Behind a Genius, Women Lurk As Sad and Troubled Beings

WRITINGS on Pablo Picasso run from the ludicrous to the informed. The supermarket tabloid-style 1989 biography of Picasso by Ariana Stassinopoulos presented a misogynous Pablo, who used and discarded women like old paintbrushes.

And a recent reputable catalog on Picasso by Los Angeles County Museum curator Judi Freeman also concedes: ``Picasso was prolific, gifted ... and if such things be charted [he] must have done little other than eaten, [had] sex, and made several works of art on any given day....''

Authors agree that Picasso is both one of the greatest 20th-century artists and also a man of often destructive liaisons with a dizzying number of women.

These facts, as well as the subtle relationship between them, are treated with sensitivity and intelligence in the current exhibition, ``Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Thse and Dora Maar,'' at the Los Angeles County Museum.

Picasso's life has become popular fodder for gossip. Few people have not heard that Picasso regularly exchanged a wife for a mistress, a mistress for a wife, each relationship lasting about seven years.

In this context, it becomes difficult to evaluate Picasso's works apart from his dramatic and adulterous behavior.

Anguished faces

As one might expect, the works in this show depict woman after woman in various states of acute emotional distress with the startling depth and energy that are Picasso's alone.

There are images of distorted, pained female faces built from jarring colors and heavy black lines. There are rounded, sensual abstract profiles in soft pastels recording their suffering less graphically but nonetheless deeply.

The women in these images are captured with gaping mouths uttering silent cries, with tears streaking down cheeks like jagged lightning.

We recognize in these images the broad blond face of Marie-Thse Walter, whom Picasso took as a lover in 1927 when she was 17, while he was married to Koklova. We see in the twisted, raging features of other heads the suggestion of a hysterical Koklova, whose jealous scenes were legendary. We see the dark exotic features of Dora Maar, the Surrealist photographer who eventually supplanted Marie-Thse.

One might question the point of this exhibition: Is it just one more prurient biographical survey, or proof of Picasso's objectification of women as sex objects, hapless muses, or worse still, helpless victims?

Feminism notwithstanding, throughout history artists have reflexively seen woman as the symbol for creative force, for passion, for anguished rapture, for beauty, and a sort of insight and heightened sensitivity that is both blessing and curse.

Picasso had intense relationships with many women and was an artist in the fullest sense, so it should not surprise us that females figure prominently - weeping and otherwise - in his life's work.

Indeed, whatever formal ground Picasso broke, the image of woman seems to play a key role. In his classicist works, in his pre-Cubist works that became intensely expressionistic, we see the symbol of woman.

She is present at each of Picasso's so- called breakthroughs. His famous Cubist ``Demoiselles D'Avignon,'' which introduced one of the most influential styles in the history of art, features three women.

Freeman points out that the image of the weeping woman, which Picasso took up as early 1936, was the visual proving ground for one of his undisputed masterpieces, ``Guernica.'' When German planes leveled the Basque town of Guernica in 1937, graphic newspaper accounts hit Paris. Picasso's notes make it clear that he was deeply moved by descriptions of Spanish women running with wounded children through the fiery village. He began seriously developing the weeping-woman motif to portray ``Guernica.''

The weeping-woman theme seems to have given Picasso the opportunity to synthesize the formal concerns of Cubism and his mastery of expressionistic form.

It is Freeman's acknowledgment of and judicious handling of the mix between Picasso's life and art, between the experiential and the formal, between issues of style and issues of politics that make the show and her essays so forthright and illuminating.

As she explains, in the mid- to late-1930s, Picasso had exhausted Cubism and was exploring ways to express raw feeling via simplified form. What better image to carry this content than a woman in anguish?

Further, the artist's life in the late '30s was particularly jammed with distraught women. He was involved with Marie-Thse and by 1936 had begun a relationship with Maar.

Picasso's inner conflict

Also during this time, Picasso found himself at the height of his success while grappling with an identity crisis between his sense of himself as the bohemian leftist artist and the reality of his expensive tastes as a jet-setting member of the privileged avant-garde.

In addition to all this, Picasso watched as his beloved Spain and France were pillaged by the brutality that swept Europe in the late 1930s.

What Freeman demonstrates in essays and in her selections for this show is that Picasso's ``weeping women'' are more than portraits of past lovers. They are composite symbols for the volatile creative, personal, and political environment in which Picasso found himself before and during World War II.

The beauty of Freeman's curatorial judgment is that she does not try to separate Picasso's outrageous life from his prodigious art; indeed she seems to say they are closely linked. We do read the features of Marie Therese and Dora Maar in some of these images, but the symbol of an anguished female may well stand for every damsel the artist defiled or for some generic existential angst. It may stand for the artist's own desperation as he faced taunts by the elite that he was a communist and by the leftists that he was a bourgeois.

Besides the excellent scholarship behind this exhibition, the ultimate rationale for visiting ``Weeping Women'' is that the works contain Picasso trademarks such as visionary conception, impeccable craft, emotional resonance, and those words not to be used lightly: sheer genius.

* ``Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Thse Walter and Dora Maar'' continues at the Los Angeles County Museum through May 1. The show then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from June 12 to Sept. 4 and to the Chicago Art Institute from Oct. 8 to Jan. 8, 1995.

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