Picasso’s Women: Relationships and Representation
It is said that behind every great man there is a patient woman. For Pablo Picasso there were many, but they weren’t always patient. Over his career he entertained six long-term relationships whose infamous characters and stories are tightly woven into his work. It is impossible to study Picasso’s oeuvre without taking a closer look at the evolution of the representation of women in his paintings and sculptures. Between the years of 1918 and 1935, as he waltzed from his wife Olga, to his mistress Marie-Therese, to his distraction Dora Maar, the depiction of women in his paintings under go many metamorphoses. Giant Greco-roman figures became tortured deconstructed carcasses and later were reborn as sleeping beauties. Despite the variety of dispositions, however, throughout the progression the women remain posed objects under observation, never ascending to the status of an autonomous subject. For Picasso, his women were his. There was no easier guarantee of possession than to immortalize them in his paintings.
1918: The Beginning: Olga
Seven Ballerina, Pablo Picasso, 1919, paper 62.2 x 50 cm, Musée Picasso, Paris, France
In 1916, the midst of the cubist artistic regime in Paris, Picasso was approached by Jean Cocteau to work on Diaghilev’s latest Russian Ballet Parade. In accepting this project, despite rampant criticism from his fellow artists, Picasso made his official departure from Cubism. Not only was this a new leaf in his art but a new chapter in his life, for it is in Parade that he will meet his future wife Olga Koklova. Between the multiple runs of Parade and when Olga and Picasso married in 1918 we find many depictions of ballerinas in his work. But they are hardly the dainty delicate figures often used to represent dancers. Seven Ballerinas (1919), for example, is a drawing based on a picture of the Russian ballerina’s, in which Olga is positioned front and center. Their bodies are large, beefy and cumbersome. Their hands are heavy and masculine yet their poses are traditionally serene and graceful. This counterintuitive depiction of dancers will set the stage for his complete inversion in The Dance. But before he make the jump to those mutilated figures, he continued to add weight and testosterone to his women as seen in Seated Woman (1920). Here the body is made even bigger and more hulking. By alluding to Greco-Roman style, the she seemed to be amassed from stone. A nearly identical representation occurs in Three Women at a Fountain (1921) where, although in motion, the women are as dynamic as statues.
His bulking and distortion of the feminine form in this post cubist period can be seen in his work as early as 1918 in The Bathers. In a setting that demands leisure and comfort, the three women are contorted and precarious. They are again brutish rather than sexy. Whispers of Guernica originate here in the standing figure’s violently twisted neck.
The Bathers, Pablo Picasso, 1918, Oil on canvas, 26.3 x 21.7 cm
Seated Woman, Pablo Picasso, 1920, Oil on Canvas
Three Women at a Fountain, Pablo Picasso, 1921, Oil on Canvas, 203.9 x 174 cm
Picasso at Jean Le Pins, 1924, Photography by Man Rey.
Where are is this masculinity coming from? One wonders when comparing them to Matisse’s voluptuous odalisques of the same period. Perhaps his was Picasso’s preference for large women. Perhaps it was Olga’s pregnancy in 1920 and the birth of his son in 1921, the period that marks the deterioration of their relationship. In which case perhaps the weight of the relationship was bearing heavily upon him, no longer carefree and fun, it had become heavy and tormenting. Whatever the reason may be, it is hard not to find Picasso’s likeness within these figures. His barrel chest and full round facial features are nearly identical to that of the Seated Woman. Implanting himself in these portraits can be seen as a assertion of his perceived dominance or vanity. As if to say, “This painting may be of you, but it’s really about me.”
1925: The Breakdown: Three Dancers and The Crucifixion
Three Dancers, Pablo Picasso, 1925, Oil on Canvas, 215 x 142cm
If the ballerinas of 1918 were a counter intuitive exploration, the Three Dancers are an antithesis, “a vivid and dramatic rearrangement of the human figure.” (Timothy Hilton, Picasso) Here the dancers are aggressive, sharp and dismantled, everything but graceful. All are in simultaneous agony and celebration. Pain and pleasure, much like that of the relationship with his own dancer. His palette is hot and harsh as if bursting with every kind of passion, tragic and triumphant. “The calm and the replete poise of the figures the women and classical youths are replaced by emaciated, tortured figures that might be of either sex.” (Timothy Hilton, Picasso) This is an expressionist piece, that marks the beginning of phase commonly known as “the attack on the human figure”, and directly channels the experience of his current relationship with Olga. At this time, their son Paulo now 3, she had become an increasing source of unhappiness and irritation in his life. Born into the lower echelon of Russian nobility, Olga assumed when she married Pablo, at that time on the lower echelon of Artistic nobility, they would lead a “soft, pampered, upper-crust life.” (Francoise Gilot, My life with Pablo) But Pablo, dedicated to his art and his life style, maintained his vie boheme and remained independent. On a visit to his mother in Barcelona before their marriage she warned Olga against the marriage, “[Don’t] do it under any conditions. I don’t believe any woman could be happy with my son. He’s available for himself but for no one else.” ( Francoise Gilot, My Life with Picasso) Stubborn and determined Olga continued to attempt to pull Pablo to her will, a crusade we can imagine only pulled her closer into Pablo’s force field of control.
(Left) Seated Woman, Pablo Picasso, 1927, Oil on Canvas
(Right) Large Nude in a Red Arm Chair, Pablo Picasso, 1929, Oil on Canvas,
By 1927 Picasso is no longer giving her the luxury of a backbone, she is rather a wailing pile of flesh and genitalia as in Large Nude in a Red Arm Chair (1927). “We very often find that the figure, in these paintings, is looped in and trapped by the very line which defines it.” (Timothy Hilton, Picasso, 164) This practice is true of Seated Woman (Olga) (1927) as well as Three Dancers (1925). Perhaps this representation should come as no surprise because, after all, it was Picasso who defined Olga. Or rather he held the line that could either bind her to him or let go of and unravel her. And so he did, in 1935 when he left her for his mistress Marie Therese and his new born child Maya.
But this split did not come before perhaps the most agonized of paints during their relationship. In 1930 he chooses a traditional subject infinitely visited in the history of art and western civilization; a crucifixion. Despite the unavoidable religious connotation of the subject, Picasso himself was not religious, in face he was an atheist. If not Christ, who then is being crucified? The same wailing open mouth we see in The Large Nude in a Red Arm Chair (1927) appears here as well. But here, it more strongly resembles the form of a praying mantis, an insect known for the female eating its mate alive after sexual intercourse. Is the figure on the cross a wailing female? Or a crucified Picasso being eaten alive by his mate?
La Crucifixion, Pablo Picasso, 1930, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 65.5 cm
1931: The Dream: Marie Therese
Woman with Yellow Hair, Pablo Picasso, 1931, Oil on Canvas
Beginning in 1931 we begin to see a more supple gentle figure dominating his work, a sleeping beauty at peace. Picasso met Marie Therese Walter in 1930 on the street in Paris when she was just 17 years old. “Je suis Picasso,” he told her “vous et moi, allons faire de grandes choses ensemble” (Picasso, 1930) and thus began their affair. With an arresting face, Grecian profile, and full athletic build she was Picasso’s idea of perfection. Not only physically perfect, but psychologically as well. “She was the luminous dream of youth, always in the background but always within reach that nourished his work.” (Francoise Gilot, My Life with Picasso) In Marie Therese Picasso could escape from the public life, the intellectual life and most of all his life (with Olga) and all was calm because she was an escape. The first portrait of her is hardly a portrait at all, but rather a still life with a secret subtext. Great Still Life of a Pedestal Table (1931) is blooming with soft joyous colors, as stark contrast from the firey reds of The Crucifixion. Within the rounded forms of the table, vase, and fruit we see Marie Therese’s form emerge. The two pieces of fruit on the table can be either her eyes or breasts, as the tables legs become her limbs. The red crooked form on the right resembles the bent elbow she often rests her drowsy head on in later portraits like Woman with Yellow Hair. She is always represented in a beautiful light, but she is also always being watched over. She is on his terms. He watches her as she dreams because she is his dream, not the other way around. We see this in The Mirror (1932) she is being watched over from two angles, the reflection of her broad shoulders in the mirror behind her, and from Picassos gaze as he paints her. She is his from all angles. “She was a dream and the reality was someone else. He continued to love her because he hadn’t taken possession of her.” (Francoise Gilot, My Life with Picasso) Her portraits are composed whimsically as if she is always at risk of a night breeze blowing her away. As in anything too good to be true, the perfection is fleeting and delicate, prone to evaporate into thin air.
(Left) Great Still Life on a Pedestal Table, Pablo Picasso, 1931, Oil on Canvas.
(Right) The Mirror, Pablo Picasso, 1932, Oil on Canvas
1937: The War: Marie Therese and Dora Maar.
Though unable to official divorce her without forfeiting half of his work, Picasso left Olga in 1935 and their separation allowed for Marie Therese to finally assumed publically the premier place in his heart. But it wasn’t long after they were freed from the secrecy of the affair that the reality of their relationship began to set in. Now that she was fully his, in his possession, and she was no longer a dream or imaginary. The mundane inherent difficulties of relationships arrived- fatherhood, responsibilities, jealousy, misunderstanding- difficulties he had formerly been able to avoid in his double life. At this point he needed another distraction, and so entered Dora Maar in the same year. While Marie Therese was gentle, passive and obedient, Dora was intelligent, bold, and head strong. A photographer herself, Picasso took a great interest in her as “someone he could carry on a conversation with.” (Picasso, My Life With Picasso)
Picasso painted many portraits of his two lovers, each with their own distinct style. Often the two women are depicted together as in Seated Woman in Front of a Window (1937) to represent the simultaneous presence they had on his life during that time. In these portraits Marie Therese maintains her round, lyrical form but her unhappiness and jealousy of this period tint the figure more sober shades of blue and green. Dora Maar is usually represented by wild colors, and angular jagged shapes.
(Left Crying Woman (Dora Maar), Pablo Picasso, 1937, Oil on Canvas
(Right) Sleeping by the Shutters (Marie Therese), Pablo Picasso, 1936, Oil on Canvas
As one can imagine, the two women did not take lightly to sharing a lover and a great conflict arose between them. Far from disrupting Picasso, this constant friction stimulated him creatively. “This phase of his painting, which seems to alternate between happiness and unhappiness, needed them both for completeness.” (Francoise Gilot, My Life with Picasso) He enjoyed the dichotomy of the two women’s personalities and enjoyed even more the intoxicating power he had over them.
“I remember one day while I was painting Guernica… Dora Maar was with me. Marie Therese dropped in and she found Dora there, she grew angry and said to her, “I have a child by this man. It’s my place to be here with him. You can leave right now.” Dora said, “ I have as much reason as you have to be here. I haven’t borne him a child but I don’t see what difference it makes.” I kept on painting and they kept on arguing. Finally Marie-Therese turned to me and said, “ Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?” It was a hard decision to make I liked them both, for different reasons: Marie Therese because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to do, and Dora because she was intelligent. I decided I had no interest in making a decision. I was satisfied with things as they were. I told him they’d have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories.”
Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937, Oil on Canvas
Guernica was historically painted in response to the bombing of Guernica, Basque country by the Germans and Italians during the Spanish Civil War. But it also can be seen as an expressionist representation of the war going on 7 Rue des Grands Augustins. The large female head flowing out the window is clearly Marie Therese and Dora Maar, as she often was, is the “wailing woman.” And there in the corner we is Picasso, the shorting bull. In Guernica, we see his progression of women parading and trampling over the dismembered bodies on the ground. The experiments and representations he chose 17 years prior continue to appear. The distorted immense female form of the Olga days is present in the bottom right. The violent neck twist of Three Bathers (1920) gives the wailing women her despair. The looping lines that make up the horse’s figure in the middle, are the very same that formerly defines Olga. Marie Therese face is still beautiful, albeit quite unhappy.
Had it not been for the impatient women in Picasso’s life many of his best and most revolution works would not exist. They entertained him, bore him children, went mad for him, fought over him, lived for him. Far from doting, affectionate and romantic, it is clear Picasso his believed his role in the relationship to be that of the possessor. The women forfeited their autonomy upon falling in love, but they sold their souls when he painted them. In his paintings he owned them by immortalizing their likenesses and temperaments through his gaze. Known to be a collector of objects and things that inspired him, Picasso collected women. Until his death they all remained an active presence in his life because he kept them there, tugging on the lines he once defined them with and never setting them free.