Chilling portrait of Picasso the monster: 50 years after his death, how the genius bewitched his serial younger lovers, beat and betrayed them – then crushed them onto his canvas… TOM LEONARD’s vivid impression of an outrageous life
Few would disagree with history’s verdict that Pablo Picasso was one of the most influential artists ever. And no painting has earned him more acclaim than Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his iconoclastic Cubist study of five naked prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel.
For many, it epitomizes what made Picasso so special: his revolutionary painting style and shockingly radical representation of the female form.
But are his adoring fans also aware that while he was working on Les Demoiselles, Picasso and his longtime mistress Fernande Olivier, briefly adopted a 13-year-old girl named Raymonde from a Paris orphanage who he sketched spreading her legs?
‘There’s no indication that Picasso ever abused Raymonde [who was later returned to the orphanage],’ wrote the artist’s biographer Miles Unger, ‘but it’s clear she aroused feelings in him that might have led to disaster. His attraction to adolescent girls, at least later in life, is well-documented.’
As the world marks the 50th anniversary of the enigmatic Spanish artist’s death today, in the post-MeToo era many may ask whether Picasso deserves to be celebrated – or condemned.
For the master on canvas was a monster in life, a brutal misogynist and wife-beating womanizer who tormented those around him.
Pablo Picasso, who died in 1973 aged 91, bedded hundreds of lovers in his lifetime
Pablo Picasso with French actress Vera Clouzot (left) and his daughter, Maya Picasso in Cannes
Picasso’s famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, depicting five naked prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel
As is clear from his art, Picasso was obsessed by women, but – perhaps embarrassed by this dependence – he was also repelled by them. Those who crossed his path – and not always just women – usually suffered terribly for it.
His second wife and one of his chief mistresses both committed suicide, his son died of depression-induced alcoholism and his grandson killed himself by drinking bleach. Picasso’s first wife and another mistress suffered nervous breakdowns and went mad. Another lover became a recluse.
There was an ugly pattern here: the moment the women in his life became ill or no longer inspired his creativity, he lost interest and moved on.
‘No one in my family ever managed to escape from the stranglehold of this genius,’ wrote his granddaughter, Marina, in a 2001 memoir. ‘He needed blood to sign each of his paintings: my father’s blood, my brother’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and mine. He needed the blood of those who loved him.’
The monumentally arrogant and narcissistic Picasso apparently delighted in his cruelty – after all, this was a man who once told his long-time mistress and muse Francoise Gilot that ‘women are machines for suffering’ and that ‘for me, there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats’.
Thankfully, Francoise is, at least, still alive – though she claims Picasso did once press a burning cigarette into her cheek during a row: he was angry because she’d had the temerity to enjoy a seaside holiday without him.
Clearly, Picasso craved female attention – and while he was prolific as an artist, creating some 25,000 original paintings and sculptures, he was also prolific as a womanizer.
Although Picasso had ‘only’ eight long-term lovers, he is believed to have slept with hundreds of women. (Perhaps he was merely observing the advice of his doctor who reportedly once told him to make sure he had ‘plenty of sex and red wine’.)
The famous artist pictured at his home in France
Picasso with a young woman wearing a bikini on a beach in France in the 1960s
Picasso talks with a friend in 1948 at the Antibes museum, today known as the Picasso Museum, the first museum in the world to be dedicated to the artist
Comically, Picasso liked to present each intended conquest with a gold figurine of a small man with a huge phallus. The message was obvious. He himself was short – only 5’4 – and insisted that his mistresses be not only submissive (vital if they were to put up with his endless infidelity) but also shorter than him, which certainly must have narrowed the field.
But Picasso’s attitude to these women was wildly unpredictable. ‘His feeling for women oscillated between extreme tenderness on the one hand and violent hatred on the other, the mid-point being dislike – if not contempt,’ wrote biographer Patrick O’Brian.
Art historians believe Picasso’s terrible misogyny is rooted in his childhood. Born in Malaga, Spain, in 1881, his father, Don Jose Ruiz, was a fellow artist who would visit a local brothel like clockwork every Sunday after Mass.
Pablo likely lost his virginity aged 13 or 14 in just such an establishment and continued to rely on prostitutes to satisfy his enormous sexual appetite – establishing, some say, a view of sex as purely transactional in which women were objects rather than emotional partners.
Aged 19, he moved to Paris with two other young Spanish painters. But when one of them fell in love with a girl and failed to consummate their relationship due to impotence, Picasso had sex with her instead. The other man was left devastated and killed himself.
Picasso’s first muse and serious love interest, model Fernande Olivier, eventually tired of his possessive behavior and in 1912 started an affair of her own with another painter. Picasso, who clearly considered infidelity to be solely his prerogative, was furious and took revenge by starting an intense affair with one of Fernande’s best friends, Marcelle Humbert.
But it was quickly obvious that he could never be faithful, even when Marcelle – who he knew as Eva – fell dangerously ill with tuberculosis and he would occasionally leave her bedside to visit other lovers.
After Eva died in 1916, he consoled himself with a string of lovers before becoming infatuated with an aloof Russian ballerina, Olga Khokhlova, who eventually succumbed to his advances. They wed in 1918 and she bore him a son, Paulo, whom he adored. But she too soon became plagued by ill health and, once again, Picasso’s gaze started to wander.
The painter’s mistress Marie-Therese Walter killed herself in 1977
His second wife Jacqueline Roque shot herself in 1986, 13 years after the artist’s death
Picasso’s grandson Pablito drank a bottle of bleach and died in 1973
As their marriage soured and Olga’s mental health deteriorated, experts believe it’s no coincidence that the women in Picasso’s art noticeably started to become more grotesque. ‘Painting is just another way of keeping a diary,’ Picasso once observed.
In 1927, when he was 45, he met 17-year-old Marie-Therese Walter on a street in Paris. ‘You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso,’ he told her – before soon taking her virginity and starting a passionate affair, despite her being legally underage.
When, the following year, Picasso took his wife Olga and their children on holiday to a fashionable Brittany resort, Marie-Therese secretly came too. Picasso paid for her to attend a girls’ summer camp and every morning they would meet up discreetly in a beach hut.
He managed to pull it off – and back in Paris, he kept her hidden away from the outside world in an apartment he rented. Not even his closest friends knew of her existence for years.
Perhaps the great care he took to protect Marie-Therese reflected the fact that Picasso thought of her as his ‘golden muse’ and, some say, the greatest love of his life – though even she described their lovemaking as sometimes ‘intimidating and terrible’.
Despite the fact that Picasso shamelessly included various portraits of his secret mistress in shows, Olga somehow didn’t discover the affair until 1935 when she also learnt Marie-Therese was pregnant with a child. She was grief-stricken and fled to the South of France.
She remained obsessed with Picasso, however, sending him hate mail and, when her son Paulo became his father’s chauffeur, she followed the pair around Europe while living out of a suitcase. Interestingly, the couple never actually divorced as, under French law, it would have meant splitting his vast fortune equally with her.
Soon, however, even beloved Marie-Therese found herself being upstaged by a rival when, in 1936, he started a simultaneous affair with Dora Maar, a beautiful photographer who at 29 was almost half his age.
Picasso’s Birds In A Cage depicts a wrestling match between his two lovers Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar
The two mistresses eventually met by accident at his studio and, according to Picasso, Marie-Therese demanded he choose between them. ‘I was satisfied with things as they were,’ he recalled. ‘I told them they’d have to fight it out for themselves. So they began to wrestle.’
Picasso, who cruelly called the battle ‘one of my choicest memories’, turned the incident into a 1937 painting titled Birds In A Cage, in which a black dove fights with a white one.
In the end, Dora Maar emerged as the victor and Picasso relocated Marie-Therese and their daughter Maya into a separate apartment. He continued to support them financially until his death aged 91 in 1973.
Marie-Therese, who’d always harbored the hope Picasso would marry her, hanged herself four years later, unable to go on living without him.
Dora suffered her own heartbreak in 1943, after she discovered her priapic lover was having yet another affair – and this time with a 21-year-old law student and aspiring painter, Francoise Gilot.
Dora fell into a deep depression as she sat by the phone waiting for Picasso to summon her. And eventually, she suffered a breakdown – and never again took another lover, once memorably declaring: ‘After Picasso, God.’
The ageing artist and Francoise started to spend much of their time living in Antibes in the South of France, but his unhinged first wife Olga lived nearby and would repeatedly burst into their home, scratching and pinching Francoise in jealous fury.
Francoise gave Picasso two more children, Claude and Paloma, but even fatherhood didn’t curb his extreme self-centeredness: when she was about to give birth to Paloma, Picasso insisted his driver first take him to a conference before delivering Francoise to hospital.
Picasso with his second wife Jacqueline pictured in 1971 in Spain, two years before his death
And, of course, he continued to play the field – while the age gap between him and his conquests became progressively greater.
When he was 70 – in 1951 – he started an affair with poet Genevieve Laporte, who was just 24. But now – finally – it was Picasso’s turn to be spurned, as Genevieve dumped him two years later, leaving him to hang around Cote D’Azur nightclubs in desperate hope of running into her again.
Supremely egotistical, Picasso, who boasted that ‘no woman leaves a man like me’, told her spitefully: ‘You imagine people will be interested in you? Even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine so intimately.’
Picasso consoled himself with model Jacqueline Roque, who was also still in her twenties and so devoted to him that she called him her ‘god’.
In 1961, he married her – but even though he was in his 80s, the old goat’s sex drive remained undiminished and he continued to have affairs, just as he kept on painting.
As Picasso grew frail, Jacqueline became increasingly possessive and even barred his children and grandchildren from visiting their home. After his death in 1973, she turned them away from his funeral.
In response, Picasso’s grandson Pablito drank a bottle of bleach and died – while son Paulo sank into a depression and was killed by his ensuing alcoholism. Even Jacqueline eventually shot herself.
So what should the post-MeToo world think of his granddaughter Marina’s verdict on the great artist’s treatment of women?
‘He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas,’ she said. ‘Once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.’
Perhaps his mistress Dora Maar had the answer – once telling him that he might be an ‘extraordinary’ artist but ‘morally speaking, you are worthless.’
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