Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

IN FEBRUARY of 1946 Françoise was presented with an ultimatum. Their relationship, he said, could not continue in this way: either it was going to become a full relationship, which meant living together, or it had to stop completely. He suggested that she go to a place he had rented in Golfe-Juan, in the South of France, and there make up her mind. "By that time," Françoise said, "I was very much in love with him, but there was also the fear in me of being absorbed by him. I really didn't know what I wanted, so I thought that it would be a good idea to go to the south of France and try and sort out my own feelings."

At the end of May Françoise finally decided to match herself against Picasso full-time. She moved into the rue des Grands-Augustins—or, rather, at the end of an evening together she did not go home. Picasso dictated the letters she wrote to her grandmother and her mother to announce, without revealing very much, that she was going to stay away and live a different kind of life.

It was, right from the beginning, a battle much more ferocious than she had imagined. Looking back, Françoise called it living "like Joan of Arc: wearing one's armor from day till night, proving your strength twenty-four hours a day." She also realized that although she had said yes to living with him, it was a qualified yes: "Not all the wrongs were on his side. Part of me never accepted that I had agreed to live with him. I never embraced him with my whole being. I could have given more of myself. I could have given all of myself, but I didn't."

AT THE BEGINNING of July, 1946, Picasso announced that they were leaving for the Midi, and that he wanted to stop in Ménerbes to show her Dora's house. To Françoise's alarm, as soon as they arrived he told her that this was where they were spending their holiday. "I made her give us the house," he said, "and now I'm going to make sure that you stay here with me." It was not a happy holiday. Françoise felt that choosing Dora's house for a holiday was a callous act, showing a complete indifference both to Dora's feelings and to her own: "Everything was a trap. He was the perfect trap-setter, and his timing could not have been worse, since Dora was just recovering from her attack of insanity and I was just beginning my life with him."

Even though Françoise was alone with Picasso, Dora seemed to be hovering in the house, and Marie-Thérèse was a definite presence, in the rapturous letters he received from her every day. Françoise, who had looked forward to their time away as a kind of honeymoon after they had started living together, was actually expected to listen, every morning, to selected passionate passages from Marie-Thérèse's letters, punctuated by Picasso's commentary: "Somehow I don't see you writing me a letter like that.... It's because you don't love me enough. That woman really loves me...." What he did not read to her were his no less passionate letters to Marie-Thérèse. They were, Maya remembers, "full of 'I love you' and 'I love you' and 'I love only you' and 'You are the best in the world.'"

Françoise began to dream of escaping from Picasso and from the oppressive presence of his past—as far away as Tunisia. Luc Simon, a painter friend, had arranged a job for her there, making designs to record the local arts and crafts before they disappeared. She plotted it all in her mind, and one afternoon when Picasso was out of the house, she left. Since she had no money, she had decided to hitch a ride to Marseilles, where she had friends, and borrow from them her fare to North Africa. She had not been on the main road long before a car stopped for her. It all seemed to be going according to plan except for one thing: the car was Picasso's blue Peugeot. His first reaction was anger and incomprehension. "You must be out of your mind," he cried. But then, as always when she wanted to leave him, he knew with uncanny accuracy just what to say to bring her back: "You must not listen to your head for things like that. You'll talk yourself out of the deepest things in life. What you need is a child. That will bring you back to nature and put you in tune with the rest of the world." By now he had already pushed her inside the car, kissed her, and held her close to him.

Once she was back, nothing seemed further from her thoughts than Tunisia. In fact, she decided to follow Picasso's advice to think less and obey her heart more, wherever it led her. "You won't know what it means to be a woman until you have a child," he said, and she, who had up until then dismissed the idea of motherhood, was no longer so sure. "Before I went to live with him," she remembered, "that was one thing I absolutely had made up my mind on: I didn't want to have children. And that was one thing he absolutely had made up his mind on: I was going to have children." A little over a month later, back at the house in Golfe-Juan, where they settled after they left Ménerbes, she was pregnant.

On May 15, 1947, at the Belvédere Clinic in Boulogne, Françoise gave birth to a baby boy.

At first Picasso was fascinated with baby Claude, who looked with every day that passed more and more like him, and he was happy to have taken greater possession of Claude's mother. "He always wanted her very near to him," said the writer Dominique Desanti, who visited them a few times in Golfe-Juan in the summer of 1947.

They were a very striking couple together. She was so beautiful and he was really astonishing, so aesthetically they were very striking to look at. He would make aggressive remarks meant to put down and humiliate her in front of others and she would laugh and make what he said seem innocuous. He would refer to her as "the woman." "What has the woman made for dinner?" he would ask. Or he would look at an erotically dressed woman on a postcard and sigh: "What a dream to have such a woman in front of you." And Françoise would laugh and diffuse it: "It's very easy. We can do that. Just get me a dress like that and I'll put it on— it would be a very amusing disguise." She never looked cross or humiliated; she always made you feel that they were acting in a play. That was his way of being; he was cruel whether it was with his woman, his best friends or whoever was around if he felt like it. So if you decided to live with him, you needed unusual strength and unusual maturity to find your part in his play and improvise the text.

THE ARTIST Picasso most enjoyed discussing aesthetic questions with was Alberto Giacometti, partly because he was too much of a visionary to think of them purely in aesthetic terms. Giacometti had further earned his secret respect by never fawning over him. The two men visited each other often, and sometimes, like naughty schoolboys, they went to a nearby café and pored over the pornographic magazines that Picasso had brought along.

At other times they discussed their work. "He accepted Giacometti's criticisms," the art historian James Lord said, "but at the same time resented having done so, and the perverse side of his nature—always powerful—led him to make fun of Alberto behind his back....Making light of the sculptor's anxiety and frustration, he said, 'Alberto tries to make us regret the masterpieces he hasn't done.'"

When he was in a mood to be truthful, Picasso conceded that Giacometti's work represented "a new spirit in sculpture." He displayed a gratuitous meanness, however, one day at Giacometti's studio, when such an expression of appreciation could have made all the difference to Giacometti's livelihood. He was there when, unexpectedly, Christian Zervos, who would devote his life to cataloging Picasso's work, arrived with an Italian collector. Three times Zervos asked Picasso if he agreed with him on the merits of a particular sculpture that he hoped the Italian might buy, and three times Picasso refused to reply.

The result was what Picasso knew it would be. Faced with the conspicuous silence of the world's most celebrated painter, the Italian collector left empty-handed. "He amazes me," Giacometti said once. "He amazes me as a monster would, and I think he knows as well as we do that he's a monster."

AT THE BEGINNING of August, Picasso and Françoise drove to Vence to visit Matisse, who had been working on the design of a Dominican chapel and had even agreed to underwrite its cost. "You're crazy to make a chapel for those people," Picasso immediately began to rage. "Do you believe in that stuff or not? If not, do you think you ought to do something for an idea that you don't believe in?" "Why don't you build a market instead?" he cried out on another occasion. "You could paint fruits and vegetables."

Matisse reported the outburst to Father Couturier, the Dominican priest and champion of modern art who was also posing for the preparatory designs for the panel of Saint Dominic. "I couldn't care less," Matisse told the priest, his equanimity and his conviction quite undisturbed. "I have greens more green than pears and oranges more orange than pumpkins. So why build a market?"

When Picasso and Françoise went to see him again and Picasso again criticized the project, Matisse was more explicit: "As far as I'm concerned, this is essentially a work of art. It's just that I put myself in the state of mind of what I'm working on. I don't know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I'm some kind of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer."

And later, since Picasso would not let go of his obsessive fury at the thought of the chapel, Matisse told him, "Yes, I do pray and you pray too, and you know it all too well: when everything goes badly, we throw ourselves into prayer . . . And you do it—you, too. It's no good saying no." Matisse had taken to treating Picasso like a brilliant and precious but recalcitrant son. He listened to him but had no intention of heeding what he said.

Matisse's vision was clear and compelling: to create a simple "religious space" where people could come "to feel purified and freed of their burdens." "In the end," he told Picasso, "it's not worth trying to be too clever. You are like me: what we are all looking for in art is to rediscover the atmosphere of our First Communion." The First Communion was a powerful symbol for Matisse, embodying the serenity that he himself radiated.

It was this serenity, this peace beyond his understanding, that Picasso was fighting with his explosions against the idea of the chapel. And there was something else. Matisse gave expression to it at the dedication of the chapel: "This chapel for me is the culmination of an entire life's work and the flowering of an enormous, sincere, and difficult labor. It is not a labor I chose but for which destiny chose me at the end of my road....I consider it, despite all its imperfections, my masterpiece, an effort resulting from an entire life dedicated to the search for truth." Picasso, too, longed for such a culmination, for the "ultimate" painting, yet felt further and further away from it. "One swallows something, is poisoned by it, and eliminates the toxic" was his description of his process of working. Since he believed that there was no truth to be revealed at the end of the road, did he really paint as a catharsis, merely to cast out the toxic, increasingly trapped in his own virtuosity?

"MY FEATURES were all that mattered to him," Françoise said. "He never sought access to my spirit. So he just missed me as a dynamic force. It was as if he had made a brilliant reproduction of a car without the motor. I felt that on this point we were really apart." But she went on trying. Determined, even after she became pregnant for the second time, to keep up with Picasso's late nights and Claude's early mornings and to continue with her own painting, she found herself sacrificing sleep, getting as little as four hours a night. As for Picasso, he was grappling with the new depths of intimacy that he and Françoise had reached. In the paintings and lithographs he made of her early in 1949, serenity jostles with aggression and chaos with a starry sky. Love and hate, trust and betrayal, wrestled in the deep recesses of his soul, and, afraid of probing the darkness, he began to flee from the newfound intimacy.

On April 19, 1949, the day of the opening in Paris of the second World Peace Congress, organized by the Communist Party, Françoise went to see Dr. Fernand Lamaze. The baby was not due for another month, but he found her in such a rundown state that he instructed her to check in to the Belvédere Clinic at once. She went back to the rue des Grands-Augustins, told Picasso what had happened, and asked him if their chauffeur, Marcel, could drive her to the clinic. Irritated at having his day disturbed, Picasso told her that he needed Marcel to drive him to the Peace Congress. "If you need a car," he snapped, "you'll have to find another solution. Why don't you call an ambulance?" Had he not already given her enough? Since he had given her the greatest of all things, since he had given her himself, since they had possessed the universe together, how could she be petty enough to ask for little things like a car to drive her to the clinic?

Fortunately, Marcel had an earthy sense of priorities. He suggested that nothing would be easier than to drop her at the clinic on the way to the Congress. But even a detour was too much of an inconvenience. Finally, a compromise was reached: Marcel took Picasso to the Congress and came back to fetch Françoise. They arrived at the Belvédere Clinic at five o'clock. At eight o'clock that night she gave birth to a little girl, Ann Paloma Gilot.

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