Picasso: The Artist and His Muses

This exhibition on Picasso staged by the Vancouver Art Gallery is not just an exhibition of his works, but more a tribute to his muses – his lovers who inspired his creations. In order to keep everything straight in my mind, I have tried to include some background and brief histories on each woman, who was an artist in her own right.

“To my misfortune, and maybe my delight, I place things according to my love affairs.”

Pablo Picasso

The exhibition pays homage to six women in Picasso’s life and really tells their stories through his artwork. The first woman in Picasso’s rakish life was Fernande Olivier who he met in 1904, during his Blue Period, where he painted the urban life of Paris and Barcelona in blue and blue-green tones. She moved in with him the following year initiating his transition into the Rose Period. The works in this period had more earthy and warm tones, depicting scenes of harlequins and carnival performers. Picasso was extremely jealous of her. Picasso often painted her in the nude or while she was dressing. It was during this time that Picasso began depicting the body in form of different planes and new ways of using space and object references. Picasso was fascinated with Spanish and Portuguese sculptures and African masks and he found inspiration in their geometric lines for his paintings. After mutual infidelities, the couple separated in 1912.

Standing Nude (Femme Nue), 1910: Fernande Olivier by Picasso
Standing Nude (Femme Nue), 1910: Fernande Olivier by Picasso

Olga Khokhlova was a Russian ballerina and became Picasso’s first wife, marrying him in 1918. The couple met in 1917 when Picasso was working on the stage design for the ballet Parade in which Khokhlova was performing.

Olga Khokhlova and Pablo Picasso
Olga Khokhlova and Pablo Picasso

Picasso explored Cubism for approximately seven years. The painting below was made shortly after Picasso met Khokhlova and shows a return to naturalism. He continued to integrate classicism into Modernism and looked at traditional Greek mythology and Christianity subjects for his inspiration. When their son, Paulo was born, Picasso’s art began to focus on timelessness and Neoclassical representations of motherhood. In the late 1920’s, however, Picasso began to seek out the company of Marie-Therese Walter who became his long-time mistress. He and Khokhlova separated in 1935, when Walter fell pregnant, but Khokhlova remained his legal wife until her death in 1955.

Head of Woman (Olga), 1917 by Pablo Picasso
Head of Woman (Olga), 1917 by Pablo Picasso

The theme of motherhood was an extremely important theme for Picasso while he and Khokhlova were together and he frequently painted her and his son as “Madonna and child” showing tender emotion.

Maternite, 1924 by Pablo Picasso
Maternite, 1924 by Pablo Picasso

Marie-Therese Walter met Picasso when she was just 17 and Picasso was immediately enamoured by her classical Greek-like features. Because he was still married to Olga Khokhlova, their affair was kept secret for most of the duration of their relationship. Picasso allegorized Walter in his works, often depicting her as eternal youth, and developed visual codes to portray her in disguise. His Bather series evolved during the early years of their relationship. Around the time that Walter gave birth to their daughter, Picasso’s roving eye had noticed photographer, Dora Maar.

Femme endormie dans un fauteuil, 1927 by Pablo Picasso
Femme endormie dans un fauteuil, 1927 by Pablo Picasso

Femme endormie dans un fauteuil depicts the transition from one lover to the other. The open vagina-like mouth and flushed cheeks in this portrait are sexually charged, depicting a sleeping Walter, a favourite motif used for Walter. However it is believed that by depicting four or more strands of hair are a coded reference to Khokhlova and therefore this painting references his transition of combing features and characteristics of his muses. Picasso’s painting style changed drastically after meeting Walter. He began to distort figures, creating angular and erotic lines. Themes of erotic fantasy and fertility abounded during this period.

Dora Maar was professional photographer specialising in fashion and advertising and was an active member of the Surrealist group. Other members of this group were Man Ray, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose. From her work she created uncanny photomontages. Maar and Picasso became romantically involved in 1936.

Group of friends in Paul Cuttoli's garden in Mougins, left to right: Ady, Marie and Paul Cuttoli, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray 1937.
Group of friends in Paul Cuttoli’s garden in Mougins, left to right: Ady, Marie and Paul Cuttoli, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray 1937.

Maar was an artist in her own right, and had her own photographic studio in Paris. Her connections with anti-facist and socialist movements prompted her to document the impending global economic crisis. The two artists fed off each other, each inspiring the other. The Spanish civil war lead Picasso to make his first political oevre, Guernica, while Maar documented the creation of this painting through her photography. Maar had a rather turbulent personality and Picasso often painted her in deep psychological states, and called her his ‘weeping woman’.

Weeping Woman, 1937 by Pablo Picasso
Weeping Woman, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

In Weeping Woman, Picasso returns to Cubism once again, breaking up the geometry of the face with harsh angular lines, dynamic streams of tears flowing from one eye and harsh cross hatching markings on the handkerchief Maar presses to her eyes, the raw emotion of despair quite visible.  Maar was the inspiration for a series of the weeping women featured in the Guernica painting.

Guernica, 1937
Guernica, 1937

Francoise Gilot, a young art student, met Picasso in 1943. It was during their early years together that Picasso was introduced to pottery. Picasso did not paint Gilot realistically, preferring to depict her in floral form. Gilot had two children by Picasso, a son, Claude and a daughter, Paloma. Gilot tired of Picasso’s philandering ways and left him in 1953. After the children were born, Picasso’s art depicted joyous family life, often from a child’s point of view. As Gilot and Picasso drifted apart, Picasso’s work changed from joyous to harsh, violent lines and saw a return of the weeping woman images he had depicted when he was with Maar.

Francoise, 1946 by Pablo Picasso
Francoise, 1946 by Pablo Picasso

Jacqueline Roque met Picasso at a pottery workshop in  Vallauris in the south of France in 1953. It was at this time that Gilot’s relationship with Picasso was floundering and Roque and Picasso became an item. After the death of Olga Khokhlova  in 1955 proposed to Roque who agreed to marry him in 1961. The period with Roque, which lasted until Picasso’s death in 1973, was exceptionally creative for him. Upon his death Roque suffered greatly from depression for a time. She became responsible for his legacy, donating various works to museums. She took her own life in 1986.

Femme au fauteuil (Woman in Armchair) Jacqueline Roque-Picasso by Pablo Picasso, 1960
Femme au fauteuil (Woman in Armchair) Jacqueline Roque-Picasso by Pablo Picasso, 1960

The painting above depicts a double face motif, something which Picasso used quite often in his work in his Maar period. Roque’s face is split in two: one half looks at the viewer, while the other has the illusion of being swept away.

This exhibition was quite the eye-opener for me. A total of 67 works, including 27 canvasses and 40 sketches, drawings, prints, and sculptures were featured and to a photographer, this work is rather mind boggling. What clearly came across was Picasso’s style was continually changing. He was always developing new ideas and trying different techniques. His work was heavily influenced by all his relationships. I can’t say that I “get” his work, but I did come away with a better understanding of “why” he painted his women’s features as he did.

There is a good video about this exhibition below (see Moriarity, Wayne in Bibliography) where senior curator Ian Thom comments on the intricacies of the exhibition.

Bibliography

Moriarity, Wayne (2016). Some fascinating facts from VAG’s Picasso Show [online]. The Province. Available at: http://theprovince.com/opinion/columnists/wayne-moriarty-some-fascinating-facts-from-vags-picasso-show [Accessed 10 July, 2016]

Epps, Philomena (2016) The Women Behind the Work: Picasso and His Muses [online] AnOther. Available at: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8799/the-women-behind-the-work-picasso-and-his-muses [Accessed 10 July, 2016]

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