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Pablo Picasso: Reassessing the artist's toxic masculinity

Sabine Oelze
April 4, 2023

Pablo Picasso is famous and infamous for the way he treated his wives, muses and mistresses. He saw them as either "goddesses" or "doormats." Is it time to knock the Spanish art icon off his pedestal?

Picasso painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" cubist style naked women.
Interpretations of the 1907 painting 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' have changed over the yearsImage: Peter Barritt/Avalon/picture alliance

"There are only two types of women — goddesses and doormats," this quote by Pablo Picasso speaks volumes. In fact, most of his relationships with women — 11 are known — followed just that pattern: First he would idolize them, then he would treat them like scum. Two of them, Marie-Therese Walter and Jacqueline Roque, committed suicide after Picasso's death.

This controversial aspect of the legacy of the superstar of 20th century art is increasingly in the spotlight. "I would accuse Picasso of being manipulative, of having a sadistic tendency and of deriving a certain pleasure from torturing women in a certain way by making promises and vows of love to them, even if he didn't mean it," said Ann-Katrin Hahn, curator at the Picasso Museum in the German city of Münster.

Women in particular often ask her how a museum can still celebrate such an artist as an idol, without criticism, she said.

Picasso painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter
Picasso painted Marie-Therese Walter, with whom he had a daughterImage: Frank Augstein/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Picasso: No scruples, and hungry for power

Picasso, who was born in Spain in 1881 and died in France at the age of 91 in 1973, was an unscrupulous genius willing to walk over dead bodies for his career, some of his ex-lovers wrote in their memoirs. He had an almost manic way of immortalizing every one of his affairs in his paintings, drawings, sculptures or ceramics. As enthusiastic as he was at the outset, that would cool just as quickly. Attraction and repulsion almost always followed the same pattern.

Fernande Olivier was the first lover to make public the story of her relationship with Picasso in her 1933 book, "Picasso and his Friends." She recounts the years spent together in Paris from 1905-1913. When Picasso and Fernande met, he was an unknown, poor Spanish artist with a strong accent.

Fernande Olivier
Fernande Olivier wrote about her life with the artistImage: Heritage Images/IMAGO Images

Olivier was one of his most important models during the early years of his career. He broke down her image into geometric splinters; nose, eyes and cheeks are hardly recognizable as such in his cubist artworks. Picasso depicted the view from the front and back at the same time.

'Demoiselles d'Avignon': An expression of misogyny

Using Fernande's likeness, Picasso created milestones in the history of modern art.

In real life, he treated her poorly, and even locked her up in their shared studio apartment to prevent her from modeling for other artists. She faced poverty when he left her for his new lover, Eva Gouel.

Rose-Maria Gropp researched Picasso's mistresses' private diaries and unpublished sources for her 2023 book, "Goddesses and Doormats. The Women and Picasso."

The art journalist sees the iconic painting "Demoiselles d'Avignon," a major work from Picasso's Cubist phase, as an expression of his contempt for women.

"After all, it's simply inconceivable to think of a painting as catastrophic as the 1907 "Demoiselles d'Avignon" without aggression on the part of its creator — that's impossible," she told DW, adding that it was just as interesting to see how the five penned-in women in the life-size painting mirrored that destructive energy. Picasso was aware of the power of women, she argues.

Men and women look at Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles D'Avignon'.
The famous painting 'Les Demoiselles D'Avignon' is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New YorkImage: Peter Foley/dpa/picture-alliance

Topple Picasso from his pedestal

Picasso despised women, said Abigail Solomon-Godeau, a Paris-based US art scholar. From a feminist point of view, people should distance themselves from this kind of artist, she said, adding that it's time for a new perspective on Picasso.

"What I'm interested in is discourses of art history, discourses about Picasso, discourses about great genius, about masters, because it's the discourse that is open to interpretation for a painting," she told DW. "Our perception of the painting 'Demoiselles D'Avignon' is not the same as in 1907. We look with different eyes now." She added that nowadays, questions arose that "could not be asked of the work 115 years ago."

Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline Roque
Picasso's second wife, Jacqueline Roque, was 45 years his juniorImage: ZUMA Wire/imago images

Solomon-Godeau would like to knock Picasso right off his pedestal. He was not superhuman, she said, and people shouldn't excuse his toxic masculinity by pointing out his Mediterranean character.

After an initial grace period in the wake of his split from his first wife Olga Khokhlova, with whom he lived from 1917 to 1935, he distorted her image in his paintings into monstrosities. One painting shows Olga asleep on an armchair — a grotesquely deformed figure with a wide-open snout-like mouth.

Women in competition

Francoise Gilot, the mother of Picasso's children Paloma and Claude, wrote about the years 1943 to 1954 in her book "My Life with Picasso."

While Fernande was penniless after the separation, Gilot was financially independent, coming from a well-to-do family. She saw Picasso for what he was and did not mince words: "He always put people around him in competition, one woman against another, one art dealer against another, one friend against another. He was masterful at using one person as a red cloth and the other as a bull. While the bull went for the red cloth, Pablo was able to deliver painful blows," she wrote.

 Francoise Gilot
Francoise Gilot, pictured in 2003, lived with Picasso for 10 yearsImage: Wolfgang Thieme/dpa/picture alliance

Gilot left Picasso

She was the only woman to leave Picasso, and he never forgave her for it. For a long time he even refused to acknowledge the paternity of their children.

Wherever he could, Picasso humiliated his wives, including in his art.

Dora Maar, who was one of his romantic partners, was considered psychologically unstable and suffered particularly from the artist's hurtful words. She will probably be remembered forever as the "weeping woman," as it is how he depicted her in his paintings.

Attraction and aversion: Picasso's relationships with his lovers almost always followed that pattern, said Münster Picasso Museum director Markus Müller. He and Marilyn McCully published the 2022 book "Picasso. Women of his Life. A Homage."

"Picasso's daughter Maya once told me that Picasso left his wives like someone who goes out one more time in the evening to get cigarettes at the bistro."

His contempt for women was also an expression of the times — and Picasso was not the only one. His friends Apollinaire and Paul Eluard were also erotomaniacs obsessed with sex, Müller said. Picasso's wives were usually younger than 30 at the time they met him, sometimes not even of age.

Picasso, a macho obsessed with success, has been a much-discussed topic in the art world since the #MeToo movement emerged. Today, people would probably describe him as a prime example of toxic masculinity.

This article was originally written in German.