There may be some things you won’t say, or do, or even contemplate, in front of genteel strangers, but peculiar things can happen at an art gallery. You can find yourself in this type of polite huddle when you are in front of Picasso’s Erotic Scene (1902-3).
The picture contains a self-portrait, the artist was 21 when he painted it, but he seems to imagine himself as a younger boy, reclined on a bed with arms casually behind his head, while a naked woman leans more than a trifle suggestively over his lower regions.
The subject of Erotic Scene was risqué enough for Picasso to deny for many years that he painted it, yet scholars maintain that he did, and it’s not such a surprising painting from one who, at a young age, was so sexually experienced, and whose life would have so many loves. No matter which period of Picasso’s oeuvre one studies, from the Blue Period that shaped the Erotic Scene, through the Cubist years and on into the Neo-Classicism of the 1920s, one might be just as tempted with tales of the great master’s love life as much as with the works that he has created. Viewing his paintings through his personal life would still offer us a rich picture of his work, since it has often been noted how a new woman in Picasso’s life signaled an observable departure in his work.
Consider touring Picasso’s love life through a sequence of his fabulous portraits – a few declared as such, most hidden – that reveal his changing moods and amours. While he was in Rome, making sets for the Ballets Russes, he met former dancer Olga Khokhlova; they married in 1918, and his relationship with her coincided with a turn to Neoclassicism in his work, and imaginings of a lost Golden Age on the Mediterranean. Together they had a son, Paulo, and Picasso’s joy in fatherhood was manifest in compositions celebrating women and maternity such as Woman in White (1924). But the artist soon wearied of fatherhood, and of his wife, and as his feelings soured his contact with the Surrealists led him to produce Head of a Woman (1927), a biting satire of Olga. That same year, at the age of 45, Picasso’s attentions were drawn to a 17-year-old girl he met on a Paris street, Marie-Thérèse Walter. His previously cold and dispassionate Surrealist style warmed, to produce sunny, joyfully erotic images of his new love, such as The Dreamer (1932). But again, as his ardency waned, his palette cooled, as in later portraits like Woman Asleep at a Table (1936). And, finally, as was his pattern, Marie-Thérèse was replaced, this time by the fiery and cerebral Surrealist photographer Dora Maar.
Even when Picasso wasn’t painting his women, his thoughts of them were shaping his work: one apocryphal tale has it that in Lent of 1930, the young and pious Marie-Thérèse swore off sex, and Picasso became so enraged he painted a Crucifixion. While this tale is subject to scrutiny, there is little mystery behind Man with a Lollipop (1938), the comic figure who appears with his many depictions of women of the 1920s and 1930s. The composition mocks those who, late in life, return to childhood in order to find replacements for lost erotic love: here it is as if Picasso claims such a fate will not be his.
But which liaison brought the most to his art? The popularity of his portraits of Marie-Thérèse would suggest that it was this unlikely match that brought out the best in him – especially as evidenced in the latest auction price paid for her painting. Or maybe it was the variety of those different experiences which sharpened his art: his works have different erotic images sprinkled throughout: depictions of Venus, of nudes, even a series of prints imagining Raphael in embraces with the young woman who appears in his famous La Fornarina (1518-20). But the sorry tale of the Picasso dynasty – stories of suicide, instability, and unhappiness – suggests that brief encounters with the master weren’t so healthy for his women, nor were they so beneficial for the children to have such as legend as their father. Picasso’s art may have flourished, but other lives weren’t so lucky.
Fernande Olivier (1904-1912)
An artist and model who posed for over sixty portraits by Picasso over the course of their passionate and tempestuous relationship, Olivier and Picasso met at the Bateau-Lavoir in 1904 and were living together the year after. Olivier was the model for some of Picasso’s most famous forays into Cubism, including being one of the demoiselles in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Once Picasso became a successful artist he left Olivier as she reminded him of more difficult times.
Eva Gouel (1912-1915)
Gouel and Picasso’s relationship had a scandalous start, they met in 1911 while both involved with other people, and began their affair before they left their respective partners. During this time Picasso left secret love notes in his paintings for Gouel, who was the model for many of his works, notably the cubist work Ma Jolie (Ma Jolie was Picasso’s nickname for Gouel). Sadly their love affair was short lived. Gouel died of tuberculosis, or cancer, in 1915. Picasso described her last weeks in the hospital as “hell” in letters to his good friend, Gertrude Stein.
Olga Khokhlova (1917 – 1927)
A dancer with the famed Ballet Russes company, Khokhlova and Picasso met when he designed the costumes and sets for the Ballet Russes’ production of Parade (1917). She was 26 years-old and he 36. Picasso married Olga in 1918, but the relationship waned in the late 1920s. They had a son, Paulo in 1921, but formally separated in 1935. Here, in Woman in White, he depicts her at one of the heights of his love for her. Through amorous eyes, she is illustrated softly in a glow of femininity and maternity.
Marie-Thérèse Walter (1927-1936)
Picasso’s affair with Marie-Thérèse began in 1927 and lasted for nearly a decade, making it one of his longest relationships. However, his wife Olga did not discover the affair until much later when a friend told her that Picasso was expecting a child with his long-time lover. Walter and Picasso’s daughter, Maïa, was born in 1935. In The Dreamer Picasso is caught up in the throws of his passion for Walter, using warm colors to depict her sensuous body in repose.
Dora Maar (1936-1944)
Picasso met the Surrealist photographer in 1936, at the famed Parisian cafe, Les Deux Magots, and their relationship lasted until some time after he met a young painter, Françoise Gilot, in 1943. Although primarily remembered for her relationship with Picasso, Maar was a talented artist in her own right, known for Surrealist photography and abstract painting. In this painting of Maar, Picasso depicts her on a throne, the Queen equal to the artist’s King.
Sylvette David (1954)
Only nineteen years old when she met the decades older Picasso on the Cote d’Azur, Picasso was instantly attracted to David. Following in the footsteps of Picasso’s previous companions, David served as both muse and model to the artist. She inspired what is known as the “Sylvette Series” of over sixty paintings and portraits. Interestingly, David’s relationship with Picasso was never consummated as she was too shy to even pose in the nude for him. This lack of carnal passion spelled the end of their time together, especially after Picasso met Jacqueline Roque.
Jacqueline Roque (1953-1973)
Picasso met Jacqueline on the French Riviera in 1952 where she worked at a ceramics studio. Roque was 28 years-old to Picasso’s 72. After Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova died in 1961, he and Roque married, remaining together until his death. He created over 400 portraits of her, the most of any of his loves. Roque is called the “muse” of Picasso’s old age.
The Life and Art of Picasso –