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|The Muses are Women:
Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art
by Berta Sichel
|Is "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation," on view until Sept. 17 at the Museum of Modern Art, just one more
giant, crowd-pleasing Picasso show? After all, it does follow MoMA's l980 monumental Picasso retrospective and its l989 overview "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism," as well as other undertakings like "Picasso and Things" at Baltimore or the Met's
"Picasso and the Weeping Women," only to mention a few.
But despite such overwhelming abundance this new exhibition is refreshing. In some ways it redeems the artist from the stigma of being a crude "bluebeard," the description presented by his ex-lover Françoise Gilot in her controversial l964 book, My Life with Picasso, which became a source of inspiration for several feminist writings on the artist's misogynistic personality.
How can we explain the powerful female presence in his art, at least in relation to his portraits? Unlike other Picasso exhibitions, this show clearly outlines the idea that the many women who crossed Picasso's life actually became his most vital sources of inspiration. This thought immediately brings to mind the French writer Simone de Beauvoir's legendary statement in the book Second Sex, which appeared in France in l949: "The muses are women."
Bearing this in mind, the exhibition certainly has a more complex agenda than MoMA's modest description of it as "the first exhibition to study Picasso's career from the perspective of his portrait." Chronologically mounted, it features 130 paintings and 100 works on paper many not previously seen in the U.S. Curated by the quintessential Picasso champion, director emeritus of MoMA's department of painting and sculpture, William Rubin, in collaboration with Hélène Seckel, chief curator of the Musée Picasso in Paris, it is organized as a series of mini-exhibitions. The first room includes early portraits of Picasso's family, his childhood friend and later secretary Jaime Sabartés, his first lover Fernande and the worldly acclaimed Portrait of Gertrude Stein; the final gallery is a consolidation of portraits of his male friends and some self-portraits. The remainder of the exhibition follows Picasso's relationships with women.
Perhaps it is perilous to try to expose the psychological and psychosexual traits of these works. Still, the temptation to interpret is compelling. The grace and social ambition of the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, Picasso's first wife, dominate his paintings from l917 through the 1920s. In this period, Neoclassical images were challenged by Cubist abstractions. During the beginning of their relationship, Olga's portraits are gracefully drawn and delicately colored. By the end of their marriage, which coincides with the launch of his relationship with the young and blonde Marie-Thérèse Walter, these classically inspired portraits are gone. Now, Olga has a skull-like head with jaws; her image emerges from mechanical and animal forms as in Seated Bather of 1930.
Following the course of the exhibition, the next painting in front of one's eyes is Bather with Beach Ball done in Cannes in the summer of l932 and undoubtedly inspired by Marie Therese. Unlike the previous work, here Picasso's new and secret companion is soft, round and youthful. Like a laughing child at the beach playing with a ball, she is weightless and free in the space of the canvas. Yet, years later, in the dusk of their relationship, she confessed that Picasso did not want her to laugh and was always telling her to "be serious."
If in his later works of the 1920s all of Picasso's visual references of Marie-Thérèse were veiled, a decade later it seems that he no longer wanted to be secretive about his new lover. It was through Marie-Thérèse's image that Picasso's sexuality explodes. Without ambiguity her several portraits allude to "the experience of making love." The exhibition presents many of them:The Mirror (1932), Sleeping Nude (1932),Girl Before a Mirror (l932) and Nude Asleep in a Landscape (1934).
Some of the portraits made during these years also include images of their daughter Maya. As with Paulo, his first son (with Olga), Maya also inspired full-length portraits. While Paulo is dressed in festive costumes, Maya is sometimes depicted as a baby version of her mother; in others, she is dressed in a sailor suit or is carrying a doll or toy as in Maya with Doll or Maya in a Pinafore, both from l938.
The "Marie-Thérèse era," which represents Picasso's art during the late '20s and early '30s, ended when he met the Surrealist painter-photographer Dora Maar in l936. Because these relationships overlapped, one particularly interesting moment of the exhibition is the display of the "diptych" portraits of the two women both painted from memory in the same day. Although they are in similar reclining poses, in the same setting, and on canvases of the same dimensions, they expose Picasso's dissimilar feelings. While Marie-Thérèse is depicted with a tender expression with her almond-shaped blue eyes as the dominant element in her face, the seductive Dora has an exotic conflicted face exaggerated by the heavy makeup and her body is composed of cubist forms. As in the previous cycles, the first portraits of Dora are intimate. They are followed by a series of classical and somewhat melancholic canvases. From them, Dora's dark features violently contorted are depicted in acidic colors, and her anguish is emphasized by the cubistic and surrealistic forms.
Connected to the history of Guernica, the works from Dora's cycle is, for many Picasso scholars, "one of the greatest moments" of his oeuvre. At MOMA we can see Dora Maar Seated and Weeping Woman (1937), and Seated Woman with a Hat (1938), among many others. Unlike the portraits of Marie- Thérèse, those of Dora display intense emotion and turbulence. The sexual desire and pleasure are replaced by a fragmented woman with a tormented expression. For Picasso she was "the weeping woman." Picasso's final portrait of the "weeping woman" is dated Oct. 1942 though he would not meet his next love, the artist Françoise Gilot, until May of the next year. The only woman to have left him, and the mother of Claude and Paloma, her private portraits are not the most exciting ones. Seated Woman (l945), Women-Flower and Head of a Woman (both l946), are among the most celebrated. Contrary to the emotionally charged portraits of Dora, the overall feeling transmitted by Françoise's visage is one of independence. She carries a certain unemotional gaze in her large eyes, and her full mouth is usually heavily outlined. The highlights of these years are the portraits of Claude and Paloma. Through the children, Picasso's paintings regain emotion; they provide a nuanced account of their daily environment and his attachment to them.
The following cluster of paintings is focused on Picasso's last relationship with Jacqueline Roque, who became his second wife. Paying homage to Matisse, Courbet and Delacroix, he colorfully depicts Jacqueline in Turkish garb in the beautiful series "Woman of Algeries." He also represented her as a Mater Dolorosa, as Lola de Valence, after Manet, or as an Equestrian after Velasquez. Jacqueline's presence takes over, and there are more portraits of her than anyone else. Through expressionist distortions, architectural silhouettes or structures derived from Cubism as in the Seated Nude (l959), Woman in an Armchair (1962), and Woman on a Pillow (1969), her face and body fills the exhibition space. In this new flow of energy that erupted in Picasso's last years, there are no saw-toothed mouths, no triangular tongues, no tentacles for hair. Though recent books affirm that Jacqueline's life with Picasso was far from easy, she radiates delicacy and kindness.
I do not think that is necessary to trivialize the content of these works to a series of private affairs--which surprisingly will give them a sort of a postmodernist reading. Yet, after spending almost three hours at the exhibition, I was fully convinced that de Beauvoir was right. Despite the current feminist discourse, woman could still be "the very substance of man's poetic work." On the contrary, the majority of the few portraits of his male friends included in Picasso and Portraiture--Paul Cezanne, art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, and the poets André Salmon and Guillaume Apollinaire--are most of the time saturated with formal likeness. Regardless of Picasso's dominant personality, masculinity, and his passions, his exhaustive exploration into portraiture developed over six decades certainly reflects the spirit, the mood, and the presence of all the women that ever crossed through his life, whether enchantresses, lovers or wives. In varying degrees, they nurtured his creativity and infused his art with innovation and audacity.
BERTA SICHEL is an art writer and independent curator who teaches at the New School for Social Research.