Picasso and women: fear and desire

Mutual friends? … Picasso and Lee Miller after the liberation of Paris in 1944. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.
Mutual friends? … Picasso and Lee Miller after the liberation of Paris in 1944. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

It is the six million euro question – or much more, if you are Picasso’s granddaughter enjoying reverse retail therapy by selling inherited art and property. What were the great modern artist’s relationships with women really like?

Picasso has been characterised by many as a misogynist, a bully who put “his” women on a pedestal only to knock them off it, a man who feared, as well as desired, the female body and who was a selfish, demanding, narcissistic husband, lover and even grandparent. You get the picture, recognise the cliche. But is any of it really true?

There is another side to Picasso, and an exhibition opening at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery offers a glimpse of it. The photographer Lee Miller had a relationsip with Picasso that was neither abusive nor carnal. In a word, they were friends. Lee Miller and Picasso documents that friendship through their mutual portraits – she took more than 1,000 photographs of him; he painted her portrait six times – and adds up to a much more gentle, sociable image of Picasso than biographers tend to create. But was Lee Miller the only woman to tame this minotaur?

By no means. Picasso did not just see women as sex objects. One of the greatest friendships of his life was with the gay American writer Gertrude Stein. She tells the story of their encounters in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, the memoir of Picasso’s Paris that she wrote in the voice of her lover Toklas, with “Gertrude Stein” appearing as a character in the third person.

It has always struck me as puzzling, if Picasso was such a misogynist, how he could have got on so well with this formidable intellectual and pioneer of gay culture. Stein used to give the young artist copies of American cartoon strips. Their friendship was warm and close, unlike her far more distant dealings with Matisse.

Gertrude Stein, 1905–6 Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) Oil on canvas
Gertrude Stein, 1905–6. Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973). Oil on canvas.

When Picasso painted Stein’s portrait in 1905-6 he made her face a stony mask to convey her extreme strength of character. It is a portrait that breaks the mould of western portraiture – and of images of women in art.

Think of it. At the time Picasso painted Stein, the Victorian age had barely ended. While late 19th-century French painting has some interesting images of women such as Manet’s portrait of his painter friend Eva Gonzalès, the rule is flouncy dresses and parasols. Ever since the Renaissance, the portrayal of women had been shaped by ideals of beauty and constrained social roles.

Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein turns all that upside down. Stein has escaped from the confining categories with which western art previously ensnared women. She is neither old nor young, sexual nor submissive – her stone face makes her something new on Earth. She is in command of her identity. She is modern and powerful, an Easter Island idol of enigmatic authority.

In Picasso’s much later portraits of Lee Miller, there is a comparable sense of mystery. Picasso sits her in a chair and tries to size her up as a person, painting with cartoonish cubist freedom. What are women? What are men? Picasso’s art suffers because we expect him to be much easier than he is. The greatest artist of the 20th century is, in reality, a painter of the mysteries of perception and being. His vision, properly understood, is the most liberating ever created in art. Oppressor? Look again.

Source: The Guardian.

Picasso censored! No more breasts in his paintings

 A Fox affiliate in New York censored Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) when reporting on the painting’s recent sale at auction. Photograph: Jerry Saltz/Twitter
A Fox affiliate in New York censored Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) when reporting on the painting’s recent sale at auction. Photograph: Jerry Saltz/Twitter

I am not surprised Fox has censored Picasso’s breasts. It is absurd and creepy to blur out the bosoms of his Women of Algiers in a report on the painting that set a new world record this week. But it is not completely impossible to understand, because if you were a puritan or a fundamentalist or just hated women’s bodies, Picasso’s breasts are the kind of breasts you might find shocking.

Picasso is definitely one of the all-time great artists of the breast. His only rivals are the 16th-century painter Titian, whose Venus of Urbino certainly has some nice nipples, and the 17th-century adorer of buxom wenches Peter Paul Rubens, who proudly portrayed his wife’s bouncy breasts.

But Rubens and Titian are painters of realistic flesh – they worked hard to create golden melting images of real, soft, living breasts. Picasso’s breasts are just black circles with big dots for nipples. It is a measure of his genius that he can convey all the roundness, fullness and touchability of a breast using this graffiti-like shorthand.

There are four pairs of breasts in Women of Algiers (Version O) by my count – painted in various stages of cartoonish crudity. The woman standing at the left has her bosom almost realistically contoured, while the others are far more abstract. Why is a dot in a circle so shocking?

The picture in its full glory. Photograph: AP
The picture in its full glory. Photograph: AP

Fox has noticed something basic – very basic – about Picasso. When he paints women without their clothes on they are always naked, not “nude”. He does not subscribe to any prissy idea of a somehow sexless image of the human body in art. He always imagines having sex with the women he paints (and usually did). His reductive yet evocative depictions of breasts are actually the images of his own enacted desire. He grasps those mammaries with his mind.

This is spectacularly apparent in his 1932 painting Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. In this painting of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter the curving black lines that define her opulent body all seem to converge on the double curl that shapes her breasts. Picasso communicates the weight, softness and plumpness of these breasts and at the same time his intimate knowledge of them – with just black lines and pink colour he shows us his intense physical passion for his mistress.

Even before that, Picasso had shown how simply the human body can be defined in his 1925 painting The Three Dancers. Here too breasts are reduced to their simplest essence – but this is a nightmare painting of a dance of death, so instead of the opulence sensuality of Walter, one breast is a hole open to the sky, another harshly outlined with a nipple like a skull’s eye.

Picasso clearly had a phantasmagoric relationship with the female breast. It could be a dream or a nightmare. Like the man who is metamorphosed into one in Philip Roth’s story The Breast, he was possessed by this body part. In his 1922 painting Women Running on the Beach, colossal women flaunt their colossal breasts to the awestruck Picasso, who of course has imagined the encounter.

It is a cliche to see Picasso as a misogynist whose lust for women was aggressive and patriarchal. If he was a patriarch, he was a curiously ineffective one, for two of his lovers published frank books about him during his lifetime. Fox has done Picasso a favour. Not only has it proved his art is still shocking and dangerous after all these years, but it has also given food for thought to anyone who sees Picasso as an old sexist satyr. Sexual politics are complicated when it comes to art. Who hates women – Picasso who painted all those breasts, or the TV station that smeared them out?

That said, Fox missed the painting’s really dirty detail anyway: they did not censor the globular buttocks that are equally prominent. No one who has looked at many of Picasso’s paintings would think that ass was an innocent detail.

Text: The Guardian.