Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

EVERY THURSDAY and Sunday, Marcel drove Picasso to Juan-les-Pins, where Marie-Thérèse and Maya were spending their summer holidays -- less than ten miles away from Picasso's new family. For some time now Françoise had been campaigning for an end to this situation. She found it absurd to go on pretending that there was nobody else in Picasso's life. Why, she kept asking, shouldn't Maya meet Claude and Paloma? Why shouldn't she meet Marie-Thérèse? Why have Maya continue to grow up in a lie, hearing at school or reading in newspapers and magazines things that her mother denied at home? "It's the easiest way to go crazy," Françoise told Picasso, "not knowing if you are seeing the sun at noon or the moon. You pretend you are unusual, then let's really lead an unusual life, instead of playing hide-and-seek with the truth." He did not like the idea of Françoise trying to put an end to his games, but at the same time he was intrigued by the possibilities that would be opened up by such an encounter. He finally agreed to invite Marie-Thérèse and Maya to visit them at La Galloise. "With a bit of luck," he told Françoise, "you might even come to blows!"

But Françoise had begun to untangle Picasso's strategy. "He always put those around him in competition with each other—one woman against another, one dealer against another, one friend against another. He was masterful at using one person like the red flag and the other like the bull. While the bull was busy charging against the red flag, Pablo could, unnoticed, deal his wounding thrusts. And most people didn't even think to look who was hiding behind the red flag."

It was too late for Marie-Thérèse. For years François had been the red flag Picasso had used to taunt her, and she had allowed herself to fall victim to his strategy of dividing and conquering. "She had grown to hate Françoise," Maya says, "and she wanted me to hate her too."

When in the summer of 1949 Marie-Thérèse finally found herself in front of her adversary, there was only one thing she really wanted to tell her, and when they were alone for a few moments, she did: "Whatever you may be thinking, there is no way that you could ever break our bond and take my place." "I can't take your place," Françoise replied, "and I don't wish to. The place I'm in is one that was vacant." Françoise knew that Marie-Thérèse was the red flag, not the enemy. She also knew that "one truth does not annihilate another truth and one relationship does not invalidate another, in the same way that you don't love your first child less because you have a second one."

Having the blindfold taken off was at first very hard on Maya. Suddenly, at thirteen, she was confronted with a little half-brother and a baby half-sister and another woman at the center of her father's life. "When she first saw Claude and Paloma, she wanted to kill them," Françoise recalls, "but that, of course, had been instigated in her by her mother. When she was allowed to have her own experience of her father's new family, it all changed and she was happy that the charade was over. " Many years later Claude would tell Maya's husband, "You know, the first children of Maya were myself and Paloma."

FRANÇOISE seemed to have everything, and yet gradually, and at first almost imperceptibly, it became clear to her that the vital current was missing. It started with her health. She had heavy hemorrhages, and was feeling spent. She found it hard to recover from Paloma's birth, and her exhaustion and hemorrhaging made it impossible for Picasso and her to continue their active sex life. "Pablo had tremendous sexual needs, and I began to feel harassed. Also I felt tremendously burdened with the children and all the duties of our life and all the people around, especially as Pablo made it really hard for me to get any stable organization going at the house that could support me and take some of the burden off. It was always 'No, I don't want him, no, I don't want her, no, I don't want this, no, I don't want that."' Many nights he would wake her up as often as half a dozen times, insisting that something was wrong with "the money," his nickname for the children—that he could not hear any breathing and that she should get up and check. Making sure the children were all right would often wake them up, and Françoise had to spend even more time coaxing them back to sleep before she could go back to bed herself.

By the time fall came, Picasso had added another arduous task to her daily routine. He had bought an old perfumery in the rue du Fournas, in Vallauris, which he had converted into his painting and sculpture studios, and he insisted that Françoise was the only person who could build the fires in the morning so that the place would be warm enough for him to begin work there in the afternoon. So every morning from November on, no matter what time she had gone to sleep, Françoise stoked the furnace at La Galloise and then bicycled down to the rue du Fournas to start the fires there. Picasso would sleep until noon most days and wake up grumpy but recharged, while Françoise's health continued to deteriorate.

Even when they were together, she felt that Picasso was far away from her. She withdrew into her own world, kept her suspicions and her fears to herself, and watched as her relationship with Picasso began to feel more and more like a business partnership. She managed his dealings with galleries, publishers, and the world, and immersed herself in her own work. Picasso was pleased that she had a contract with Kahnweiler, pleased that Paul Rosenberg had also asked to represent her, pleased that her drawings and lithographs would soon be illustrating books of poems by Verdet and Eluard. And Françoise was grateful for any signs, however spasmodic, that she existed for him as something more than a useful adjunct. At the same time, she was "chilled by the growing recognition that I had to pay for any signs of affection on his part by the pain he caused me when he immediately switched and became harsh and cruel. He called it 'the high cost of living, ' but it was really the high cost of living with Pablo. Any time he was at all loving or caring and I allowed myself to relax and be open and vulnerable, he would turn."

When she was not attending to his business, to her own work, or to the children, Françoise's main release was crying. As always, the smell of pain brought out the sadist in Picasso. "You were a Venus when I met you," he told her once when he caught her crying. "Now you're a Christ— and a Romanesque Christ, at that, with all the ribs sticking out to be counted. I hope you realize you don't interest me like that.... You should be ashamed to let yourself go— your figure, your health.... Any other woman would improve after the birth of a baby, but not you. You look like a broom. Do you think brooms appeal to anybody? They don't to me."

To add to Françoise's problems, Picasso began a very public affair with Geneviève Laporte, whom he had first met after the Liberation, when she came to interview him for her school newspaper. "It was the loss of innocence and the end of trust," Françoise said. "From then on not a day passed that I did not discover one more corpse in one more dark corner of a closet. I felt as though I was stepping deeper and deeper into a slimy pond. My whole universe had crumbled."

IN THE FALL of 1952 Françoise issued a warning: she told Picasso that she could no longer find any "deep meaning" in their union and could see "no reason for staying." It was a warning but also a plea. Picasso's response was to act as though he wanted to give her every possible reason to leave. His life became a comedy of Don Juanism indulged—an old man darting about the countryside, driven not so much by desire as by the fear of waning passions. It turned out to be an occupation infinitely more exhausting than work, and each time he returned to La Galloise, haggard and worn out, he would ask Françoise defiantly if she still wanted to leave him. "I began to despise him," she said, "and I could not forgive him for turning the man I had loved into the man I despised. He had been transformed into a dirty old man, and it was all so grotesque and so ridiculous that I could no longer even be jealous."

Toward the end of the year Françoise went to Paris to discuss the sets and costumes she had been commissioned to design for Janine Charrat's ballet Heracles, which was to open in the spring. While she was there, she wrote a letter to Picasso telling him all the things that she had had such difficulty expressing to him in person: the tragedy of love denied that their relationship had become; the ways in which he had disfigured and violated their love; his betrayal not just of her and of what they had had together but, even more important, of what their love could have bloomed into; all the anguish he had caused her; and what had been the hardest thing for her to accept—his continued refusal to admit the truth about the other women in his life, even after she had confronted him with it. She ended the letter by telling him that she would not return to Vallauris and to him unless he finally told the truth.

He rushed to Paris. He knew, with the unerring instinct of all great manipulators, that the time had come for a theatrical confession. He arrived at the rue Gay-Lussac holding her letter in his hand. "Everything you wrote in the letter is the truth," he admitted. "And it's such a beautiful letter—you write so well. And not at all in a way that is demeaning to me." Then he cried. For the first time since she had known him, he cried and asked for forgiveness. He also promised that he would immediately end all affairs. And to prove that he meant it, he told her that at that very moment Geneviève Laporte was waiting for him in the restaurant around the corner and that he was going to go down and tell her that it was over. He went and quickly came back and cried some more. But Françoise did not cry; she realized that just as he was leaving Vallauris to come to her to confess and to ask for forgiveness, he had made an appointment to meet Geneviève in the neighborhood restaurant. Much as she would have loved to, Françoise could not believe that the man facing her with tears streaming down his face was a transformed man. Yet at the same time she decided, with her eyes open, to try once again. Yes, she said, she would stay.

The next day at six in the evening, as she passed the restaurant, Françoise saw Geneviève Laporte through the window, alone and waiting. The following day, she was again waiting, and the day after that. For two hours each night she waited for the man who had told her, "I've never wept over a woman," as he wiped his tears and left their "haven of bliss" to return to Françoise. He never came back to the restaurant, which had been one of their regular meeting places—not because he had really turned a new page but because he had had his fill of her. And there were so many others waiting in line, and time was running out.

AT THE END of March, Françoise returned to Paris alone to work on the sets and costumes for Heracles. In her free moments she saw a lot of Kostas Axelos, a young Greek philosopher she had met in the summer of 1948. "I was so lonely at the time, he was really a godsend," she said. "At first it seemed so natural and convenient, I didn't think at all about what it might lead to." Then, gradually, he started to challenge all her reasons for staying with Picasso. When she talked of duty, he told her that she was really a coward, avoiding all the trials of her own generation by living with someone who had soared above the battle. When she talked of being prepared to sacrifice her personal happiness, he told her that she was in fact choosing what was most convenient, a position that gave her power by association. When she talked of not letting down her children, he talked of her betrayal of herself. Trained in the arts of persuasion, he was a formidable challenger. "He fought me inch by inch, personally and philosophically," Françoise said, "with all the verbal weapons in his arsenal. Greece had always held a fascination for me, and here was Kostas, the young, handsome philosopher-prince!"

After a month Picasso arrived in Paris with the children. He knew that they were powerful reminders of the life he and Françoise had built together and powerful allies, silently pleading his case. He dutifully attended the opening-night performance of Heracles, sitting in a box with Françoise and Maya. At the end of the performance Françoise left the box to go onstage to take a bow. Axelos was waiting for her backstage; he kissed her, congratulated her, and disappeared into the night, while Françoise went on with Picasso to a gala dinner being given by André Boll, who had written the story of the ballet, in his elegant apartment on the Quai d'Orsay. It was her night, and as the guests were swarming around her to compliment and congratulate her, Picasso could be overheard muttering to himself, "Ballets always bring me bad luck."

At the rue Gay-Lussac, he was writing poems in Spanish, full of loneliness, violence, and pain. "It was suddenly a complete reversal of what our life had been like," Françoise said. "He was the one now waiting until I was ready to go back to Vallauris, and when I told him that I wanted to spend more time in Paris alone, he took the children and returned to the South of France to wait for me there. Kostas and I were still intimate friends but nothing more. One night in June, soon after Pablo had left, we went to see a Jacques Tati movie, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. I found it so silly that after half an hour we left. That night was the turning point in our relationship. Kostas put aside the philosophical arguments and addressed me man to woman. He told me that he loved me and that even though I didn't love him yet, he could, for a while, love for both of us and help sustain me while I mustered enough strength to leave Pablo. We became lovers—I think less because of compelling sexual desire and more because he wanted to assert, before I returned to Vallauris, that our relationship was real on many levels, including the sexual one."

As soon as she returned to Vallauris, she was inundated with telegrams and letters from Axelos, all of them intended to strengthen her resolve and all of them ending, "I love you." Picasso asked her what was going on; she told him and added that she had decided to leave with the children on September 30. "I had finally reached the conclusion that my life with Pablo was like a sickness," she said, "and I knew that I had to eliminate everything that was sick in me." He repeated again and again that nobody left a man like him, a challenge that only made her all the more eager to leave. "Wait and see," she told him finally. "If nobody leaves a man like you, you are, in that case, going to see something you have not seen before."

He refused to face the fact that she was indeed leaving—as if his refusal to empower reality with his attention would make it go away. On September 30, 1953, he watched silently and incredulously as the taxi arrived to take Françoise and the children to the station, the driver helped them with their bags, and first the children and then Françoise got into it. All along he had refused to say good-bye. As the taxi pulled away, he uttered one word only, "Merde, " and stalked back into the house.

Françoise's decision to abandon Picasso as death drew closer was a symbol of life leaving him, of death displacing the vitality that had always been his hallmark. He talked of her treachery to whoever would listen, as if, through venting his anger, he could master his grief. But he suffered alone, and on November 28, a month after his seventy-second birthday, he stopped talking, took his despair in hand, and started working. He worked feverishly, and in just over two months produced 180 drawings. The poet Michel Leiris called the series a "visual diary of a hateful season in hell, a crisis in his private life leading him to question everything." In these confessional drawings he is not only old and grotesque but ugly, dwarfish, flabby, and pathetic, trying to capture through his art the vitality that eludes him in life. He is extremely skillful, a superb craftsman, full of imagination and wit in all the different ways he portrays his model and himself, but an air of meaninglessness hangs over the whole enterprise of his art. And the young woman in the series, the eternal feminine in many different guises and disguises, knows it. She is amused by him but cannot take him seriously as an artist and certainly not as a lover. She is much more delighted playing with a monkey or fondling a cat, with its fur, as Rebecca West wrote, "soft against her smooth flesh, its nervous energy crackling against her serenity, her faculty of acceptance bringing the little animal into unity with herself. She is as strongly affirmative as a Greek goddess. " She is the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. And the painter's despair is not just that he is an old man who must give up "his place at the feast of sensual pleasure"; it is that he is an old man who will die without knowing why he has lived and why he has painted. Neither his gifts nor his endless sexual adventures have brought him any closer to the secret of life that the young woman seems to know and from which she seems to draw her serenity and her deep acceptance of everything, including the absurd little old man.

"PICASSO WAS UNHAPPY, unhappy like only a Spaniard can be unhappy," said the writer Hélène Parmelin. "So the procession of women began. It was horrible. People would come to see us to tell us about this one or the other one that he should meet. I remember one day a very famous woman came to see me to tell me that since I was such a good friend of Picasso's, I should do something for him, and that she knew this young Spanish woman, marvelously proportioned, intelligent, who would be so good for him. I told her that that was not my profession. It was incredible what was going on."

The children watched and waited. "I accepted them all," Maya said, "the ones he brought home and the ones he collected while we were traveling. I used to say, 'She's the last one to date.' As they were getting younger and younger, I could really have fun with some of them." Paulo was less generous: "Whores for daddy" was his conclusion.

With Françoise gone, Picasso could not stand to remain in Vallauris. So in midsummer the court set itself up in Perpignan. In fact, he seriously considered staying there permanently, and the local Communists did their best to persuade him to do so. On August 19 he painted a beautiful portrait of his hostess, the Countess de Lazerme, but the rumor was that it was Rosita Hugué whom he wanted to marry. And then there was Jacqueline Roque, whom he had met at the pottery at Vallauris, where she worked as a salesgirl. Paule de Lazerme described her "watching him like a fox, clearly eager to fill the vacant place." Picasso treated her abysmally—when, that is, he bothered to take any notice of her at all. He made it so humiliatingly clear that he did not want her around that one day she finally decided to leave. Picasso came down to lunch looking and sounding relieved. During lunch Jacqueline called him from the road. "She threatened to kill herself," Picasso announced when he returned to the table, "if she could not come back to Perpignan." His response had been that she could do whatever she liked, provided she left him in peace. That night Jacqueline came back: "You told me to do whatever I liked; so here I am."

Her behavior for the rest of their stay at the Lazermes' showed that returning to Perpignan was the last time she would do whatever she liked. She started calling Picasso "Monseigneur," addressed him in the third person, kissed his hand, and was ready at any moment to spread herself out like a cloak for Monseigneur to walk on. She had clearly decided to accept every humiliation, stifle all pain, and subordinate both her life and her will to his, provided she could just stay around. By the time he took her with him to the rue des Grands-Augustins, at the end of the summer, he had decided to accept her offering. Having failed in his life with a goddess, he settled for the peace of living with a doormat. It was the peace of the grave, but he was a tired man. Dominique Eluard, Paul's third wife, explained, "Françoise had asked of him to stretch to a relationship which was on a higher level and in which she was much more than just the mistress and the vestal virgin. But ultimately I don't think that he was capable of having other than a macho relationship with a woman."

In October he painted Jacqueline in a Rocking Chair—a stocky, matronly little Jacqueline, a far cry from the idealized, long-necked, sphinxlike creature he had painted the previous June. Prophetically, he had shown Jacqueline not as she was but as she would soon become. She had chosen her fate and he had chosen a caretaker to hold the world at bay while he painted with no other goal than to hold death in check. She was a woman he could dominate; but he had not taken into account the tyranny of weakness.

Presented by

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

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


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In