Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

Picasso's art enacted the violent passions and twisted energies of the twentieth century. So did his life.

WAR had been in the air for some time, but on August 23, 1939, when Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin, it became inevitable. Many of Picasso's friends, including Eluard, had left to join their regiments, and those who remained could talk of nothing but the impending war. Picasso was scared, uncertain about his next move, and, to top it all, angry: "If it's to annoy me that they make war, they are carrying it too far, don't you think?" he complained to Sabartés.

As France mobilized for war, Picasso took care of the many details that went with his galloping success, seeing to numerous exhibitions of his work around the world—especially a grand retrospective of forty years of his art that was to open at the New York Museum of Modern Art in November. As part of the attendant publicity he spent a day posing at the rue des Grands-Augustins, at Lipp's, and at the café de Flore, while Brassaï photographed him for Life. Picasso had mastered the publicity game before the world knew that such a game existed. In fact, in many ways he helped to invent and define it. He had always recognized, and every step of his life had confirmed, a very basic correlation between the money fetched by a painting and the legend built around the painter. And money, for Picasso, was not so much a medium of exchange as the only unequivocal barometer of his success.

After the German blitzkrieg had swept through Belgium and moved on to France, the German army threatened Paris, and it became clear that to stay in the city was to court danger. Picasso decided to go to Royan. Once there, he received news from the gardener at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre that the house had been requisitioned by the Germans. He waited anxiously for more news, full of fear about the fate of his paintings and sculptures. As soon as the gardener called to say that the Germans had gone on army maneuvers, he took Marie-Thérèse and left for Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre. They found the big pieces of furniture moved to the courtyard to serve as a canteen for the soldiers, and sheets, silk dresses, shirts, and baby clothes used as cleaning cloths. But the aim of the first trip was to salvage the paintings and sculptures. After that, each time the Germans left for army maneuvers, they rushed back to steal more things from the thieves.

WAR was in his pictures—not this war, not any particular war, but the darkness and the anger and the hatred that cause wars. In June the German army marched into Royan and Picasso painted one of his most brutal and vengeful images of womanhood: Dora as the Nude Dressing Her Hair. The brutality was no less present in his life. He often beat Dora, and there were many times when he left her lying unconscious on the floor. The transformation of the princess into a toad and of sensuality into horror was complete. And in the dog-face portraits he painted of Dora, he completed the transformation of woman into servile animal. As the art historian Mary Gedo put it, Dora, like his Afghan hound Kazbek, "came whenever he whistled." More than two thirds of his work during 1939 and 1940 consisted of deformed women, their faces and bodies flayed with fury. His hatred of a specific woman seemed to have become a deep and universal hatred of all women.

FRANCE FELL, and on June 22 an armistice was signed dividing the country into two zones—one, including Paris, occupied by the German army, and the other, Vichy, governed by the collaborationist Marshal Pétain. Late in 1940 Marie-Thérèse and Maya moved back to Paris. Since the Germans were occupying her house at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, she took an apartment on boulevard Henri-IV. Picasso would visit her and Maya most Thursdays and Sundays, and she would live for those visits until in her mind they came to be her whole life. During the other five days she kept a room in the house locked and told Maya that her father worked there and she should never disturb him. Marie-Thérèse would visit him at the rue des Grands-Augustins only when invited. During one of these visits he showed her a closet where he kept stacks of gold ingots and bars of soap from Marseilles. "If something happens to me," he told her, "all this is yours." Marie-Thérèse, who since the Occupation had been using ersatz soap, which was all she could get, pleaded with him: "I would much rather have the soap right away." Ignoring her request, Picasso locked the door to the closet. And Marie-Thérèse had to be satisfied with promises and declarations. "You've saved my life," he told her again and again, and he insisted that she write to him every day, "because without your letters I am sick." He wrote her letters in return, full of flowers, pigeons, and ardent statements like "You are the best of women" and "I love only you."

IN MAY OF 1943, while Picasso was dining at the Catalan with Dora and her friend Marie-Laure de Noailles, both his passion for life and his hope for love were rekindled. Two young women were having dinner with the actor Alain Cuny, and Picasso couldn't take his eyes off them. One had dark hair, dark eyes, and a classical Greek face enhanced by the flowing, pleated dress she was wearing. The other, very slender with a tiny waist, had wide green eyes and a fresh, alert face set off by a green turban. One was Geneviève Aliquot, the other Françoise Gilot.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In