Painted Love ; the Women in Picasso's Life Were More Than an Inspiration for His Revolutionary Work. They Were His Muses, His Lovers, His Obsessions. without Them There Would Be No Great Art. but, as Ben Luke Reveals, the Tempestuous Relationships Were Always Doomed
Luke, Ben, The Independent (London, England)
When Dora Maar, the photographer who was Pablo Picasso's great love of the late Thirties and early Forties, looked back on her relationship with the artist, she said that when the woman in his life changed, everything did - the house, the dog, the group of friends and, most importantly, the artistic style. It's certainly true of Picasso more than any other artist that it is impossible to separate the people in his art from how he painted them. Unlike his contemporary and rival Henri Matisse, who frequently created masterpieces from impersonal artist/model set-ups, Picasso could make great art only from subjects that personally involved him.
Next month the Picasso Museum in Malaga will explore the artist's depictions of women in Picasso: Muses and Models. It's fitting that his birthplace should hold such a show. Although the great relationships of his life took place in France, it's Spain that holds some of the keys to understanding his attitudes to women.
The famously intense black eyes of the city's favourite son gaze out of posters and billboards across Malaga, reminding you that Andalusia is the home of the mirada fuerte ("the strong look"), a deep, consuming stare, with a powerful sexual charge. This is the look that devoured the women in his life, and vision as a sexual metaphor abounds in his work.
Just as importantly, Malaga is where his lifelong passion for the bullfight was formed, and his fascination with the bull that would reveal itself much later in terms of the Minotaur. In Greek myth, it was to this creature, with a man's body and a bull's head, to which women were taken to be sacrificed. Picasso's biographer John Richardson suggests that the tragic death of the artist's sister Conchita - who succumbed to diphtheria when she was eight - is crucial in understanding his identification with this beast. Picasso made a vow to God that he would never pick up a brush again if Conchita were spared. He broke the vow and she died.
Picasso's first great love was Fernande Olivier, who lived with him in Paris from 1905, after he moved from Spain. Picasso's studio was in the Bateau Lavoir, a tenement building in Montmartre that was home to artists, poets and writers such as Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire and Juan Gris. At the time, he was still immersed in the grim, etiolated figures of his Blue period, and it was in the midst of the following Rose period of 1906 that Olivier first made a significant appearance in his work. Despite the powerful presence of the figures in these paintings, Picasso's intimate descriptions of Fernande's movements frequently possess the lightness of touch of a gasp or a sigh.
Soon afterwards, Picasso's interest in Iberian sculpture and Paul Cezanne's solid and sturdy bathers transformed Fernande's presence in his work - and she was crucial in Picasso's development of his revolutionary and fiercely confrontational painting of five prostitutes, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, in 1907. Their relationship would be sacrificed to the artist's work around this time. Picasso was more absorbed than ever as, together with Georges Braque, he set about changing the course of art through Cubism. Fernande remained his muse and among the greatest of his Cubist portrayals of her is the sculpted Head of Fernande of 1909, a version of which is at Tate Modern. With this groundbreaking work, wrote the artist's French biographer Pierre Dax, Picasso "broke through the outer skin, the epidermis of classical sculpture". The piece suggested a new understanding of art's possibility to describe the human head - it is as if the muscles and tendons ripple on the surface of the work.
Because of the explosive effect of Cubism on the history of art, it's often difficult to see its great subtleties and lighter touches, but the arrival in Picasso's later Cubist works of the woman who usurped Fernande in his affections, Eva Gouel, has a giddy charm. …