Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

IN 1924 the Picasso household, as had become its custom, spent the summer by the sea, this time at Juan-les-Pins. The only exercise Picasso engaged in was occasionally paddling in the water with barely more proficiency than his three-year-old son. The athletic image conveyed by his naked torso—stocky, hairy, and always bronzed—had nothing to do with athletic prowess. It was an image, though, that he assiduously cultivated, for no matter how many women fell in love with him and no matter how much worship was heaped at his feet, he never reconciled himself to the fact that he was not quite five foot three. When Pablo Gargallo's daughter once told him that now he had everything he could possibly want, he replied, "No, I don't. I'm missing five centimeters."

By March of 1925 the Picassos were in Monte Carlo, going to more parties and often dining at Giardino's, the fashionable restaurant at the top of the hill. But Picasso, who never wanted a following yet always needed a court, was weary of his present entourage, especially as it was becoming increasingly hard to reconcile the demands of the fire burning in him with the fashionable life they were leading. The more Olga sensed him withdrawing into his own world, where all access was denied her, the more frequent and extreme became her petty and irrational outbursts of jealousy. She was obsessed with his past and did everything in her power to erase all traces of the existence of other women in his life. She helped push Max out of their lives, and she even stormed out of Gertrude Stein's apartment, during a reading of Stein's Bateau-Lavoir memoirs, at the mention of Fernande.

Olga's considerable will had now changed focus, from a drive for social recognition to a no less obsessive drive to possess her husband in the downward swing of their marriage as she had never possessed him in the upswing. He was as much the perpetrator as the victim of Olga's exasperating behavior. He had given her a taste of life and a glimpse of herself that she had never had before. And then, with no explanation and for no reason she could understand, he withdrew, and the supply of affirmation and joy was abruptly halted. But by then it was too late. Like an addict who has touched the artificial highs, she could not return to her previous existence. She needed larger and larger doses of his attention, and when, instead, she received less and less, she felt angry and betrayed. She lashed out at him, forcing him to give her, however momentarily, the attention she was otherwise denied.

Anger begot rage and rage violence, and in the spring of 1925 Three Dancers was born. It was the beginning of a savage decomposition of the human body, and the evocation of the Crucifixion compounded the sense of doom and destruction that pervaded the picture.

ON the piercingly cold afternoon of January 8, 1927, Picasso was wandering near the Galeries Lafayette in the aimless state of mind advocated by the Surrealists as most propitious for unexpected discoveries and new beginnings, for the intervention of chance and the marvelous. Among the crowd coming out of the Metro was a blonde and beautiful young woman whose face, with its classic Greek nose and blue-gray eyes, he had seen before—in his mind's eye and on his canvases. "He simply grabbed me by the arm," Marie-Thérèse Walter recalled, looking back on the moment that transformed her life, "and said, 'I'm Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together."' For him it was a moment of recognition and of surrender to a sexual passion unfettered by the conventions of age, matrimony, time, and responsibility.

Marie-Thérèse had been born in Perreux, in south-central France, on July 13, 1909, the year Picasso and Fernande left the Bateau-Lavoir for a less bohemian existence. She knew nothing of art and Picasso. Up until now her passions had all been athletic—swimming, cycling, gymnastics, mountain climbing.

Marie-Thérèse may not have known who Picasso was, but her mother, Madame Emilie Marguerite Walter, knew, and she did nothing to discourage her daughter's natural curiosity about this exotic man almost thirty years older than she was. Their next meeting, intentional this time, was at the Métro Saint-Lazare, two days later. Because conversation between them was limited, he took her to a movie. "I resisted for six months," Marie-Thérèse later said, "but you don't resist Picasso. You've understood me—a woman doesn't resist Picasso." On July 13, the day of her eighteenth birthday, he took her to bed. Many years later Picasso commemorated in a letter to her the importance of that date in his life. "Today, 13 July 1944, is the seventeenth anniversary of your birth in me and the double one of your own birth in this world, where having met you, I have begun to live."

The greatest sexual passion of Picasso's life, with no boundaries and no taboos, had begun. It was fueled by the secretiveness that surrounded the relationship and by the revelation of the childlike Marie-Thérèse as an endlessly submissive and willing sexual pupil who readily accepted all experimentation, including sadism, with absolute obedience to Picasso's will. She was an object that he alone possessed, proof of his power and sexual magnetism.

In the summer of 1928 Picasso left Paris for Dinard, accompanied by Olga, Paulo, and Paulo's English nanny—and preceded by Marie-Thérèse, who was ensconced nearby in a holiday camp for children. It was an ingenious arrangement that delighted Picasso not only because of its watertight secrecy but also because of its perversity. The idea of visiting his young mistress at a children's camp added a frisson of risk, surrealism, and masquerade to a relationship that was already bristling with sexual passion, a passion that continued to thrive on the often violent subjugation of the "woman-child" to her lover's will. So when Picasso had had his fill of amusing himself watching his ample and athletic mistress swimming or cavorting on the beach with the children of the camp, he would lead her to a beach cabana where the cavorting became a great deal more intense and serious. Her job was clear: to obey every command and caprice of the man she referred to as her "wonderfully terrible" lover. "I bowed my head in front of him . . . I always cried with Pablo Picasso," Marie-Thérèse confessed more than forty years later.

The fact that Marie-Thérèse was legally under age and in a children's camp was a mainspring of Picasso's sexual ardor. At that time in France the corruption of a minor could result in a severe prison sentence, but flouring the law was part of the excitement that fired his passion. De Sade had written about the sovereign man with the authority to transgress and to infringe all taboos; and Picasso, who had always believed that everything was allowed him, in life no less than in art, was now defying, all at once, law, morality, and convention in the cabanas of a children's camp. Exploring the limits of sexuality was serious business for Picasso. He sought not merely to satisfy his sexual urges but to reach, through indulging in what was culturally forbidden, the heightened state of being that the French writer Georges Bataille saw as the goal of eroticism.

In the fall of 1930, with an eye to eliminating wasteful traveling time, he installed Marie-Thérèse in a groundfloor apartment at 44 rue La Boetie, directly across the street from himself and Olga. Efficiency was not, of course, his only motive. There was also the perverse pleasure he derived from knowing that he could get away with anything, that he could put his secret under the nose of his maniacally jealous wife and still keep it a secret, that he could write his own rules and break everyone else's.

A GRAND Picasso retrospective planned to open at the Georges Petit Gallery on June 15, 1932, gave him an opportunity to be surrounded by 236 canvases that had been gathered in Paris from around the globe. In September of the same year, another grand retrospective opened at the Zurich Kunsthaus. One of the 28,000 visitors to see the show was Carl Jung, and the result of his confrontation with an overview of Picasso's oeuvre was a devastating piece that appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on November 13, 1932. Struck by the similarity between Picasso's work and the drawings of his schizophrenic patients, Jung declared Picasso a schizophrenic, expressing in his work a recurrent, characteristic motif "of the descent into hell, into the unconscious, and the farewell to the world above." Comparing the images produced by Picasso to those produced by his patients, he wrote,

Considered from a strictly formal point of view, what predominates in them is the character of mental lacerations, which translate themselves into broken lines, that is, a type of psychological fissures which run through the image.... It is the ugly, the sick, the grotesque, the incomprehensible, the banal that are sought out—not for the purpose of expressing anything, but only in order to obscure; an obscurity, however, which has nothing to conceal, but spreads like a cold fog over desolate moors; the whole thing quite pointless, like a spectacle that can do withhout a spectator.

Whatever the validity of Jung's insights, it was undeniable that as Picasso entered the sixth decade of his life he was further away than ever from his youthful dream of creating a universal art—not just of achieving mastery in any style and any medium he chose but of transcending all styles to create something absolute and ultimate. He had the courage to die to many different artistic expressions and be born to new ones, but he lacked the courage to let go of the trapeze of his monumental egocentricity and his dazzling personality and trust that there was something beyond himself to catch him. No number of magical canvases and sexual acrobatics could shield him, except momentarily, from his all-pervading sense of doom.

IN the fall of 1934 Picasso poured out his confusion and torment in the four powerfully moving etchings of The Blind Minotaur. The minotaur, a symbol for himself, is being tenderly guided by a beautiful girl clutching a dove. There is an air of hopeless tragedy about the blinded beast, so strong but so vulnerable, as he struggles to find his way along the seashore. The girl looks like Marie-Thérèse, but there is something transcendent about her, beyond any physical personality, more like Goethe's "eternal feminine which leads us upward."

For years now he had turned away from his wife's increasingly unstable emotions. As he wrote in a poem, in 1935, the "eye of the bull"—another code name for himself—has a "thousand reasons to keep silent and turn a deaf ear to the flea who pisses the rain from so much coffee." It was a clear reference to Olga. One of Picasso's most vivid domestic images, he once said, was of her constantly and neurotically drinking coffee, something he was particularly aware of because his own sensitive stomach had long ago driven him to herb teas. But very early in 1935 it ceased to be possible for him to maintain his wooden pose, hoping that Olga would stop screaming, Marie-Therese would stop giggling, and, except when performing a specific function for him, both would disappear.

Now Marie-Thérèse found herself pregnant and Picasso found himself confused. Events ruled out inertia and frustrated his desire that nothing should disturb the status quo, fraught though it was with juggling and unpleasantness. He was excited about the coming baby and the possibility that it would bridge the growing chasm between himself and Marie-Thérèse—so much so that at one point during her pregnancy he knelt in front of her and cried tears of gratitude.

At the same time, although he wanted to rid himself of Olga's physical presence, he was paralyzed by the thought of divorce. Any final parting had the ring of death about it, and he was prepared to put up with a great deal to avoid major endings in his life. On top of his own innate terror he had the expert advice of Maître Henri-Robert, one of France's leading lawyers, who had reminded him that divorce would mean parting with half of everything he owned, including his work. So the French community property law and an agreement he had signed when he married Olga kept him from doing the rational thing and pressing for a divorce. As for Olga, she never wanted a divorce in the first place. But none of this made the separation negotiations any less bitter, unpleasant, or humiliating, especially when Olga's overeager lawyers had official seals put on the door of Picasso's sacred studio in the rue La Boetie.

Even so, it was Olga's spirit that broke first. By now she could not avoid the realization that her marriage was over, nor could she any longer ignore her husband's increasingly obvious hatred of her or the presence of her rival in his work. In July of 1935 she had a final hysterical outburst under the conjugal roof and stormed out, taking the puzzled Paulo with her. She did not go far, only around the corner, to the Hôtel California, in the rue de Berri, and in a sense she would never go far from her husband's life, growing progressively more demented over her obvious inability, no matter what she did, to provoke a reaction.

Presented by

Pittsburgh: 'It's Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Join the Discussion

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

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In