Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

"I HAVE sixty dancers,"Picasso wrote to Gertrude Stein. "I go to bed late. I know all the Roman women." What he did not write to Gertrude was that among the sixty dancers of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet was a twenty-five-year-old Russian ballerina whose dainty good looks and restrained bearing had immediately intrigued Picasso and had brought to an end the series of nameless casual encounters that had filled the void since Eva's death. Olga Koklova was the daughter of a colonel in the Imperial Russian Army and had been born in Niezin, in the Ukraine, on June 17, 1891. She had left home at twenty-one to join the Diaghilev Ballet. Her talent was too small to compensate for the fact that, by ballet standards, she had started so late, but Diaghilev liked to include in his company girls from a higher social class, even if they were not very good at dancing.

Olga Koklova was, above all, average: an average ballerina, of average beauty and average intelligence, with average ambitions to marry and settle down. For Picasso, who had tried prostitutes, bisexual models, flamboyant bohemians, tubercular beauties, and black girls from Martinique, Olga was so conventional as to be positively exotic. And there was a touch of mystery about her too. This time it was not the mystery of another reality, which Eva had radiated, but the mystery of another country. Picasso had always found all things Russian fascinating, even more so since his encounter with the Baroness d'Oettingen. He, who even at the height of the war read only gossip and the comics, could not read enough about developments in Russia, the uprisings, the fate of the czar, the hopes of the people. In the spring of 1917, Russia fascinated him more than ever. The Revolution had just taken place, the czar had abdicated, and a provisional government had taken power. Many ingredients at that particular moment in history and in Picasso's life combined to transform an average Russian ballerina into a spellbinding creature singled out from the corps de ballet as the object of his lavish attentions.

What Picasso was for Olga was much simpler. Women—and men—were transfixed by his black-marble stare, charmed by "his hands so dark and delicate and alert," enchanted by the unruly forelock of his black hair. Some, like Cocteau, felt "a discharge of electricity" when they met him; others, like Fernande were magnetized by "this radiance, this internal fire one felt in him." Others still were mesmerized by the dashing bohemian who knew about opium and women and cabarets and whorehouses, and were spellbound by his vigor, the secrets he seemed to know and hide, his flair and his showmanship. And there were those who were simply overwhelmed at being in the presence of the sacred monster of Montmartre and Montparnasse, the revolutionary inventor of Cubism. But Olga cared nothing about art except as something to decorate an apartment, was revolted by bohemianism, and was too firmly controlled to allow herself to be swept off her feet by animal magnetism. Also, she was a performer, and her narcissism matched his. So she responded to his advances because he was important in her own immediate world, someone substantial enough to have been chosen by the legendary Diaghilev as the designer for Parade. And she responded with caution and calculation.

The signs of future disaster were there for all to see, but Picasso was somnambulating toward their wedding day as though on a course set by fate. Tired of daring, he was hoping to find with Olga a haven of dignified tranquillity and perhaps even an excuse for daring no more. He wanted to escape from the exhausting search for absolute painting and the absolute in painting to a world of luxurious ordinariness.

Years later he would say that he had settled on Olga because she was pretty and belonged, however tangentially, to the Russian nobility. As a boy in Corunna he had been rejected by the family of his first love, a girl named Angeles, because his social background was not sufficiently distinguished. A quarter of a century later he would settle that score. There was also the wish to ally himself with the elite of position and wealth, a world that was still new to him. Whether or not Olga was the right partner for life, she was unquestionably the right partner for society. The great revolutionary of twentieth-century art fell back in his life on the stale hope of marrying into the aristocracy.

It was the beginning of what the Surrealist painter Matta called Picasso's "Harper's Bazaar" period. "He was so flattered by the attention," Matta said, "that from then on a schizophrenia pervaded his life: between his need for privacy and his need for more and more attention." His chief remaining links with the world of his past were Apollinaire and Max Jacob. On July 12, 1918, Apollinaire, Max, and Cocteau, ambassadors from the past and the future, were witnesses at Picasso's wedding to Olga, performed first in a civil ceremony at the mairie, and then in a sumptuous religious ceremony at the Russian Orthodox church in the rue Daru. Matisse, Braque, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Diaghilev, Leonide Massine, Vollard, Paul Rosenberg—all were there to see Picasso marry Olga with pomp and circumstance, incense, flowers, and candles.

ON FEBRUARY 4, 1921, Olga gave birth to a son they called Paulo. The pride and delight of being a father pushed Picasso's anguish into the background and inspired a series of tender sketches recording Paulo's first months. Sometimes, as if aware of the dramatic changes wrought during a child's first year, he recorded not only the date but the hour at which the drawings were done. Soon, however, the uneasy feeling appeared again, in a succession of pictures of mother and child, isolated and inaccessible in their own world. There are male children but no men in this world, where time stands still—not in blissful timelessness but in a lumpish immobility from which every ounce of life's vital energy has been drained. And when there is activity, it is in slow motion, sluggish and leaden, a kind of absentminded surrender to the force of gravity.

Olga was lethargically but obsessively preoccupied with little Paulo. There were servants to ease her burden—nurse, chambermaid, chauffeur, cook—yet emotionally she was incapable of stretching beyond the nursery or the ossified niceties of fancy balls and opening nights.

ON MAY 22 Cuadro Flamenco, Picasso's fourth Diaghilev ballet, premiered atthe Gaite-Lyrique. It was no more than an echo of what had gone before, and this time Picasso had effectively invited himself to do the sets and costumes—and for the meanest of reasons. Diaghilev had originally commissioned Juan Gris to design the ballet, but when Gris arrived in Monte Carlo, where the company was based in April, he discovered to his amazement that his services were no longer required. "I don't know just what happened," he wrote to Kahnweiler. Picasso knew. Gris, his health already failing, had been late with his designs. And Picasso, a master of intrigue, with whose machinations Gris was unequipped to compete, immediately started spreading the rumor that Gris was too sick to do the job. To drive his point home to Diaghilev more forcefully, he sent his own sketches for the ballet, which were little more than a rehash of sets—a stage within a stage—that he had prepared for an earlier ballet and that Diaghilev had turned down. This time he accepted them, and Picasso won a double, hollow victory: he beat Diaghilev into submission and he beat Gris out of a glamorous job.

PICASSO and Olga saw 1922 in at a New Year's Eve party given by the Count de Beaumont. Midnight approached, and one of the most important guests had not yet arrived. The host announced that Céleste, Marcel Proust's housekeeper, had just telephoned for the tenth time, to find out if the house was drafty and if the herb tea for which she had given the recipe was ready. "Finally at midnight," wrote the painter Jean Hugo in his diary, "there was a sort of stir in the crowd and we knew that Proust had arrived. He had entered together with the new year, the year of his death.... His pale face had become puffy; he had developed a paunch. He spoke only to dukes. 'Look at him,' Picasso said to me, 'he's still on his theme."' Picasso may not have read Proust, but he had absorbed him.

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