the cruel decay of their relationship whereby she fell from “queen” to “old broom”—a name she recalls Picasso once spitting at her. Françoise also explains that while for almost all of their 10 years together, aware of the necessity to conceal any trace of vulnerability from Picasso, she only ever cried in front of him once. Picasso’s response: to reach for the closest sketch pad and pencil, and while sketching his broken mistress, he murmured, “‘Wonderful, grave face.’” Struck by this inhumane response to her suffering, Françoise remembers replying, “‘Not grave, Pablo. What you are sketching is a sad heart.’”

Arguably the most progressive of all Picasso’s muses, Françoise was the first and only to have left him. For good. Not only did she continue a robust artistic career (Françoise is the last surviving Picasso muse and currently resides in New York), she also became instrumental in changing French law at the time to entitle Picasso’s illegitimate children to take their father’s surname and to inherit. Allegedly, in fear of confronting his own mortality, Picasso had refused to write a will, which, had it not been for Françoise’s legal actions, would have consequently left his illegitimate children with nothing.

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Picasso and Olga (source: bjwsblogspot.com)

Picasso had remained married to Olga until her death in 1955 because divorcing her would have resulted in handing over half of his wealth. Then, after a brief but significant affair with Geneviève Laporte (who first caught his eye when she was 17), which overlapped with his Françoise innings, Picasso married Jacqueline Roque in 1961, with whom he remained until his death 12 years later. Marie-Thérèse was not alone in believing that life was obsolete without her god; Jacqueline put a gun to her head in 1986.

“The lovers were cut off from the world in an ivory tower where Pablo, it has been said, controlled everything,” Picasso’s grandson attests. Even years after he’d moved onto the next one, each of them would remain eternally bound to his “shadow zone”—a term coined by Picasso. “He liked his abandoned women to pine for him in solitude, his occasional appearances like dispensations of celestial compassion,” writes Lord. It began with Fernande: in her memoir she exposes how Picasso liked to keep her cooped up in their apartment with limited access to friends or the outside world. Then later, he ensured that while Marie-Thérèse could never fully have him, she could also never be granted real freedom. Instead, the mother of Picasso’s first daughter would remain devoted to the artist and spend her entire adult life in virtual hiding. Even years after he had moved onto his later mistresses, Picasso would continue to visit Marie-Thérèse and engage in the to and fro of unending love letters—as if to throw her scraps in order to keep the victim sustained but always hungry.

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Dora Maar (source: moniquepassions.com)

Of Dora’s inevitable isolation after Picasso dropped her, Lord writes: “Lonely, yes, indeed lonely…because the solitude was likewise his creation, his largesse, bearing the imperishable imprint of his genius.” Comparably, in response to the young Françoise’s determined independence, she describes how early on in their affair, Picasso propositioned her to move into the attic of his apartment where he could lock her up and visit her whenever he pleased. And when writing about the tragedy of the tortured women who had come before her, she reveals, “He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls.” She goes on, “he had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum.”

“What they gained from it was immortality. The painter who knows how to glorify a woman’s gaze forever on his canvas possesses a powerful weapon,” asserts Widmaier Picasso. The prestige of such immortality, I guess, must have been the payoff, if you can call it that; the silver lining to all of that suffering. It is evident too, that along with his artistic talents, Picasso exuded a remarkable charisma and sex appeal. I’m sure he was also a lot of fun—when he wanted to be. And with sex comes power, but with success comes even more power. And Picasso undoubtedly exploited the gross imbalance of power that he had over each of his muses; not only were many of them vastly disadvantaged due to their life inexperience—as we have learned, Picasso had an appetite for really young women—but all of them also lived in a time when, for the most part, women were financially dependent on men. So not only were Picasso’s muses eternally emotionally bound to him—consequently leaving many of them husbandless—they also remained dependent on the artist for their mere survival.

A genius, yes. But the legacy Picasso left—imprinted on his canvases—was sourced directly from the women who gave themselves over, wholly and fully, to the cause. In his tangible life, however, as far as generosity, compassion, respect, and sacrifice are concerned—attributes often associated with heroes—Picasso was, in fact, not at all a man of greatness.

Title image source: marginaliavincenzaperilli.blogspot.com

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