The Two Sides Of Picasso

Today, I Hate Him

We now view his crowning masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” through a scrim of unsettling questions.

Please, I beg of you. DO NOT MENTION his name to me.

It was always the same with him. Women who revered him as the blazing sun around which life revolved invariably suffered the indignity of his womanizing and malice. I remember my shock when I read years ago that Françoise Gilot, one of his muses, accused him of pressing a lighted cigarette to her cheek during an argument, as if to brand his seal into her skin.

I am not suggesting that Picasso’s paintings be removed from museums. That would be foolish and self-defeating. But would it hurt to ignore Picasso for the moment? It’s just common sense that an artist can cause offense only so many times before you begin to seek out more uplifting company. There are countless artists less acclaimed than Picasso who deserve our attention. Go see a show by a woman artist today. The current season in New York happens to be a bonanza, with major exhibitions by Sarah Sze and Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt) at the Guggenheim, and Cecily Brown at the Met.

Picasso’s offenses go beyond his boorish treatment of women. He was disrespectful of entire cultures. Asked in 1920 to contribute a few lines to a magazine article on African art, he notoriously snapped: “African art? Never heard of it.” It was a surprising statement from a man who had helped himself to African riches — not pearls and gemstones, but rather intellectual property, African ideas and forms that would prove essential in the invention of Cubism. He had excitedly visited the Trocadero, the ethnographic museum in Paris whose display cases were stuffed with ceremonial masks from the Ivory Coast and other colonial booty, artifacts that would help free a generation of Western artists from the centuries-old obligation to treat painting as an imitation of nature.

We will never know who, exactly, created the masks that Picasso borrowed for his “Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), that crowning masterpiece in which five prostitutes rendered in pink tones gaze out from a Barcelona brothel, their angled arms and torsos heralding the tilting space of Cubism. The painting, which lives at the Museum of Modern Art, is as close as Picasso ever came to issuing a manifesto. But today we view its surface through a scrim of unsettling questions. The two figures on the right are outfitted with West African masks — sophisticated and spiritually laden objects that Picasso yanked out of context and reduced to mere props in a crude sexual fantasy.

A Cubist painting shows five nude women rendered in pink tones on a background of brown, white and blue. They are standing and sitting with sharply angled arms and torsos, and the two at right are wearing West African masks.

Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” from 1907, heralds the radically tilting space of Cubism. The two prostitutes on the right are wearing West African masks.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via The Museum of Modern Art

Like most critics, I subscribe to rule No. 1 of cultural appreciation: One must separate an artist’s life and work. Works of art are inevitably made by imperfect human beings. And it does not diminish the inherent integrity of a painting or a sculpture to contemplate its maker’s peccadilloes and ethical lapses.

But Picasso is different, in part because he drew so much attention to his private life, capitalizing on a media industry that had not existed for Degas or Cézanne or other of his predecessors. It is easy to picture him, a short, compact man with a cannonball head and Svengali eyes, posing for Life magazine in his striped Breton sailor’s shirt. He modeled shirtless as well, a bare-chested pugilist in boxer shorts, waving a Gauloise cigarette. His work was so explicitly autobiographical that he referred to it as his “diary.” It could be divided, he said, into seven distinct styles, each one tethered to one of his female muses.

By now we feel like we know them, starting with Fernande Olivier, his first muse, an artists’ model whom he immortalized as a doleful presence beneath a black mantilla, as if to emphasize his Spanish origins. Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ballerina born in Ukraine, was his first wife, her wavy auburn hair pulled back to reveal her porcelain skin in a famous portrait. They were still marriedwhen he took up with 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, an athletic blonde then living with her parents. She inspired his inordinately prolific “miracle year” of 1932, which produced such masterworks as “Girl Before A Mirror” and “Le Rêve (The Dream).” She is easy to recognize in his paintings, with her yellow hair and boneless body, a tumbling jumble of circles and spheres.

A black-and-white photo of a young blonde-haired woman looking off to the side.

Marie-Thérèse Walter was known as Picasso’s “golden muse” and her blond hair makes her easy to recognize in his paintings.Apic/Getty Images

A Cubist painting by Picasso of a girl looking at the mirror, contemplating her reflection, her body a jumble of circles and orbs. There is a diamond Harlequin pattern; the bodies are made up of many bold colors.

“Girl Before a Mirror” (1932), a Cubist painting by Picasso of Walter contemplating her reflection, her body a jumble of circles and orbs.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via The Museum of Modern Art

In 1935, only two months after Walter gave birth to their daughter Maya, Picasso fell in love with Dora Maar, a daring photographer admired by the Surrealists. A dark beauty with blue-black hair, she became the subject of Picasso’s Weeping Women paintings, and appears as spiky and jagged as Walters had been fecund and round. Maar underwent shock therapy after he left her for Gilot, a painter herself who achieved enduring fame by becoming the first of Picasso’s muses to walk out on him, to extricate herself from the Minotaur’s labyrinth-prison. I have occasionally spotted Gilot from a distance on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a 101-year-old artist in a red coat, out for an afternoon walk. You rock, Françoise!

Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

Picasso’s “The Weeping Woman” (1937) shows his lover Dora Maar weeping into a handkerchief, her lips trembling.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via The Museum of Modern Art

At the risk of piling on, we might also acknowledge Picasso’s dereliction as a father and grandfather. His lovers at least chose his company and presumably reaped occasional rewards. His four children, by contrast, never signed on for adventures with Pablo — or for their eventual abandonment by him. After 1964, when Gilot published her best-selling “Life with Picasso,” he reportedly refused to accept a visit or even a phone call from their children, Claude and Paloma. The saddest life was surely that of his grandson Pablito, who, at age 24, was turned away from Picasso’s funeral by his widow, Jacqueline Roque; he went home and committed suicide by drinking bleach.

And yet. While accounts of his unsavory private life proliferated over the years — there was, for instance, Arianna Huffington’s “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer” (1988), and “Picasso: My Grandfather” (2001) by Pablito’s sister, Marina Picasso — they did not tarnish his image. Rather, it seems, they enhanced his myth as a man of supersized passions. In the popular imagination, Picasso’s masculine bravado, like van Gogh’s madness, was taken as a perverse confirmation of his creative genius. It had no discernible effect on the art-world machinery that has kept his work on perpetual view at major museums and top-flight galleries, and kept his auction prices sky-high.

A black-and-white photograph of Pablo Picasso on a beach, wearing an unbuttoned printed shirt and shorts and holding a sun umbrella for Françoise Gilot, who walks in front of him in a long dress and beach hat. A shirtless young man walks behind them.

Françoise Gilot with Pablo Picasso and his nephew Javier Vilató, captured on the beach in Golfe-Juan, France, August 1948, by Robert Capa.Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

For this reason, I feel indebted to the #MeToo movement, which has led us to collectively reconsider types of abuse that were once ignored or laughed off. In the 50 years since Picasso’s death, it goes without saying that nothing has changed about him or his work. But we have changed dramatically as a society; we believe in the rightness of calling out the behavior of people who think their privileged status amounts to a license to abuse. It is too late to demand penance from the dead. But it is not too late to demand a modicum of decency from the living.

How should we feel about Picasso? There is no unified answer, just as there are no unities of form in his work. Isn’t that what made him so radical? He understood the impossibility of seeing things in one fixed way, even relatively simple things, like a mandolin or a bowl of oranges on a tabletop. Instead he showed us how multiple views, superimposed, can coexist in the same painting, at the same moment, in the same head.

The act of looking, he seemed to say, does not produce a static and unchanging picture, but constant fluctuations in perception. So perhaps it’s fitting that no artist has been the subject of more shifts in viewpoints than he himself. I love him. I hate him. Picasso has left me forever divided.


Today, I Love Him

He produced so many sensitive and empathetic images of women, and some of the most civic-minded masterworks of the 20th century.

When I was a teenager, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” that colossal antiwar painting rendered in newspaper tones of black and gray, was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art. The artist had sent it to New York before World War II to safeguard it from Francisco Franco, the dictator who ended democracy in Picasso’s native Spain.

“Guernica” stayed here for more than four decades, and growing up under its spell enlarged my sense of what art could be. Art, it seemed, was not about the pursuit of refinement and social polish but an encounter with the kind of raw, screaming emotion adolescents have no trouble grasping.

I remained a Picasso worshiper, even as friends decorated their dorm rooms with posters by Matisse — blankly elegant images of all-blue nudes scrubbed of any detail. They enchanted but they lacked the earthy potato-life that sprang from so many Picasso images. His pencil lines pushed through space and curved against gravity like some new type of wind-resistant plant that botanists had yet to name.

It is not hugely cool to profess a love for Picasso these days. His status as the greatest of all modern artists, which was taken as an article of faith for much of the 20th century, has worn thin in a #MeToo world. Part of the problem is that his self-advertised image as a sexual conqueror, a Don Juan with a paintbrush, no longer charms. As we know from an ever-growing shelf of biographies and memoirs, he could be an unrepentant bully. He mistreated his numerous wives and mistresses, ensnaring them in a sadistic two-step of seduction and abandonment in violation of all standards of decency.

As we contemplate the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, on April 8, and the cornucopia of 40-plus museum exhibitions that will commemorate him, in New York and across Europe, I find myself pulled between disapproval of the man and a critic’s adoration of his art. And, as in the case of critics who have cringed at the offending views of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wagnerand T.S. Eliot, the art love wins out. I cannot agree with feminist critics who write off Picasso as a pseudo-master whose work has been overrated and artificially propped up by the patriarchy.

Visitors at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid gaze at the large painting “Guernica” depicting the horrors of war.

Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) viewed by visitors at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. The painting is a symbol of the terrible suffering that war inflicts.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

One of the great ironies surrounding his life is that a man who behaved so callously toward women produced so many sensitive and empathetic images of them, not to mention some of the most civic-minded masterworks of the 20th century. This is what Picasso’s detractors — like Hannah Gadsby, the Australian comedian and Picasso basher, who will help curate a Picasso show at the Brooklyn Museum opening on June 2 — often miss.

If there is an argument to be made in 2023 that he should be ignored on the basis of his misbehavior, there is another to be made for the need to look deeply at his art again. Since his death the rise of feminism has provided a lens through which to reconsider his work and especially his representation of women. And there is much we are just beginning to notice.

For starters can we please retire the oft-cited plaint that he reduced women to sex objects? Women were the dominant subject of his art and he viewed them as sources of vulnerability and strength. They appear in a wide range of personas and moods. He painted women who were intellectuals and artists. Women who engaged with the world or turned away from it in dreamy reverie. Women with two profiles and vertically stacked eyes, icons of emotional complexity. In 1937, he painted the anguished women of “Guernica” — noble messengers alerting the world to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

Has any other visual artist left us with such a vivid pantheon of female characters? Paul Cézanne, by contrast, rendered his wife Hortense as a severe matron who appears less animated than the apples in his still lifes. Edgar Degas was less interested in the interior lives of his ballerina-subjects than in the animal awkwardness of their bodies and the pleasure of glimpsing them from behind. Amedeo Modigliani’s stylized portraits make his hundreds of female subjects look like part of an extended family whose members have a genetic predisposition for long faces and giraffe necks.

Picasso, by contrast, brought the weight of lived experience into his work, even when he was tethered to archetypal subjects. He can fairly be called the foremost painter of mother and children of the 20th century. One of my favorite-ever paintings is “The Mother,” at the St. Louis Art Museum, in which a 30-ish woman appears in bony profile, hurrying into town, beneath a cloudy, green-smudged sky. As she grips the hand of her chubby toddler (who chomps distractedly on an apple) and carries her second child on her shoulder, she exemplifies motherhood purged of the usual Renaissance-style bliss. Here, instead, is a woman who will go to the ends of the earth for her children and isn’t expecting anyone’s thanks.

A painting of a 30-ish woman in bony profile, hurrying into town beneath a cloudy, green-smudged sky. She grips the hand of her chubby male toddler (who chomps distractedly on an apple) and carries her second child on her shoulder.

“The Mother” (1901), an early painting by Picasso, shows a view of motherhood purged of Renaissance idealization. Here is a woman who will go to the ends of the earth for her children.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Saint Louis Art Museum

Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, flat, Cubist face, linebacker shoulders, dressed in her brown corduroy coat, white kerchief around her neck, brown background, hands on her knees.

In “Gertrude Stein” (1905-6), Picasso depicts the American expatriate writer’s immense talents in her hulking presence.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And in the pantheon of Picasso superwomen, let’s not forget Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate writer who took a shine to the young Spaniard. Stein, who was 15 years older than him, traipsed regularly up the steep hill in Montmartre to pose in his studio in the fabled Bateau-Lavoir. His famous portrait of her, at the Metropolitan Museum, brilliantly transforms her extra 30 pounds and linebacker shoulders into a sign of her immensity as a writer. Dressed in her usual brown corduroy coat, she is as monumental as any of the biblical sibyls gazing down from the Sistine ceiling.

For years we focused on Picasso as Mr. Modernism, the audacious avant-gardist who co-founded Cubism in the years before World War I. Working with Georges Braque, he shattered the single-point perspective that had prevailed in painting since the Renaissance. Instead of replicating literal reality, he sought, in the twisting tornado of Analytic Cubism (1910-12) and later in the wider and sunnier planes of Synthetic Cubism, to dismantle the process of seeing, to capture the little shifts of perception that occur in time as you contemplate any sight.

His myth has been burnished by his prodigious output — he produced an estimated 13,500 paintings, in addition to astounding quantities of drawings, prints, sculptures and ceramics — as well as his embrace of contradictory styles. He veered between opposite poles of abstraction and realism, between the gaunt, poetic figures of his Blue Period and the zaftig matrons of his Rose Period, between the paper-lightness of his wildly inventive collages and the bulbous tonnage of his sculpted bronze heads. As Jackson Pollock, his much-younger American admirer, once remarked, “That guy missed nothing!”

When I was in college, studying art history, I was taught that Picasso was a Prometheus-like figure who gave the gift of artistic fire to Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists in the war-torn ’40s. But his influence began waning in the early ’60s, when Modernism yielded to Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on pastiche and irony. The new art god was Marcel Duchamp, an expatriated Frenchman who was living quietly in Greenwich Village, a wry, cerebral artist-philosopher who claimed to have given up art for chess. What is art? Anything, Duchamp contended, even a store-bought bottle rack, and his exaltation of found objects eventually became its own art-school orthodoxy, leading two generations of artists to marginalize painting as passé.

Signed tiered bottlerack by Marcel Duchamp, mass-produced, galvanized iron.

“Bottlerack” by Marcel Duchamp, 1961 version of a 1914 original that the artist proclaimed to be a work of art and called a “readymade.”Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Philadelphia Museum of Art

Today, however, when so many younger artists are thinking about their personal stories and feelings of social marginalization — whether through race, gender or ethnicity — the medium of painting has returned to prominence. And Picasso himself, hyper-conscious of his Andalusian origins and expatriate status in France, can be seen as a forerunner of the recent turn to autobiography in art.

Two new books argue as much. Pascal Bonafoux’s “Picasso: The Self-Portraits” is an attractive volume that brings together the artist’s 170 self-portraits in various mediums, including photography. And in “Picasso the Foreigner,” the French writer Annie Cohen-Solal cuts through the usual fluff about Parisian bohemia (goodbye absinthe) and takes us instead north of the city, to the archives building of the French police. Consulting yellowed documents, she tracks the xenophobia that followed Picasso in his adopted homeland, where the police branded him an alien. Tellingly, he never became a French citizen, which may partly explain the mood of disenfranchisement that infuses the early work of his Blue Period and especially his scenes of “saltimbanques” or circus performers, like “The Frugal Repast,” his first-ever etching, in which emaciated lovers with spindly El Greco fingers have nothing in this world but each other.

Picasso depicted socially marginalized characters with enormous sympathy, showing their empty plate and too-thin bodies.

Pablo Picasso, “The Frugal Repast” (1904, printed 1913). The etching captures his empathy for socially marginalized, down-and-out people.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the significant shows this year, “Picasso and El Greco,” opening at the Prado Museum in Madrid on June 13, will look at how the young Picasso was shaped by his 16th-century Greek-born predecessor, whose flame-like forms appeal to everyone’s inner expressionist.

In New York, the Picasso-themed exhibitions will be modestly scaled. A small but promising show opening May 12 at the Guggenheim Museum, “Young Picasso in Paris,” centers on “Le Moulin de la Galette,” a newly conserved masterwork from the permanent collection. Completed in 1900, it was among Picasso’s first canvases in Paris as a 19-year-old newcomer torn between the realism of the Spanish past and the loose brushwork of French Post-Impressionism.

I recently visited the Guggenheim’s conservation lab, where the painting looked dazzling. Set at a famous dance hall near the artist’s studio, “Le Moulin de la Galette” gives off a glowy energy. Picasso clearly delighted in the sight of the dozen or so women gathered at the hall — with their bright red lips and rouged cheeks, their fur stoles and long dresses, their animated gestures as they whisper to each other, heads pressed together. The male figures, by contrast, are total duds; they’re basically faceless. In the upper left corner of the painting, three gentlemen in top hats perch on a raised platform, coldly assessing the attractiveness of the women.

Early oil painting by Picasso of a French dance hall shows a string of lights running along the top, a sorority of women in gauzy long dresses and rouged cheeks chatting, their heads close together. One person in the foreground is wearing a red jacket, and a woman with a pointed chin is at far right, in black.

Picasso’s “Le Moulin de la Galette” (1900) shows a dance hall scene with vibrant lights and women sitting or standing, whispering with each other. They hint at Picasso’s fascination with female figures as the heroes of modern life.Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

A painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir depicts the crowded scene at the open-air dance garden with young women in long dresses dancing with elegant men. The men are in dark jackets and straw hats. One person in the front has an arm around a woman in a striped dress.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette,” a touchstone of Impressionism, 1876.Musée d’Orsay

The painting recalls earlier French paintings, especially Renoir’s “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette,” a touchstone of Impressionism set in the wholesome light of midafternoon. Picasso’s canvas is more enticing because it is set at night and suffused with so much radiance, whether in the women’s expressions or in the electric lights that stretch in a garland across the top of the canvas, tiny blurs of yellow flashing against the enveloping mist of velvety, Velazquez-like darkness.

The conventional view of the painting holds that the women are “dolled-up cocottes,” as John Richardson glibly put it in his biography of Picasso. Yet it needs to be said that the women are more alive than the men. They hint at Picasso’s fascination with female figures as the heroes of modern life.

So how could I ever turn on Picasso? I won’t. Not ever. He sustained a remarkable intensity of feeling as he shifted from the convincing realism of this early paintings to the splintered shards of Cubism. It was a spectacular leap, and you suspect it was driven by his knowledge that everyone’s life appears to be broken into pieces when glimpsed close up

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