Beautiful hatred: Picasso, his art and his women

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Beautiful hatred: Picasso, his art and his women

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Few artists in the 20th century provoked such heated debates and distaste among feminist art critics as Pablo Picasso.
These days, what person with an understanding of contemporary art would in their right mind try to get away with defining women as either “goddesses and doormats,” unless to express their shameless showmanship in public, hoping their notoriety would help to boost the price of their works?
But Picasso did. He was notorious for destroying the lives of women he loved ― almost artistically. Both Jacqueline, Picasso’s second wife, and his 17-year old mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, committed suicide (Walter had suffered from lifelong depression). Perhaps Francoise Gilot, a young art student who remained as the artist’s long mistress, was one of the few women who left Picasso, allegedly because of his abusive treatment and infidelities.
Another one of his lovers, Marcelle Humbert, whom Picasso occasionally used as his model, died of cancer six years into the couple’s relationship.
Such is the focal point of “The Great Century: Picasso,” which opens at the Seoul Museum of Art tomorrow. The exhibition has been arranged chronologically to show the progression of the artist’s works in parallel with his progression through wives and mistresses.
Indeed, he was never ashamed of admitting how badly he treated women. In a conversation with Henri Matisse, he allegedly told the French painter, “You’ve loved women even more than I have, but you haven’t hated them at all.”
Yet this is the man who is undoubtedly the most powerful figure in Western art history, next to Leonardo Da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh. His name is a synonym for everything that defined modernism; he revolutionalized the perception of art by exploring the psychic narratives of forms and colors. In Picasso’s case, gossip about the artist’s women even helped to create a sense of mystery around his works.
Perhaps it helped that he was known as a genius to many of his aides. Or that he was constantly described in media for having the aura of a Bohemian artist who could never settle with one woman.
Yet there is something else to Picasso that rationalized his notorious womanizing habits for his artistic admirers. It’s that he was able to sublimate his relationships to many of his women into artistic subjects, often a great one.
He produced a series of highly erotic works that reflected his sexual personae based on his private life.
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His marriage to his first wife, Olga Kokhlova, led to the production of arresting portraits of women characterized by aggressive colors, which hint at the couple’s tensions.
The delicate colors of the classical portraits he painted of Marie-Therese during the peak of the couple’s affair lead to the grotesque nudes he painted of an old woman with sagging breasts and wide legs, his aging wife Jacqueline. In “Seated Bather,” the image is bestial.
But even when he wasn’t using women as models, Picasso seemed obsessed with female nudity. His drawings of women in the brothels of Paris led to the amazing production of “Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907, a painting critics say revolutionized representations of women in art.
In a way, “The Great Century: Picasso” is not just about Picasso and women. It’s also about Picasso and finance.
The total value of the work for the Seoul exhibit exceeds $600 billion (Picasso’s work is increasingly some of the most expensive in the world: “Boy with a Pipe,” which is not in the exhibition, was sold to an anonymous bidder at Sotheby’s in New York for $104 million back in 2004). To hold the show, the museum had to spend 500 million won ($533,000) solely on insurance, a little less than 1 percent of the total value of the works.
Up to one-third of the works in the exhibit are paintings, an unusually large portion for a retrospective of a famous painter. Other pieces include collections of drawings and prints that have rarely been shown outside of Europe.
“La famille Soler” (1903), one of Picasso’s most outstanding works from the blue period, the name for his early period, has gone abroad only twice in the last 70 years. (The work’s value, currently set at around 50 billion won, rose after it was taken by the Nazis. It was later sold to a contemporary art museum in Belgium.)
“Weeping Woman,” which became a motif in “Guernica,” one of Picasso’s most important paintings, is also part of the display.
Some of the most important works in the exhibit comes from the paintings of his women and children. The museum features separate rooms that display images of the seven women whom Picasso allegedly had serious relationships with.
The rooms begin from Picasso’s first lover, Fernande Olivier, who had a relationship with the artist from 1904 to 1912; next up is Eva Gouel, otherwise known as Marcelle Humbert (1912-1915); then his first wife Olga Kokhlova (1917-1918); Marie-Therese Walter (1927-1937); Dora Maar (1936-1943); Francoise Gilot (1943-1953) and finally his second wife, Jacqueline Roque (1952-1973).
“Picasso’s style changed drastically every time he had a new woman in his life,” said Seo Sun-ju, who commissioned the exhibit. “If you divide the timeline of major styles in Picasso’s work, it breaks down to the periods he met new women, almost exactly. The transition from his blue period to his rose period happened when he met Olivier. By the time cubism comes to an end in his work, he meets Eva. Then it turns to the classical period, his days with Olga, and so on. His work is considered extremely ‘auto-biographical’ mainly for this reason. It’s all about his life and his people.”
After World War I, Picasso concentrated on developing a new styles and forms. Indeed, his works are considered to be among the most difficult to classify because of their experimental nature, which transcends phases or artistic trends. That might be one reason the curators chose to divide the work up by lover.
After all, many of the works on display contradict the famous maxim of a British literary critic F.R. Leavis: “There can’t be great art without serious moral purpose.” The works may not have morals, but they do have muses.


by Park Soo-mee

“Picasso: The Great Century” runs at Seoul Museum of Art through September 3. Admission costs 12,000 won for adults, 7000 won students. The museum is closed every Monday. For more information, call (02) 2124-8800.

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