Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

WHILE PICASSO was at the Rue Des Grands-Augustins, Françoise called him, asking to come and see him. She wanted to be the first to tell him that she was getting married. She had known Luc Simon, the young painter she was going to marry, since her school days.

Picasso's first reaction was rage. "It's monstrous," he told her. "You think only of yourself." Françoise protested that she had also been thinking of their children. "Luc will help bring up the children," she said. "He is not their father, but he will be a good stepfather, and it will be easier for them to lead a normal life." Picasso's anger was now mixed with incomprehension. "Is that what you call a normal life?" he shouted. "The only normal life would be you, me, and the children."

"There was another purpose to my visit, and I wanted to complete it," Françoise recalled. "I told Pablo that before marrying Luc, I intended to set up a trust for the children, a conseil de famille with my father, Luc, and him as trustees. Since the children officially had no father I wanted to make sure they would be taken care of if anything happened to me. Also I wanted to establish that my marriage would not change Pablo's status toward his children."

PICASSO did not want to stay in Paris and he certainly did not wish to return to Vallauris. So the search began for another house in the South of France. In the end he chose La Californie, an ornate turn-of-the-century mansion overlooking Cannes. The "king of junkmen," as Cocteau had called Picasso, took possession of his new kingdom in June and moved with him his jumble of trifles.

Claude and Paloma had come to La Californie for the summer, while Françoise was in Venice on an extended honeymoon. She had asked Picasso many times to take her to Venice, a place she had loved since she was a child. He had repeatedly said no; but now he could not bear the thought of her being there with her young, tall, and handsome husband—all attributes which made the thought that much more irksome to him. "To claim that when you love somebody, you can accept the idea of seeing her go off with some young fellow is very unconvincing," he had told Françoise after seeing Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. "I'd rather see a woman die, any day, than see her happy with someone else.... I'm not interested in these so-called Christian acts of nobility."

One weekend in the fall of 1955, when Claude and Paloma were with Picasso at Kahnweiler's house in the country, and Françoise and Luc were back in Paris, she received a call from him: "I'm not returning the children to you unless you give to Paulo all the drawings and etchings that are in your apartment." "You have to return the children first," she replied, "and then you can send Paulo to pick up the drawings." He returned the children, and the next morning she returned everything except The Woman Flower, which he had specifically given her as a present.

It was an open declaration of war, followed by the conspicuous absence of an invitation for Françoise to exhibit at the Salon de Mai and finally, in November of 1956, by a letter from Kahnweiler terminating her contract. "I began to feel as though I was living in a nightmare," Françoise remembered. The more good news Picasso received about Françoise's new life, as when he heard that she was pregnant, the more determined he was to destroy her. He made it clear that anybody who was her friend was his enemy. She soon got used to art dealers' apologizing for not exhibiting her work, explaining that they could not risk his displeasure. Any evidence that she could not only exist but flourish without him was for Picasso proof of his waning powers. He was addicted to having people be addicted to him, and although there were plenty around him who were, he was obsessed by the one stray sheep.

AT LA CALIFORNIE Picasso and Jacqueline settled in to a life of being devoured in the process of devouring each other—she by her smothering possessiveness and he by crushing first her spirit and then her humanity. "When everything went wrong, everything went wrong," Hélène Parmelin wrote.

To an unimaginable degree. The whole world was nothing but trash, friends and enemies alike, there was no truth anywhere, nothing mattered, all was rotten, everything was spoiled, all he asked of the world was to be left in peace, and the bit of chalk he had put down there had disappeared. Jacqueline, I said I would see no one. Do you mean to say so-and-so came, Jacqueline? Well, why did you send him away? . . . Why did you let so-and-so in? I said I would see no one.

The Spoiled Child had met his match in the Terrible Mother, all too eager to enclose him in her deathly womb, the better to foster all that was dark, cruel, gross, and meanspirited in him. Even when he shut himself away to work, Jacqueline clung to him from behind the closed doors. "It's not merely that he might happen to want something," she said. "But I wouldn't be happy thinking that he might want something merely because I wasn't there." "One had to stay at La Californie, one's mind's eye on Monseigneur," Parmelin wrote. "Not go even to the bottom of the garden. Not even outside the house. Besides, at fixed times, he had to be given his pills, or his drops: he was taking homeopathic medicines for whatever was the matter with him. What was the matter with him? Nothing. But he took the medicines. Small doses. Moreover he might want something." If things went well for him, things went well for her. She sank herself in him with a monomania that excluded even her own daughter, who had to subsist on the few emotional crumbs her mother could spare. "When one is lucky enough to have Picasso in front of one, one doesn't look at the sun!" she snapped when, one night, someone pointed out the beauty of a sunset. Jacqueline became his secretary, housekeeper, and press-clipping service, and the translator of his will into action; and Picasso became the tool through which she could assert her will over the rest of the world, the means through which she could experience a sense of power that, even if her imagination had not been as limited as it was, she would never have imagined possible.

The main source of her power was her role as gatekeeper, although a lot of the time the gatekeeper only conveyed Monseigneur's wishes. He was away, asleep, working, on the beach, at the bullfights, in Paris—any one of those authorized excuses would be used to send away the old friends or the new admirers that he did not want to receive, or at least did not want to receive at that moment.

In the summer of 1957 Jacqueline fell sick and had to have a stomach operation. From now on she would frequently be ill. She had problems with her stomach, problems with her eardrums, gynecological problems; often she felt so exhausted she could barely drag herself to bed. When she was sick, she slept in the room next to Monseigneur's, so as not to bother him. And he would presage in his work the stages of her recurring cycle of sickness and recovery. "Isn't it curious," he said, "that by the time she is ill I am painting pictures in which she appears to be well again? I don't understand it. I always seem to be ahead of events." It was hard to distinguish cause and effect.

IN THE SUMMER of 1960 Françoise began trying through lawyers to gain some basic rights for her children—starting with the right to use their father's name. During her prolonged negotiations with Maître Bacqué de Sariac, Picasso's lawyer, Françoise received an extremely unexpected proposal from Picasso. "Would you consider divorcing Luc Simon and marrying him?" Maître de Sariac asked on his client's instructions. "That would certainly be the easiest way to regularize the status of the children. Then you could divorce, but at least the children would have been legitimized."

"For the sake of the children": that was the argument to which Picasso's emissary kept returning as Françoise listened to him week after week during the final months of 1960. Paulo and Claude joined the chorus encouraging her to say yes. At first Françoise was incredulous and could not bring herself even to contemplate the offer. But gradually Picasso's proposal, like an earthquake, began to change the landscape of her life. Almost despite herself, she began to look at her life with new eyes. During the day she worked in her studio in her family home in Neuilly. Her father had died in l957, so only her mother was there now. She would return to the rue du Val de Grâce in the evening, and she and Luc would have dinner with the children. "We were very well behaved in front of them," Françoise said, "but after they had gone to bed, there was argument after argument." Luc, who had been like a father to Claude and Paloma, was not happy about their taking Picasso's name. Picasso's hostility toward him since his marriage to Françoise had permeated the art world and had been devastating to his career; and now the children he loved would carry the name of the man who had done everything he could to destroy him.

Looking back over the years since her marriage to Luc, Françoise saw clearly for the first time how much Picasso's vindictiveness had poisoned their lives. Was it really possible, she began to wonder, to put an end to his corrosive resentment? To have a life where she could talk to the father of her children without going through lawyers? To be able to function in the art world without the stigma of Picasso's enmity? An awful burden lifted from her at the thought of life without the shadow that Picasso, the destroyer, had cast over her world.

There was something else that Picasso's proposal made her confront: that much as she loved Luc and mistrusted Picasso, she had never loved anyone with the intensity with which she had loved Picasso. And Luc knew it. He had even written a letter to Picasso, telling him that "Françoise may be my wife, but she will always be yours." Life had not been easy with the Furies of Picasso's vengeance pursuing her, but Françoise had been able not only to survive but to heal her wounds and to grow. And with the benefit of distance she had seen ways in which she might have been able to achieve greater intimacy and depth in her relationship with Picasso. She saw the mistakes that she had made. What if she had learned Spanish? She remembered how enchanted he was every time he saw her take an interest in anything Spanish, as when she had translated Góngora's poems; being able to speak the language of his birth would definitely have brought them closer together. What if she had been more flexible, if she had opened her heart more, if she had mistrusted less? What, above all, if spiritually she had reached a place where she could have loved him unconditionally without losing her own center, where she could have surrendered fully without capitulating to domination, and from which she could have led him away from his own self-destructiveness?

Maybe she was dreaming. Maybe it was too late and there were too many ghosts from the past. But if she accepted Picasso's proposal, then at least her children would be legitimized, she would disarm some of Picasso's hostility, and Luc would be able to follow his career without the curse of having Picasso as an adversary.

In January of 1961 Claude and Paloma were legally awarded Picasso's name. At the end of February Françoise asked Luc for a divorce. On March 2, in utmost secrecy, Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline Roque got married in the town hall of Vallauris in the presence of Paul Derigon, the Communist mayor, and Maître Antebi, a lawyer from Cannes, and his wife. The banns, at Picasso's request, were not published on the door of the town hall. Jacqueline had been Madame Picasso for twelve days before the news hit the newspapers. During that time Picasso had carefully refrained from informing Maître de Sariac, who had continued clearing the path for his client's marriage to Françoise.

On March 14 Françoise opened her morning paper and read that the man she was preparing to marry had been married twelve days ago. The news made her shiver. She suddenly felt touched by evil. In a state of emotional upheaval, Françoise decided to go ahead with the divorce, even though there was no longer any immediate reason for it. She had never before seen so unequivocally Picasso's power of destruction.

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