Updated: Jul 22
Me too has shaken up the social issues of the XXI century. Has it also had an impact on our perception of cultural fundamentals as well as the great masters such as Pablo Picasso?
© Musée Picasso Paris, affiche de l'exposition , ORLAN, Les femmes qui pleurent sont en colère, détail de la photographie n° 4, 2019, Tirage photo Epson P20 000 sur Hanemühle William Turner 210g, 102 × 150 cm, Édition de 7 exemplaires, Courtesy de l’artiste et de la Galerie Ceysson & Bénétière
During the last decade, many art historians have undertaken to study the personal and artistic lives of artists by explaining the social misdeeds they may have committed. What appears to us today as misdeeds or even crimes, were at the time seemingly anodyne acts, or even the habits and customs of the period. But if the great masters were contemporary to us, would we buy the works of those who hit or abused women? Would we glorify pedophile like Paul Gauguin?
Gauguin is not an innocent reference. In order to introduce our problematic, it seems judicious to us to evoke the case of this painter so adulated that reprimanded. Many people took offense at the retrospective exhibition "The Alchemist" that the Grand Palais devoted to him in 2017. At the time, the public, as well as historians, found the embellished treatment of the artist's life deplorable. At the same moment, and because of the same obliteration, the biographical film "Gauguin - Journey to Tahiti" had suffered similar reproaches. Indeed, in order to satisfy the needs of the film, the actress chosen to embody Tehura - a young girl of 13 with whom the painter aged of 43 had a relationship - had then been represented under the features of an adult. These various reactions were therefore justified by the lack of understanding on the part of the spectators of this desire to conceal and not to contextualize the condemnable acts that the painter had committed during his travels and his life.
History is a matter of fact, not romance. These historians do not aim at a culture of decency, or even of censorship. On the contrary, they aspire to transparency so that the public does not remain in this candid ignorance of the painter-genius. Exit the hagiographic visions, it becomes necessary not to pass under silence any more of these facets in order to understand at best the messages which underlie the aesthetics of the paintings which we contemplate.
The dark and gloomy aspects of the personal lives of artists have long been unknown to us. Whether these dimensions have been neglected voluntarily or not, they are nonetheless essential to the understanding of the paintings created. For example: how can we understand the meaning of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon without knowing Pablo Picasso's vindictive fear of syphilis?
This interrogation allows us to question the contemporary perception of Pablo Picasso.
Arnold Newman, Portrait de Pablo Picasso, 1954, ©Arnold Newman / Getty Images.
Dora Maar, « Série de portraits de Dora Maar devant "Femmes à leur toilette" », APPH1383, 29 x 23 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris, ©RMN-Grand Palais , (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Adrien Didierjean, © ADAGP, © Succession Picasso 2020.
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Dora), 1938, Oil on canvas, 188.5 x 129.5 cm, © Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler.
For a long time perceived as a genius of his time, haloed by a mythology that he himself has maintained, his reputation is now tainted. But what does it mean to analyze Picasso under the me too era?
In 2021, Julie Beauzac published the podcast "Picasso, separating the man from the artist". This issue has recently been raised many times in our society against contemporary politicians, producers and scriptwriters. Nowadays in France, a vigorous debate against Roman Polanski revolves mainly around this question. But what about when we direct it towards a master of art who is a precursor, hegemonic, incensed by the market and with a notable media and museum coverage?
The Picasso family, the main trustee of the painter's legacy, has learned the impact that this social issue can have. The testimonies, letters and facts recently published reveal a tyrannical painter towards his close relations as well as toxic and misogynistic behaviors towards women and notably towards his companions.
As destructive in his personal life as in his paintings, Picasso appropriated the female sex in an objectifying manner. The muses, his "subjects", became objects. Their distress and unhappiness was an overflowing source of inspiration. When this was exhausted, the painter abandoned them. His granddaughter Marina Picasso confess :
" Picasso subjugated women to his animal sexuality, he matched them, ingested them, and crushed them on his canvas. After spending so many nights extracting their essence, once they were dry, he threw them away".
It was then that he began to destroy them, to break them on the canvas. The omnipresence of deformed women, even dismembered, which followed his breakups, is indicative of this deep hostility. He will say :
"Each time I change women, I should burn the previous one, like that I would be rid of it".
Brutal witness of this vehemence, this sentence illustrates the harmful resentment that Picasso maintained towards his ex-lovers.
For the one who proclaimed "There are two types of women: goddesses and doormats", we easily understand that the sudden passage from one category to the other was only a personal and intrinsically subjective perception.
Pablo Picasso, Minotaur Caressing the Hand of a Sleeping Girl with his Face, (Minotaure caressant du mufle la main d'une dormeuse), state II, from the Vollard Suite (Suite Vollard) 1933, published 1939, © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso.
Pablo Picasso, ra et le minotaure (composition), charcoal, Indian ink, colored pencils and scratching, Mougins 5 Septembre 1936, 40,5 x 72 cm, © Musée Picasso, Paris, RMN.
Pablo Picasso, Femme Torero II, Plate 2 from la suite de Vollard, 1934, etching, 448 x 340 mm, © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso.
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, 1938, Ink, gouache, and colored chalk on paper, 76.5 x 56.0 cm, © Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Dora Maar , 1937, Huile sur toile, 92 x 65 cm, MP158, Musée national Picasso-Paris,© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris.
Yet this violence was never concealed, and was in no way limited to formal and aesthetic representations. When Picasso was around 45 years old, he began a relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, then 17 years old. Many of the paintings in which he represents her are entitled rape or refer to it. Marie-Thérèse never ceased to emphasize the sexual hold that the painter had on her, particularly during the posing sessions she did for him. At the same time, there are many paintings in which the artist represents himself at her side (or with Dora Maar) as the Minotaur, a mythological creature that eats children or rapt women. While there are many reasons for this reference, we can question the latent meaning of its use. Especially when the painter makes it his alter ego.
Moreover, while Picasso was restricted artistically and beating Dora Maar into unconsciousness, he was simultaneously painting a series depicting her. This one soberly titled « La femme qui pleure » (Weeping woman).
These few examples, which merge among so many others, remain in my opinion the most telling, in order to support the transposition of the personal life of Picasso within his achievements. To deepen them I invite you to leaf through the book by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Vivre avec Picasso (Living with Picasso).
Orlan at the Musée Picasso Paris in front of her group of works, entitled "Les femmes qui pleurent sont en colère" .
It is also through the series « La femme qui pleure » (Weeping woman) that ORLAN, french contemporary feminist artist, undertakes to problematize this violence. Under the prism of the liberation of these muses, "Les femmes qui pleurent sont en colère" (Weeping Women Are Angry), uses digital collages to question the relationship that Picasso had with women. The artist explains :
"Through Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar crying, I wanted to make works where women who suffer suddenly come out of the shadows and undergo. They rebel and emancipate themselves, become subjects instead of objects".
Although this series originally refers to the war in Spain and the suffering it caused, many commentators have questioned why Pablo Picasso decided to represent only women and not men and why he was inspired by his companion Dora Maar ?
Questions that, although they will remain unanswered, need to be raised and studied. The location of this exhibition is not insignificant, however, since it is held within the Picasso Museum. Aware of the debates surrounding the artist's work, the museum has found an appropriate response, allowing its public to access a better understanding of his work. However Cécile Debray, director, doesn't fail to recall the need to recontextualize the facts stated to avoid any anachronism. It is indeed crucial to take into consideration the social norms of the time, which were for sure, very different from today. Lastly, it would be inaccurate to make Picasso an executioner of women. He was in fact monstrous towards many people, whether female or male. It is important to state the facts, to portray the personality of the artist as it really was. However, it seems less fair to transpose them to the morality of our society today. But the example of Picasso shows us that it is very complex to separate the man from the artist. The one who only painted women with whom he had sexual relations, shows us that the paintings he made are an integral part of his personal history.
As the feminist slogan of the 1970s so aptly put it:
The private is political.
ORLAN's works are powerful and evoke, without any difficulty, the re-conquest of subjects within the canvases. Once again personified, notably through the hybridization of the artist's anatomical parts with the original painting, the subjects find their humanity. The muses, these women of the shade, reinvest the front of the scene and seize again what they were able to give to the great masters. It is a beginning of emancipation, coming from a woman artist, whose body is in itself a total work of art.
Pablo Picasso, the Weeping Woman, I (La Femme qui pleure. I ), state VII, 1937, aquatinte, eau-forte 69 x 49cm, MP2747, Musée national Picasso-Paris, © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Béatrice Hatala, © Succession Picasso 2020.
Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937, Graphite and crayon on paper, 292 × 232 mm, © Succession Picasso/DACS 2022.
Pablo Picasso, the Weeping Woman, (La Femme qui pleure. ), 1937, Oil paint on canvas, 608 × 500 mm© Tate Modern, Londres © Succession Picasso/DACS 2022.
ORLAN, “Les femmes qui pleurent sont en colère”, n°1, 2019, Photographic print Epson 20 000 on Hanemühle William Turner 210g, 102 × 150 cm, © Orlan / Galerie Ceysson & Bénétière.
View of the ORLAN's exhibition "les femmes qui pleurent sont en colère" at the Musée Picasso Paris © Jade Robert.
ORLAN, "Les femmes qui pleurent sont en colère - Women who cry are angry" is held in free acces from May 17 to September 4, 2022 at the Picasso Museum in Paris and inaugurates a cycle of contemporary looks at the artist's work.
Dominic Cansdale and Steve Martin, "Picasso's depiction of sexual violence under the artistic microscope in #MeToo era", ABC Ballarat, 13 Feb 2019 .
Françoise Gilot et Carlton Lake, Vivre avec Picasso, 10/18, 2006.
Julie Beauzac, podcast Vénus s’épilait-elle la chatte ? Épisode 7, Picasso, séparer l’homme de l’artiste, mai 2021.
Marina Picasso, Grand-Père, Denoël, 2011.
ORLAN, Les femmes qui pleurent sont en colère, Éditions Jannink et Eva Vautier, 2021.
Sabine Gignoux, "ORLAN : « Picasso est un bel exemple de la misogynie façonnée par le système patriarcal »", La Croix, 23 May 2022.