Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

AND NOW, thanks to Dora, Picasso had found in "Barrault's loft" a space vast enough for his own most celebrated work. He had been commissioned by the Spanish government to produce a canvas for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair. As usual, hating the sense of obligation engendered by commissions, he procrastinated, worked on other things, refused to fall into step with his commitment. It took the bombing of the historic Basque town of Guernica, on April 26, 1937, to mobilize his creative frenzy, and then the huge canvas, twenty-five feet by eleven feet, was completed in only a month. In fact, many of the "preparatory studies" were done after the work was finished.

It was the first time that Picasso allowed himself an audience while he worked. Dora was a constant companion, photographing successive stages of the work; Eluard was a frequent witness, watching Picasso, brush in hand, sleeves rolled up, commenting on the progress of Guernica or obsessively talking about Goya. The forty-three German planes that had bombed Guernica had killed 1,600 of its 7,000 inhabitants and had destroyed 70 percent of the town, but the impact of this massacre went far beyond the actual damage inflicted. Guernica, with its ancient oak tree under which the first Basque Parliament had met, became a symbol for the triumph of hatred and irrational destruction, and helped convert a large section of Western public opinion to the Republican cause.

Guernica's power was enormous. It was a distillation of forty years of Picasso's art, with the woman, the bull, and the horse horrified companions in a black-and-white nightmare world. The novelist Claude Roy, a law student at the time, saw Guernica at the Paris World's Fair and described it as "a message from another planet." He wrote, "Its violence dumbfounded me, it petrified me with an anxiety I had never experienced before." The Surrealist poet Michel Leiris summed up the sense of despair engendered by Guernica: "In a rectangle of black and white such as that in which ancient tragedy appeared to us, Picasso sends us our announcement of our mourning: all that we love is going to die.... " Herbert Read went even further: all that we love, Picasso is saying, has died.

DURING the creation of this public monument to destruction Picasso's private games of destruction continued with no respite. One day Marie-Thérèse, who had been relegated to the margin of his life ever since he had embarked on Guernica with Dora as his tragic muse, arrived at the rue des Grands-Augustins while he was working. "I have a child by this man," she said to Dora, all her anger directed at her rival rather than her lover. "It's my place to be here with him. You can leave right now."

"I have as much reason as you have to be here," Dora replied coolly. "I haven't borne him a child, but I don't see what difference that makes."

Throughout this exchange Picasso kept on painting, as though he were an innocent and uninvolved bystander. Finally Marie-Thérèse asked him to arbitrate: "Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?"

Picasso, absolute master of the situation, recollected the incident with relish: "It was a hard decision to make. I liked them both, for different reasons: Marie-Thérèse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent. I decided I had no interest in making a decision, I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they'd have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It's one of my choicest memories," he concluded, laughing. The art historian James Lord pinpointed an irony that had escaped Picasso: his mistresses engaged "in a fistfight in his studio, while he peacefully continued to work on the enormous canvas conceived to decry the horrors of human conflict."

Sometimes Picasso enjoyed having Marie-Thérèse follow along, in relative secrecy, when he and Dora went on vacation. But two women did not make a big enough harem for him, and so he often made sure through Paulo, his unwitting accomplice, that Olga also knew where he was going. She would turn up to stake her wifely claims, assault the woman who happened to be in her lawful place, and, most important, feed Picasso's insatiable hunger for power over others.

AT THE BEGINNING of 1938 Picasso started spending more time at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre. The attraction, much more than Marie-Thérèse, was María. Now two years old, and looking just like her father, squat and square and with his piercing eyes, she became the new major figure in his work. He did not idealize her as he had Paulo; there is anxiety in her face and fear in the way she clings to her clumsy doll. At her christening her father, who was not officially her father, became officially her godfather. When her little friends asked what her name was, her father replied that it was Conchita, his diminutive for María de la Concepción. "Con-what?" they asked, aware, apparently, that con in French is "a fool," "an idiot." So her parents started calling her María, which from the little girl's lips soon began to sound like Maya. "Maya!" exclaimed her father. "It's perfect. It means the greatest illusion on earth." So Maya it was from then on—Maya Walter.

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