“I paint the way some people write their autobiography.” – Pablo Picasso
“Picasso’s life was, in a very real sense, the twentieth century’s own biography.” – Arianna Huffington
Shortly after the end of World War II, Ernest Hemingway was traveling through Paris and attempted to visit his old acquaintance, Pablo Picasso. On learning that the artist was out, Hemingway decided to leave him a present. He went to his car and returned with a case of grenades, on which he wrote, “To Picasso from Hemingway.”
While an appropriately symbolic gift, Picasso didn’t need the armaments: He had already been lobbing grenades for nearly half a century. His explosive entry into the Cubist movement marked him as one of the most important figures in Western art. The detonations rang so loudly that during the pinnacle of his career he was compared to artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The shockwaves have even carried over into this new century. A few years ago in Paris, seventy-nine-year-old Genevieve Laporte, one of Picasso’s former lovers, sold a collection of twenty sketches worth between $1.8 and $2.4 million.
The grenades he tossed also left more than a few wounded women. Many of Picasso’s wives and mistresses led tormented existences that ended tragically: Marie-Therese Walter hanged herself; Jacqueline Roque shot herself; Dora Maar had a nervous breakdown, underwent shock therapy, and eventually became a recluse, dying poor and alone. The women, however, were not merely the collateral damage of Picasso’s temperamental genius; they were the catalyst of his art.
What begins in the glow of realist love—or at the very least infatuation—ends in the violent disgust of Cubist distortion. Picasso’s love-hate relationship with the visible world was a visual expression of his love-hate relationship with the women in his life. Cubism, according to the evidence in Picasso’s paintings, is less an abstract juggling of shapes and colors than an index of sexual disgust.
Examining the works of Picasso alongside a chronology of his relationships reveals a striking pattern. Consider this brief but representative set of examples.
Prior to 1907, most of Picasso’s representations of women are similar to the painting of his mother or novelist Getrude Stein.
The year 1907, however, marked a period of crisis for Picasso and his mistress Fernande Olivier. The obsessively jealous painter was outraged when he discovered that Olivier had posed as a model for another artist. After they separated, Picasso broke from his realistic paintings and created one of the landmarks in modern art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
The five distorted figures in the work are not ordinary women, but prostitutes. According to Picasso’s art dealer, the artist named all of the figures and dubbed one of them Fernande.
Picasso’s foray into cubism continued unabated until he met Olga Khoklova, the woman who would become his first wife. The realism in which he painted Olga was a jarring contrast to his cubist works.
What brought about this shocking change of direction? “Realism was, quite simply, a medium more appropriate to love than the Cubist still lifes he was producing during the same period,” says E. Michael Jones. “Realism conveyed the value of the object of love every bit as effectively as Cubist distortion conveyed the loathing of women that comes from sexual disgust.”
The love faded, however, and was replaced by the medium’s typical distortion and disgust. After his marriage fell apart in 1925, Picasso took up a teenage mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. Being only an object of lust rather than of love, Walter never rated a fully realistic portrayal:
When he tired of Walter, Picasso took as his lover Dora Maar. Maar’s image fluctuated between the mildly distorted . . .
. . . to the grotesque . . .
. . . to the moderately realistic.
For Picasso, the dignity of a woman was entirely dependent on his feelings for her. When in the throes of love he could see the intrinsic worth; when in the faded glow of lust, he could only look upon her with disgust. “It must be painful for a girl to see in a painting that she’s on the way out,” Picasso mused.
But Picasso’s story is not merely his own. As Arianna Huffington wisely discerned, his story is “the twentieth century’s own biography.”
The dehumanization trope can also be found in the works of such artists as Allen Jones and Robert Mapplethorpe, men who have embraced the objectification of the human form and who reduce the individual to an object.
Meanwhile, the fear and disgust surrounding female sexuality has become so pervasive that it is almost passé. Castration anxiety is now a major theme in rap and hip-hop music, and extreme images of the female threat, such as vagina dentate, appear in popular films (for example, in Teeth).
Picasso’s life story, however, has an amusing footnote. The artist once attempted to seduce Conifer Rowland, pulling her to a small bench and sketching her portrait. He drew a few quick lines, wrote “La belle Anglaise,” signing it “Picasso.” Rowland, unaware of the elderly man’s prominence, found the paper in her purse a few days later—and threw it away. “What rubbish,” she thought. “It doesn’t look a bit like me.”
If only the rest of the world had been so discerning, the story of twentieth century art might have turned out differently. Instead, Picasso’s work still commands millions—and we continue to pay a premium for misogyny.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.