The Home Front
Of all the problems besetting Picasso in late 1932, foremost was the misery of married life with his Russian wife, Olga. As recounted in volume III, the former ballerina, who had prided herself, to Picasso’s ever- increasing dismay, on being an impeccably ladylike consort and hostess, had become a termagant at home. The reasons were numerous, some dating back to the time of their wedding, in 1918. In April of that year, an injury and operation on her left leg had forced Olga to abandon her dream of balletic stardom. Never again would she dance in public. Nor would she ever again see her parents and siblings after her marriage to Picasso. The Soviet Revolution had torn Olga’s tsarist family apart. The disappearance of her father in 1919 and the absence of her two brothers in the military put her mother and sister in dire circumstances, detailed in the troubling letters they sent to Olga in Paris. On December 24, 1919, Olga’s sister, Nina, wrote that they were facing sickness, scarcity of food, risk of eviction, and the brutally cold Russian winter. Their elderly mother, Lydia, who would die in 1927, was reduced to peddling her belongings to survive. Olga and Picasso regularly sent money and other necessities to ease their suffering, but this did little to alleviate Olga’s guilt at knowing that her loved ones lived in poverty.
In 1922, Olga had to undergo yet another surgery, this time to treat a serious illness, the nature of which has never been divulged. Stabilizing her condition required years of painful procedures in hospital. Olga’s delicate health further alienated her from the superstitious husband, who blamed her for her own misfortune. As the artist once told me, he believed “women’s illnesses are women’s fault.” Picasso’s extramarital affair(s) and his violence contributed to Olga’s physical and mental debacle. Since 1929, Olga had known of Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter—the very young woman he had met outside the Galeries Lafayette in 1927—from whom she had intercepted a postcard. She kept the address of her husband’s mistress in her agenda but seems to have told no one. Nor did she act upon it.
Another element in Picasso’s loathing of Olga: the heavy Russian cloud of refugee resentment, grief, and nostalgia that permeated her entourage. Olga’s rooms in their apartment on the rue la Boétie resounded with Russian rather than French chatter. So much of this had rubbed off on him, Picasso told me, that a barber had even asked him, “Monsieur est russe?” And indeed, thirty years later he could still mimic Russian to perfection. This most superstitious of men had even adopted many Russian rituals. For instance, before embarking on a journey he insisted that those with him sit in silence for several minutes.
References to Olga in Picasso’s work often turn out to be mockeries of balletic artifice. In one of his cruelest images, he depicts her with her hands clasped above her head in a travesty of the fifth position. He sometimes portrays his mistress Marie-Thérèse looking very much at ease in the same position. Olga has also been identified with the monstrous, horse like women that appeared in his painting since the 1920s. The link becomes more explicit in his corrida images of the 1930s, which often depict a hysterical horse racing against the charging bull or minotaur that stands for Picasso.
Despite these indignities, the thought of leaving Picasso seems never to have crossed Olga’s mind. Her husband, on the other hand, had probably begun thinking about divorce. Until recently it had been illegal in Spain. However, as Picasso must have known, the liberal government that came to power in 1931 was in the process of legalizing it. Indeed, a law was passed in 1932 allowing divorce for the first time in Spain. Since divorces for foreigners married in France had to follow statutes of the husband’s native country, one can only imagine that Picasso’s visit to Spain in summer 1933 was not only to see his family but also to check out how the new regime might help him get free of Olga.
Complicating the couple’s domestic problems was the news that Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s mistress from 1904 to 1911—years during which he and Georges Braque masterminded the cubist revolution—was publishing a memoir about her affair with the artist. Fernande turned out to be a natural writer. Her account of bohemian life in Montmartre is far more down-to-earth and convincing than Henri Murger’s celebrated, if novelettish, Scènes dela vie de bohème of 1851. She wrote it, Fernande said, because she was broke. Also, she had never received the settlement that Picasso had promised when he left her. In the summer of 1930, Fernande had arranged to have her story serialized in the evening newspaper Le Soir.
Fernande’s articles infuriated Picasso, who would try, not always successfully, to keep his multifaceted love life out of the press. This was the first time that intimate details of his hitherto very private life had appeared in a popular newspaper. He tried and failed to stop the publication; but Olga, more aware than ever of the sheer scale of Picasso’s infidelities, reacted as ferociously as if Fernande still shared her husband’s bed. It was probably Olga, rather than Picasso, who pressed his lawyers to take legal action. Six installments of Fernande’s memoirs would appear before their efforts prevailed. Meanwhile, Paul Léautaud, editor of the literary journal Mercure de France, had been so impressed by the vividness of Fernande’s story that he asked to publish it, and an agreement was reached to print three more excerpts in three consecutive issues of the Mercure.
In 1933, Picasso once again tried to stop publication when Stock printed Fernande’s memoirs in book form, with a preface by Léautaud. Once again he failed. Picasso et ses amis came out to considerable success. Thirty years later, Picasso told me that, much as he resented the invasion of his privacy, Fernande’s book described things the way they had been: “the only true picture of the Bateau Lavoir years,” he said.
In April 1931, two years before the publication of her book in France, Fernande had reached out to her old friend Gertrude Stein to help find an American publisher for the memoir. This, wrote Fernande, would “rescue me from material difficulties that have left me at the end of my strength.” Gertrude referred Fernande to her American agent, William Aspenwall Bradley, who agreed to represent her in finding a translator and a publisher. It would be a great inducement, he said, if a celebrated writer, such as Gertrude, could be persuaded to write a preface introducing Fernande to the American public. Gertrude declined. She could not, she said, write anything that did not correspond to her “ideal.” Fernande was hurt. “Don’t forget me, I beg of you,” she implored Gertrude. “This book is the last card in my hand. If it doesn’t succeed, I’ll stop struggling for an existence, whose poetic meaning eludes me."
Fernande heard nothing from Bradley or Gertrude for two years. The reason became abundantly clear when friends in America informed her that Gertrude was coming out with her memoirs. And instead of finding a publisher for Nine Years with Picasso, as Fernande wanted to call her book, Bradley had arranged for Harcourt, Brace to take Gertrude’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This turned out to cover much of the same ground as Fernande’s book and to have once had a very similar title (My Twenty-Five Years with Gertrude Stein). It was also written, albeit with more art, in the same vivid, snapshot style—a totally new departure for this usually arcane writer. Bradley had arranged for extracts from Gertrude’s entertaining book to appear in The Atlantic Monthly
, and it was these extracts that friends brought to Fernande’s attention. Fernande had always regarded Gertrude as a mentor, someone to whom she could turn when things went wrong. Now, rightly or wrongly, she felt deceived as well as betrayed. Fernande accused Stein of plagiarism and went so far as to threaten a lawsuit, which she never carried out.
In November 1932, shortly before publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein invited Picasso and Olga to her celebrated studio—whose walls boasted some of his finest cubist works, not least the great portrait of Gertrude—to hear her read from the manuscript. Olga was appalled by the bits about Picasso’s sacrosanct private life, not least the story of his breakup with Fernande: “She and Pablo have decided to separate forever. . . . You know Pablo says if you love a woman you give her money. Well now it is when you want to leave a woman you have to wait until you have enough money to give her. Vollard has just bought out his atelier and so he can afford to separate from her by giving her half.” Humiliated by passages like this, Olga walked out of the room in the middle of Gertrude’s reading. Gertrude recalled the incident in the book she published five years later, Everybody’s Autobiography: “I was reading [Picasso] was listening and his eyes were wide open and suddenly his wife Olga got up and she said she would not listen she would go away she said. What’s the matter, we said, I do not know that woman she said and left. Pablo said go on reading, I said no you must go after your wife, he said oh I said oh, and he left . . .” After this evening, Picasso would not speak to Gertrude for the next two years.
Marie-Thérèse fell seriously ill toward the end of 1932. While swimming or, more likely, kayaking in the Marne, she contracted a spirochetal disease from the rats in the river. She was hospitalized with a high fever for several weeks, and most of her hair fell out. This was the second time that Marie-Thérèse had nearly died in the water. Françoise Gilot told me of an earlier incident that seemingly occurred in summer 1928, when Picasso and Olga were staying at Dinard on Brittany’s Emerald Coast. Marie- Thérèse had been hidden away in a nearby colonie de vacances. What perverse, surreal pleasure Picasso must have derived from having his teenage mistress concealed from his wife in a summer camp for children. In the course of their fun and games, Marie- Thérèse, who was an excellent swimmer, rescued one of the other girls in the camp from drowning. In doing so, she was nearly drowned herself.
Marie-Thérèse’s aquatic accidents of 1928 and 1932 would haunt Picasso’s art for years. In the Sauvetage of November 20, 1932, he envisioned Marie-Thérèse’s lifesaver as a naked hulk of man—presumably self-referential—who appears to be embracing rather than resuscitating the girl’s backward-bending body. Drawings done five days later depict her underwater, entangled in weeds, while her sisters prance around. On December 4, Picasso painted a grisaille beach scene on the Sauvetage theme in which two athletic girls play ball while another is seemingly trampled. The lack of color lends a deadly meaning to the image.
As we shall see, the distress triggered by Marie- Thérèse’s accidents prompted Picasso’s turn to votive magic: exvotos—vows to gods, be they Mithraic or Christian—in the face of sickness, accident, or death. A sequence of votive works, paintings as well as sculptures, would dominate Picasso’s imagery for the next four months and reappear sporadically over the next four years.
Picasso’s principal exvoto work takes the form of a masterpiece. In the spring and summer of 1933, he would devote himself to making what is widely perceived as one of his finest sculptures, Woman with a Lamp, traditionally called Woman with Vase. This would materialize in the secrecy of his Boisgeloup studio. Why did Picasso choose this sculpture for his grave at Vauvenargues, his château on the slopes of Mont Sainte-Victoire (Cézanne’s favorite subject)? Hitherto, no one has identified the figure holding a lamp, though various guesses have been made, including a misguided one in volume III. Here, I propose a new identification of the girl who pre-sides over the artist’s grave. It is no less than his long-dead sister, Conchita.
The turbulence of Picasso’s life and work in the early 1930s harks back to his adolescence. In 1891, the Picasso family had moved from their Mediterranean home-town of Málaga to the Atlantic seaport of La Coruña. The artist’s father had been appointed principal of this city’s art school. During Christmas 1894, Pablo’s seven-year-old sister, Conchita, for whom he had developed an obsessive adoration, was struck down with diphtheria. Paris was the only source for serum. Weeks would pass before it arrived. In the throes of adolescent piety imposed by his once priestly family, thirteen-year-old Pablo had vowed to God that he would never paint again if his sister’s life was spared. He did paint again. The serum failed to arrive in time, and Conchita died on January 10, 1895.
Besides commemorating Marie-Thérèse’s mishap, Woman with a Lamp honors his little sister Conchita, whose death would haunt him for life. True, the figure over his grave does not represent a seven-year-old; he preferred to immortalize her as a grown woman. The beloved child’s early death would cast an inescapable shadow over virtually all of Picasso’s relationships with women, especially that with Marie-Thérèse. According to Jacqueline Roque, half a century later, the secret of the broken vow had never been divulged to anyone else but the women in his life. Fernande Olivier was lucky: she was abandoned, seemingly unscathed by Picasso’s psychic demands. His wife Olga spent the last thirty years of her life in self- destructive devotion. By virtue of being a substitute for Conchita, Marie-Thérèse survived her affair with the artist, but she took her own life four years after his death. Her successor, Dora Maar, would suffer a mental collapse, from which Dr. Jacques Lacan rescued her by transforming her from a surrealist rebel into a devout Catholic conservative. Françoise Gilot (whose reign lasted from 1943 to 1952) survived, fought back, and thrived after leaving the artist. Jacqueline Roque, however, Picasso’s second wife, would sacrifice herself on the altar of his art. Thanks largely to her, the last decade of his life was enormously productive. Thirteen years after his death, Jacqueline, too, would commit suicide.
Copyright © 2007 by John Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.