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The Argument: Picasso treated women like dirt but used them to make brilliant art

Can we separate the jerk from the genius?

The Argument | The Heartless Artist

Picasso, La Femme Qui Pleure, 1937

The AGO’s new Picasso exhibition, Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, consists of nearly 150 works taken from the great artist’s personal collection. The drawings, paintings and sculptures that comprise the show represent the full range of his restless genius. All the familiar Picasso motifs are on display: the portraits of reclining women whose bodies fold in on themselves or dissolve into seemingly random geometric shapes; the zaftig ladies and lecherous old men; scenes of tenderness and quiet intimacy that butt up against harshly erotic sketches. Touchingly, one of the final images is a self-portrait of the painter as a young man, grinning innocently and wearing a giant sun hat. (Picasso being Picasso, he painted it a few weeks after drawing a series of lurid brothel scenes; even when he was a nonagenarian, his imagination never wandered far from sex.)

The show’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Though there are some indisputable masterpieces, along with unfinished sketches and studies, what these works do is serve as the highly self-conscious visual journal of a colossal jerk. Picasso’s main subjects were the women he bedded. Beyond the virtuoso skills and the willingness to crash through aesthetic limits, the way Picasso immortalized his own boorishness is a big part of the reason we still find him so compelling.

No honest account of his life can claim he was a mensch. For decades he conducted an affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, his most famous muse. The voluptuous blonde met Picasso in 1927, when she went shopping at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Outside the department store, she was approached by a short fellow with a receding hairline. “I am Picasso,” he said, and asked to paint her. She was 17, and had never heard of the then 45-year-old painter. He visited her home and endeared himself to her family, who let him have his way with her in the garden shed. When he went on holiday with his wife and son, he enrolled Walter at a nearby girls’ camp, from which he would pick her up every day to take her to a rented cabana.

He documents their escapades in his paintings. In Nu Couché, Walter is supine, her face tilted in presumable ecstasy; other portraits depict her in orgies of curving body parts. In La Rêve, one of Picasso’s best-known paintings of Walter, she is asleep in a chair, her dress falling from her shoulders, exposing a nipple. The entire left side of her face is rendered as an erect penis.

Amazingly, Picasso’s wife, Olga, did not fully clue in to the affair until a 1932 exhibition of his work that featured Walter in all her curvy glory; the discovery permanently damaged her already delicate mental health. A few years later, Walter became pregnant with the artist’s baby. (Maya, the love child in question, appears in a few later paintings, often as a pig-tailed girl with large, adult-like eyes, as if she were born with a lot of heavy information about the world.)

Picasso enjoyed pitting Walter against another long-time mistress, the surrealist photographer Dora Maar. In his many portraits of the emotionally unstable Maar, she always appears gasping, wincing, crying and disfigured. In a series of misery-drenched paintings, she is “la femme qui pleure.” When the two women finally confronted each other, reportedly in Picasso’s studio while he painted Guernica, he told them to work it out for themselves, then enjoyed the ensuing fisticuffs. Maar suffered a nervous breakdown after Picasso left her in 1944; Walter hung herself four years after he died.

This unseemly side of the great Spanish painter was not always part of how we saw his work. The 1964 show Picasso and Man, the only other major Picasso exhibition hosted by the AGO, focused on his treatment of the human form and was silent on the sordid details of his private life. For one thing, the painter was still alive at the time, and for another, galleries didn’t go into that sort of thing back then. “In the ’60s, when museums talked about art, they only really talked about it in terms of its historical impact,” says Shiralee Hudson Hill, one of the new show’s planners. “Today, we aren’t afraid to talk about an artist’s biography.” Accordingly, the Masterpieces exhibition will include a timeline of Picasso’s women.

Hill compares Picasso to the singer Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assault after hitting Rihanna, his then-girlfriend, so hard she ended up in the hospital. People enjoy the work, even if they deplore the individual. The crucial difference, of course, is that Brown hasn’t yet sung about his conviction, whereas Picasso sourced his genius from the cesspool of his actions—he famously claimed to “paint the way some people write their autobiography.” His private life, once cracked open, becomes another lens through which to view his output, adding meaning to the work and shifting its impact from the brain to the gut.

In many of Picasso’s self-portraits, he depicts himself as a Minotaur displaying the mirada fuerte (strong gaze) with which he seduced poor virgins like Marie-Thérèse Walter. The Minotaur appears only once in the AGO exhibit, in—no surprise—La Minotauromachie, in which the terrifying beast wreaks havoc among a group of men and Walter-like women. But that gaze is implicit throughout the show. It stares back at its viewers and demands a response, daring us to dismiss the art because of the cruelty of the artist.

Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris
Art Gallery of Ontario
May 1 to Aug. 26