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Picasso, Sculpture, and Picasso’s Women
by Brian McAvera

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Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909, plaster.

I believe that Pablo Picasso, in terms of the history of art, is as important for his sculptures as he is for his paintings. His inventiveness, his radical reappraisal of what sculpture was and could become, and his ability (rather like Henry Moore’s) to seize on the discoveries of non-Western art as well as to latch onto any discovery by his contemporaries, allowed him, for at least five decades out of a long career, to fashion new and striking work. Others would not agree with this assessment. For example, Alan Bowness, in Picasso in Retrospect (ed. Roland Penrose and John Golding, Granada 1981, p. 79), considered Picasso’s sculpture to be “always tangential to his main artistic activity…there is no consistent line of development, no progression of any kind: the sculpture of the last 30 years is almost self-contradictory in character.” This argument tells us more about certain kinds of art historians than it does about Picasso. Why should there be a consistent line of development? Why shouldn’t sculpture be self-contradictory? More to the point, there is a consistent pattern in Picasso’s sculpture—the dialogue with his two-dimensional work. I also believe that art criticism, art history, and art biography have served Picasso poorly, often taking him at his own evaluation, swallowing wholesale the myths peddled by his secretary and first biography, Sabartes. Recent exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (“Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier,” which will be at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas through May 9th), and the Gagosian Gallery in New York (“The Sculptures of Pablo Picasso”) suggest a current revaluation of Picasso's sculpture and, more particularly, a revaluation of his sculptural images of women.

With any work of art we look at form, content, and the circumstances of production. In relation to the very substantial portion of Picasso’s work that uses women as (at the least) a point of departure, if the information of the circumstances of production (which would include the kind of relationship he was having, the assessment of his attitudes, etc.) is inaccurate or unsubstantiated, and if the analysis of the content of a supposed portrait, for example, is based on an erroneous view of the woman portrayed, then any analysis is unlikely to be of major value. It seems to me that many critics demonstrate a fundamental, often willful misunderstanding not only of the role of the women in Picasso's life, but also, because of this, of much of the work. The abuse extends to the occasional individual who tries to see the other side of the picture, as evidenced by the vilification that Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington had to endure regarding her very well researched Picasso: Creator and Destroyer (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988).

In the following discussion of some of Picasso’s sculptures in relation to the women who “inspired” them, I need to declare an interest: I am a playwright as well as an art critic and curator. My interest in Picasso started well over three decades ago when, as a callow youth, I thought he was a con artist. However, the experience of working my way around Europe’s major museums, and of seeing large numbers of Picasso’s works, soon convinced me otherwise. The more I read about Picasso, and the more I looked at his work, the more it seemed to me that most criticism and biography were dangerously misleading about the women in Picasso’s life and about their representation in his work. Women were the subject matter for a substantial part of this artist’s work. He had, over the course of a very long life, major relationships with at least eight women, not to mention many lesser encounters. Furthermore, as Picasso’s life was, above all, an autobiography in artworks (one of the reasons he began signing works with exact dates) it is clearly important to understand and evaluate his relationships. As a playwright, I ended up writing a cycle of eight plays, “Picasso’s Women,” that looked at Picasso and his work from the point of view of these women; another play, Beside Picasso, looked at the women from the artist’s point of view.

The art establishment frequently displays an often unremitting hostility in its critical and art historical attitudes toward Picasso's women. They are routinely described as stupid, promiscuous, ignorant of art; as harridans whose key interests were money, sex, and immortality through their portrayal in Picasso’s work. The emphasis on promiscuity is highly ironic, as the most promiscuous person was Picasso himself. Yet we don’t see emphasis being placed on his promiscuity in biographies. Often the vilification, as in the hands of the supposed doyen of Picasso biographers, John Richardson, is venomous: his reviews of the memoirs of Fernande Olivier and Françoise Gilot are inaccurate, untruthful, and utterly partisan.

Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1959-60, bronze cast from the 1909 plaster original.

Apart from any notions of integrity, honesty, impartiality, or commitment to truth, does it matter that the women portrayed by Picasso have been misrepresented? I would suggest that it does. Even a cursory glance at what we might call the trajectory of a critical path is enough to confirm that many critics, biographers, and journalists simply recycle the supposed evidence that they have found in previous books and articles. Not only do they recycle “evidence,” they also recycle impressions, generalizations, and gossip. Thus Olga, for instance, is constantly portrayed as an inept ballet dancer, a stupid woman who knew nothing about art, and a woman whose psychotic episodes drove an unfortunate artist to distraction. Critics, taking such representations for granted, then start to interpret work produced during the “Olga period” in light of these ideas.

The truth, of course, is a rather more flexible commodity. Far from being inept, Olga danced four featured roles for the Diaghilev company. The impresario often packed the corps de ballet with pretty young women who had rich fathers, but he was a demon when it came to the featured roles. Olga may be called “silly” by Richardson, but that is not the picture of her that emerges in the memoirs of other ballerinas, one of whom noted that she was one of the few really intelligent women in Diaghilev’s company. She was well educated and fluent in a variety of languages. While it is often stated that she knew little about art, her father was a collector and well versed in Russian and European avant-garde work, so it is unlikely that she was as ignorant as is often claimed.

And as for an unfortunate Picasso being driven mad by her psychotic attacks, the evidence would suggest that it is more likely to be the other way around. Not only did Olga have psychotic attacks, but so did Dora Maar. Marie-Thérèse Walter hanged herself. Jacqueline Roque shot herself. There is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that Picasso’s treatment of women was often abusive, cruel, and heartless. So which is more likely, that Picasso was a victim or Olga?

Of course, if a mythic image of an artist is patiently created, then the critical response to the work, when seen in the light of the myth, is equally mythic. To take a simple example: if we look at sculpture, let us say a portrait bust of Fernande or a Marie-Thérèse head, what are we looking at? What is the meaning of the work? How is it to be interpreted? Are such works portraits in any sense of the term? Are they “about” the sitter or “about” Picasso’s attitude to the sitter, or are they just formalist exercises? Do they indicate Picasso’s passionate, loving nature? Or something rather more dangerous, unpleasant, and complex.

If Fernande is characterized as promiscuous, indolent, and not particularly intelligent, then sculpture of her is often analyzed in the light of these statements. If Picasso is characterized as a decent, loving man, then likewise the works are interpreted in that light. If we are told that a certain work represents Fernande, then we assume that this is so. Let us look at some of the sculptures of Fernande, in particular the bronze relief panel Head of a Woman (Fernande) (1906), the Bust of Fernande, in wood with traces of paint (1906), and the Head of a Woman (Fernande) (1959–60), a bronze cast from the original 1909 plaster. The relief panel depicts a long-faced, lantern-jawed, long-nosed, thin-chested woman with an acidulous expression on her face and distinctly male features. Fernande was a plump, buxom, and very pretty woman. There are numerous photographs of her, and in terms of Picasso’s supposed representation, anything less like the statuesque Fernande is hard to imagine.

So what is going on? Are we to believe that there is documentary evidence that this work is based on Fernande, and if so, why do exhibition captions not comment on the striking difference between the portrayal and the published photos? How confident does this make a viewer in regard to other supposedly firm identifications in the rest of Picasso’s oeuvre? The 1906 bust, a totem, really, with a highly naturalistic face atop a spindly papoose-like body, doesn’t look remotely like the previous work. It is obviously indebted to tribal art. What do we make of this bust of Fernande? How do we interpret it? Art critics, when not talking demeaningly about the pleasure of Fernande’s body, tend to concentrate on formal aspects, in this case the tribal influences. Yet in terms of possible, perhaps probable interpretation, the real circumstances of Fernande’s life with Picasso are highly relevant. We know (Fernande among many others tells us so) that Picasso was highly superstitious. He even built a small altar to Fernande when they first lived together. But she was unable to have a baby, and Picasso, we know, very much wanted children, so much so that they even adopted a young girl later in the relationship. Tribal art is often totemic and related to magic. This particular sculpture has Fernande’s head and a swelling, papoose-like shape. Does that not suggest that the work, in part, is an atavistic offering to the gods, a propitiation for a hoped-for pregnancy?

If one looks at the 1909 Head, usually taken as an application of Cubism to sculpture, one has to ask whether a) this work actually is based on Fernande, and b) if it is, why do critics not comment on the attitude to Fernande as revealed by the work. This sculpture is not so much a portrait as an exercise in style. The eyes are reduced to deep circumflex-accent sockets. The mouth, thin-lipped and recessive, is sharp, and the whole, from the bouffant hairstyle to the thick folds of the neck, is a series of bulging, slanting, projected planes. Compare this to the drawing of Vollard, done the following year, which is also in a Cubist style. Compare the drawing of Vollard to published photographs and you will clearly spot the likeness. But is the same true of Fernande’s head? I’d suggest that there is little similarity between the published photographs of Fernande and this work. What is interesting about the work—other than formally—is its depiction of the female. Fernande was a young, beautiful woman. The sculpture is a cold, almost brutal head, shifting between sharp angular planes and bulging furrows, rhyming convex and concave with cold delight. It is indisputably expressive, but negatively rather than positively. If indeed the occasion of this work was Fernande, then it is likely that what is being revealed is typical of Picasso. Whenever he became bored with a woman, or whenever she began to assert her own individuality, he denigrated her and at the same time began window-shopping for a replacement. If this is Fernande, is it not likely to be his projection of her, aged, made coarse, reduced to an object? We know that he was having difficulties with Fernande at the time. He would soon be decamping with Eva Gouel.

As a formal work of art, of course, this particular work is a major sculpture. According to Albert E. Elsen, it was the first, possibly the only attempt by Picasso to find a three-dimensional equivalent for the surface fragmentation in analytical Cubist painting. It was clearly influential: Boccioni’s The Mother followed only a year later. And Picasso’s sculpture was a radical departure from the work of Rodin and Bourdelle. If one looks at the sculptures that he produced between 1902 and 1909, one can observe the facility and the expressive potential of a Rodin or a Bourdelle, in work such as Sitting Woman (1902) or the Head of a Woman (1905). With their smoothly flowing naturalism, their dexterity, and their incipiently sentimental attitudes, they are the equivalent in sculpture to the Blue and Rose period paintings. Yet at the same time he was on a “Cook’s Tour” of the tribal and archaic world, experimenting, trying out different styles like costumes, as with Standing Nude, Three Nudes (both 1907), and the Bust of Fernande. He was not the first to discover tribal art. Vlaminck, Matisse, and Derain, among others, explored this world, and Derain’s stone Nude Woman Standing is dated to 1906. But Picasso’s protean quality, his ability to take from disparate sources and meld them together, is the stamp of his genius.

The shift from the overt influences of tribal art to the more rarefied and abstracted world of the full-blown Cubist enterprise is striking. There is the same stripping back in the search for abstracted essentials as in the earlier work, but now it is as if the notional subject is turned inside out, a jigsaw puzzle to be played with and rearranged. Volume is jettisoned. These new works, such as the Guitars, make internal space manifest. As in the Glass of Absinthe, Picasso plays with a huge range of household objects: cardboard, bits of wire, chunks of wooden packaging, string—whatever is at hand. Ordinary objects, as in Bottle of Bass (1914) were, as James Joyce might have said of Picasso’s work, discombobulated, cut open and re-arranged, re-organized.

The element of play and the element of secrecy were interlinked. There is the same effect in the paintings of the period: all those inscriptions to Eva that can be searched for and decoded, all those notations for pubic hair and so forth (leading back to the relationship between the women and the work). Picasso is usually thought of as a genius, the women as appendages. But it is likely that many of his ideas came from the women themselves. We know that Françoise Gilot, a highly intelligent woman and a painter herself, helped him consistently (and this process is detailed in her book). We know that Dora Maar, a bluestocking and a serious artist who had work in the first Surrealist exhibition in London, as well as an experimental photographer well regarded by Man Ray, helped him with the iconography of Guernica. It is very likely that Eva Gouel helped him with problems relating to the sculpture of the period, in my view the most radical and interesting of the entire Picasso oeuvre. Think of the papiers collés, the Still Life with Chair-Caning, the various Guitars, the different versions of the Glass of Absinthe, all produced during the Eva period. Even Richardson, referring to one of the Guitar sculptures, comments, “Who but Eva would have shown him how to get the protruding sound hole he had contrived out of a cardboard tube to fit as snugly into his construction as a sleeve into a jacket?” (A Life of Picasso, volume 2, Cape 1996, p. 254.) Eva made her own dresses and used dressmakers’ patterns, which are after all about translating two dimensions into three. Dressmakers’ pins show up in 13 of Picasso’s constructions. So did Picasso simply see Eva at work and have a brainstorm, or did she suggest possibilities to him?

Richardson, as usual, starts from a base of denigration and character assassination in relation to Eva. We are informed that “except for Picasso, nobody in Montmartre seems to have been especially fond of Eva,” that “this seemingly sweet-natured woman could be two-faced and calculating,” that “she kept her past dark,” and that because of her “slyness, it is difficult to determine when Picasso’s affair with her began" (Ibid., p. 222). Richardson continues his negative characterization when he claims, while discussing Picasso’s secret affair with Eva while the artist was still living with Fernande, that Eva “was longing to prove what a perfect little wife…she would make”; that she “soon established a powerful sexual hold over the artist”; and that “she continued to manipulate this sexual triangle to her advantage” (Ibid., p. 228). Having been characterized as sexually rapacious and two-faced, the occasional positive comment will scarcely be noticed.

But is Richardson’s assessment true? “No one in Montmartre seems to have been especially fond of her.” What a sweeping statement. How does he know? There is no evidence provided. Yet we do know that Marcoussis, her previous husband, clearly liked her, that she had lots of friends, including many literary people and artists (including many of the Futurists), and that she got on well with Gertrude Stein. That she was “two-faced and calculating” is a somewhat strange assessment when we note that the most two-faced, calculating person of all was Picasso. Almost all of Richardson’s characterization is ruthlessly one-sided assertion, untainted by evidence. The job of a critic or biographer is to weigh the available evidence and to be fair. Eva was an intelligent woman who had already lived with an artist, and in an artist’s milieu. It was Eva who introduced Picasso to theater and ballet, who was at ease with literary people, and who became an excellent orchestrator of his career. She entertained dealers, collectors, and critics and set up two households for him. At the very least, the woman who lived with Picasso during the most exciting and revolutionary period of his sculpture deserves proper investigation rather than cheap, sexist denigration.

The discoveries of the Eva period do not vanish. They reappear over the years in a playful manner, as in Table and Guitar (1919), which uses a cardboard carton, cut out and painted, along with paper and crayon, and in the expansive and easy-going Glass and Packet of Tobacco (1921), made of cut, folded, and painted sheet metal and wire, and in the various Guitars of 1926, using cartons, string, tulle, nails, tissues, and so on. There is a remarkable interplay in these works among constructive possibilities, the urge to explore, and aesthetic interest. Sometimes the aesthetic interest is virtually nil (though some critics insist otherwise)—much of what is exhibited as Picasso’s sculpture is little more than notational exploration, the equivalent of sketchbook pages.

Critics have insisted on looking at the sculptures generated during the relationship with Marie-Thérèse as portraits, but they clearly are not, at least not in any recognizable figurative or psychological sense. They are a combination of formal experimentation and Picasso’s own psychological, sexual, and emotional attitudes. The Head of a Woman (1931) is woman in the position of submission. Profile Head of a Woman (Marie-Thérèse) of the same year is the head as pretext: the nose bulges hugely, as does the cheekbone. As always, Picasso looks for structural rhymes; he is not interested in the personality of the individual, but in the formal possibilities. Perhaps another way of putting it is that the artist, at intervals throughout his life, was so formally inventive that art historians delight in tracing the patterns, noting the possible influences and so forth—but frequently ignore just how shallow the work is in terms of content. Most of the so-called Boigeloup studies of Marie-Thérèse are of little interest as portrait—but they are expressions of tactility, roundedness (as of a hand cupping a breast or a finger caressing a back). They are “Woman” reduced to sex and sensuality. Intelligence and personality, all those elements that go to make up humanity, are conspicuous in their absence. The apogee of this reduction can be found in a number of works of the ’30s, for example the bronze Bust of a Woman (1932), in which the face is reduced to a nose and mouth, which, as both John Berger and Elsen have noted, function as metaphors for male and female sexual organs. (See Berger’s Success and Failure of Picasso, Penguin 1965, p. 160, and Elsen’s Modern European Sculpture 1918–1945, Braziller 1979, p. 65.)

In works such as the 1931 plaster Profile Head, the 1933 plaster Profile Head, or the 1933 plaster Three-Quarters Head, the artist is like a jazz musician exploring a riff. This time, in plaster relief, he starts creating heads by using thick sensuous strokes, like three-dimensional paint, now trying it in high relief, now in low relief, now as if the work were a miniature gargoyle protruding from a medieval cathedral. As so often in Picasso, the hand runs away with him, the “riffing” becomes an obsessive finger exercise in an over-elaborated style.

Labeling the works as “portraits” allows critics to ignore some unpleasant aspects of these works. It allows them to ignore the consistently demeaning attitude to women. It allows them to ignore the shallowness and repetitiveness of much of the work. Most importantly, it allows them to ignore what is actually happening in the work in terms of Picasso himself. A given work may explore naked sexuality, but it becomes “safe” when it is labeled as a portrait, becoming a pretext for a formally minded critic to trace influences in purely art historical terms. In reality, the works are evidence of a man who viewed women in terms of their bodies, who saw them as the occasion for formal exploitation; they present us with the inside of his own head, where elements of various women in his life remained.

There is a very blunt example of this in four works produced between 1949 and 1959: the ’49 bronze Pregnant Woman and the two plaster versions plus the bronze of Pregnant Woman (1950–59). Oddly enough, critics have not labeled these as Françoise (perhaps because she is still alive), even though Françoise bore him two children (in 1947 and ’49). Critical labeling may also have been short-circuited by Françoise’s documentation of Picasso’s negative reactions to her pregnancy. The later works depict huge breasts and a huge belly, with one of them depicting the woman as having spatulate feet. The belly itself is not depicted as an element of femininity but rather as some strange, surreal object, a growth rather like a peculiar gourd. The earlier bronze, a tribal-art version consisting of a spine topped with v-shaped short arms and, midway down, a shape like a gourd cut in half for the belly (topped with tiny breasts) and a claw shape for legs, is not evidence of an individual who felt gentleness or sympathy in relation to pregnancy. What we have, I believe, are images that stem from Françoise’s pregnancies but provide a map of Picasso’s psychological state—not love for baby but a crude and rather selfish projection of what the oncoming child has done to the artist’s partner, making her into the opposite of a sexually attractive woman.

In the ’40s and ’50s Picasso’s gift for bricolage ran riot, with 1950 and ’51 being memorable years. Little Girl Skipping, The Goat, Woman with Pushchair, Baboon with Young, and the various versions of The Reader, for example, all date from those years. The latter in the original version uses wood, metal objects, nails, screws, and plaster, with a roughly oblong piece of wood for the body and a roughly modeled head. Today, when no bric-a-brac market the world over is without its pale imitation of such work, it is difficult to realize the inventiveness of this sculpture. But one cannot avoid the impression that the ’50s initiated a long decline. Repetition becomes the order of the day. Sentimentality increases. Emotion becomes etiolated, and real content, other than the simple challenge to “recognize what this is” all but vanishes. Jacqueline with the Green Ribbon (1962), for example, in folded and colored sheet metal, is a decorative exercise. As with so many of the paintings of Jacqueline, it’s Jacqueline dressed up, not an actress inhabiting a role but merely in fancy dress.

Picasso is a major figure in world art, but all too often the Picasso Industry gets in the way of sensible evaluation. The formal elements of his work have received considerable attention and analysis, but analysis of the content, especially in those works based on women, is often rudimentary and derived from inaccurate, biased views of the women in Picasso’s life. The same applies to the circumstances of production—little effort is made to see the events or the process of creation from the perspective of the women that were so important to both. In this day and age, that is rather odd.

Brian McAvera is a critic and playwright living in Northern Ireland.