Pablo Picasso, Mère et enfant au bord de la mer Printemps, 1921. Huile sur toile, 142,9 x 172,7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Restricted gift of Maymar Corporation, Mrs. Maurice L. Rothschild, and Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey McCormick; Mary and Leigh Block Fund; Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment; through prior gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin E. Hokin 1954.270. Photo (C) Art Institute of Chicago, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image The Art Institute of Chicago.
From 21 March to 3 September 2017, the Musée national Picasso-Paris presents the first exhibition dedicated to the years shared between Pablo Picasso and his first wife, Olga Khokhlova.
Through a rich selection of more than 350 works of art, paintings, drawings, unseen written and photographic archives, the exhibition attempts to understand the execution of Picasso’s major artworks between 1917 and 1935 by recreating his artistic production filtered through the social and political history of the interwar period.
Olga Khokhlova was born to a colonel in 1891, in Nizhyn, a Ukrainian town located within the Russian Empire. In 1912, she entered the prestigious and innovative Russian Ballet directed by Sergei Diaghi-lev. It was in Rome, spring 1917, where she met Pablo Picasso while he was producing, upon invitation of Jean Cocteau, the decorations and costumes of the ballet Parade (music by Erik Satie, theme by Jean Cocteau, choreography by Léonide Massine). They get married on July 12, 1918, in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at the Rue Daru, with Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire as their witnesses.
As the perfect model during Picasso’s classical period, Olga was first portrayed by thin, elegant lines characterized by the influence of the French neoclassical painter Ingres. Synonymous with a certain return to figuration, Olga is often represented as melancholic, sitting, while reading or writing, no doubt an allusion to the correspondence she maintained with her family that was going through a tragic moment in history. In fact, at the same time, in contrast to the couple’s social ascent and the accruing artistic recognition of Picasso’s works, the Russian Empire, severely destroyed by the Great War, suffered a major economic and food crisis while losing more than two million soldiers on the war front. Olga’s family also suffered a tragedy, which was reflected in the letters she received: declining social status, the disappearance of her father, and finally, correspondence with her family was gradually interrupted. After the birth of their first child, Paul, on February 4, 1921, Olga became the inspiration for numerous maternity scenes, compositions bathed in innocent softness. The family scenes and portraits of the young boy show the serene happiness which flourishes notably in timeless shapes. These forms correspond to Picasso’s new attention to antiquity and the renaissance discovered in Italy, which was reactivated by the family’s summer holiday in Fontainebleau in 1921.
After the encounter in 1927 with Marie-Thérèse Walter, a 17-year-old woman who will become Picasso’s mistress, Olga’s figure metamorphoses. In Le Grand nu au fauteuil rouge (1929), Olga is nothing but pain and sorrow. Her form is flaccid with violent expression and translates the nature of the couple’s profound crisis. Even though the spouses separate for good in 1935, the year that incidentally marks a temporary cessation of the painter’s work, they will stay married until Olga’s death in 1955.
Room 1. The Olga period
Olga Khokhlova (1891-1955), the artist’s first wife, lived with Pablo Picasso from 1917 to 1935. The artist’s muse from their first encounter, she is the artist’s most represented female figure from the end of the 1910s and a major focus in his work in the early 1920s.
Mirroring their marital relations, which from 1924 (the year of the Surrealist Manifesto), became increasingly strained, the representation of Olga in Picasso’s work changed in the mid-1920s. Her presence became more remote, less apparent, but genuinely permeated the artist’s production up until 1935, the year of their separation, and even after that.
This exhibition, the first focussing exclusively on the figure of Olga, marks the centenary of the meeting of Picasso and Olga. In the light of a significant selection of personal archives, some of which have never before been exhibited, it reassesses the “Olga period” and the works from this period by contextualising their creation and highlighting the difference that sometimes exists between the model and her image in the work of Picasso.
Room 2. Melancholy
When Olga met Pablo Picasso in 1917, the country she had left a few years previously to join Serge de Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dancers was in the throes of major historical events: the February Revolution which brought about the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, followed by the October Revolution and the overthrow of the recently formed provisional government, followed by several years of civil war. The young ballerina lost all contact with her family between October 1917 and 1920, but when correspondence was finally resumed, the news from her mother Lydia and her sister Nina was alarming. While her father and brothers joined the counter-revolutionary forces as colonel and officers, the installation of the new Soviet society suddenly plunged her family into a precarious situation.
Olga is omnipresent in the work of Picasso. The numerous classic portraits by the artist of his wife portray her in an established, static and thoughtful manner. Her staring and often vacant look is perhaps the manifestation of her concern for her family. Picasso perfectly captures all the ambiguity of this woman whose beauty, underlined by the expressiveness of an Ingres line or an Antique roundness, is bathed in a soft and deep melancholy, a reflection of her tragic situation and powerlessness in the face of the dramas confronting her family.
Room 3. The story of a life
Shortly after her death in 1955, Olga’s son Paul retrieved his mother’s personal cabin trunk, bearing her initials: this is one of the major – and magical – objects that help reveal the story of a life of which, for a long time, little was known. What emerges from the contents of this trunk letters in French and Russian, old photographs, various objects such as ballet slippers, tutus, crucifix or almanacs – is the extraordinary destiny of a woman who left her family in 1915 not knowing that she would never see them again. Enhanced by a collection of archives and works by Pablo Picasso, this room evokes more especially Olga’s career as a dancer, becoming a member of the Ballets Russes in 1911, her meeting with Picasso in Rome in February 1917 while preparing for the presentation of the ballet Parade, and their wedding in July 1918 at the Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky Russian orthodox church in rue Daru in Paris which, from 1917, was one of the main meeting places for the White Russian emigrant community.
Room 4. Changement de décor
While Russia was in the midst of a severe economic and food crisis that would have dramatic lasting effects on Olga’s family, the newlyweds were experiencing a dizzying social rise which corresponded with the increasing recognition of the works of Pablo Picasso. The couple’s circle of friends and their different dwellings, such as, from 1918, the apartment in rue La Boétie in Paris, the villa in Juan-les-Pins, or later, the château de Boisgeloup acquired in 1930, bear witness to this new social environment. Bohemian Montmartre, embodied by Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, gave way to an unprecedented modernity of post-war intelligentsia. New faces appeared in the Picassos’ immediate entourage: Eugenia Errazuriz, a rich Chilean who arranged the first meetings of Picasso with Serge de Diaghilev, as well as with Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau and also Count Étienne de Beaumont, well known for regularly hosting those very grand balls that Olga loved.
Room 5. Maternity
With the birth of the couple’s first and only child, Paul, on the 4th February 1921, Olga became the inspiration for numerous maternity scenes, compositions that are suffused with a softness that was new in the work of Pablo Picasso. The family scenes reveal a serenity that comes to the fore in particular in the timeless figures which coincide with a new interest in Antiquity and the Renaissance that Picasso had rediscovered with Olga in Italy in 1917, and which was revived by a summer stay in Fontainebleau in 1921. This maternity brought the couple closer together but did nothing to relieve the latent melancholia of Olga who was constantly torn between the pleasures of her everyday life and the obvious distress she felt on reading the flow of alarming news from her family, whose fortunes were steadily worsening.
Room 6. Paul
The arrival of Paul in the life of the couple brought about a new lifestyle that included a nurse, a cook and a chauffeur. Paul was the focus of all Olga’s attentions. Their great complicity is revealed in numerous photographs and films. Picasso was also very proud of his son Paul. This filial relationship is asserted by Pablo in several portraits, in particular by transmitting to Paul the Harlequin costume with which the artist himself identified in his early years during the Rose Period. In another portrait he represents his little son drawing, perhaps trying to recapture the sensations that he himself, also the son of a painter, felt in his childhood. Paul did not know his Russian grandparents but received letters from them. The exchanges between the two families continued, with the Picassos providing support through money sent regularly and sometimes even a few works by Pablo, including a horse, no doubt similar to a découpage completed at the same time for Paul.
Room 7. Metamorphosis
1925 probably marks the year when Pablo Picasso realised that his marriage with Olga was over. In April he joined Serge de Diaghilev in Monte Carlo and produced numerous drawings of dancers at work. This trip almost certainly increased Olga’s bitterness as, for health reasons, she had been forced to give up her career as a dancer several years earlier. Henceforth and until the mid-1930s, the figure of the wife would be transformed in Picasso’s painting. In 1929, in Grand Nu au fauteuil rouge (Large Nude in a Red Armchair), she was reduced to pain, in a flabby, monstrous shape, an expressive violence reflecting the nature of the couple’s marital crisis. In 1931, it was clearly another women occupying the red armchair. The face remains undefined, partially erased, but the roundness and sensuality of the body shapes leave no doubt as to the existence of a new muse in the work of the artist.
Room 8. On film
Contrasting with the representations of Olga in the painted, drawn and engraved works, the footage shot by the couple in their private life – in their apartment in rue La Boétie, on holiday in Dinard, Cannes and Juan-les-Pins, or in the Boisgeloup grounds – reveals a very different picture of Madame Picasso: here we see a woman in motion, extrovert and smiling, who captures the light and seeks to seduce the eye of the camera. This facet of Olga that Pablo Picasso shows us here is the more liberated and spontaneous secret side of the private life of an artist clearly enchanted by the magic of film and its dramatic drive. Regardless of the purpose of these documents, film footage, at the start of the 1930s, is where Olga stars and takes centre stage and seems willingly to reconnect with a certain taste for performance.
Room 9. Bathers
The meeting in 1927 of Marie-Thérèse Walter and Pablo Picasso, whose mistress she became, deepened the crisis that the couple were going through. Even though the relationship between the lovers was kept secret, notably because of Marie-Thérèse’s young age, it surfaces most explicitly in Pablo’s painting. In the same way that Olga appears implicitly in numerous surrealist figures that, more often than not, are disturbing and brutal, Marie-Thérèse is the inspiration of a series of Baigneuses produced in Dinard, a small seaside resort in Brittany where the family – and Marie-Thérèse secretly – stayed for a number of weeks in 1928 and 1929. Whereas Olga is depicted in muted, greyish tones with heavy and sharp shapes, Marie-Thérèse is, on the contrary, represented in a fresher palette and in airborne and often highly erotic postures which are indicative of all the energy and joy that she inspired in the artist.
Room 10. Circus
Major themes during the Rose Period, circus and acrobats reappear in the work of Pablo Picasso at the beginning of the 1920s, and later in the 1930. No doubt reactivated by the birth of Paul, the representation of the circus in 1922, which from 1905 was associated with the Harlequin paternity cycle (the artist’s double), continued to develop a wider iconography of the performing arts world. Picasso was less interested in the actual ring than in its fringes, this marginal and roving life, with women breast-feeding, tightrope walkers at rest and figures doing their hair. As before, Picasso continued to mix the sources of commedia dell’arte with the circus world, transposing his private life to the register of theatre. In 1930 his attention was caught by acrobatic feats and the anatomical liberties they allowed.
Room 11. Studio
Traversed by a unitary pictorial script, all in arabesques, Peintre et modèle offers a view of the studio in which the artist, model and painting are inseparably linked and interdependent. This is true also in real life. If Olga is omnipresent in the portraits from the so-called classic period and though her face disappears little by little from Pablo Picasso’s painting, this does not mean that she is absent from her husband’s work after 1925. Her idealised and melancholic image gives way to female representations that are radically deformed and often representing violent or aggressive attitudes. Olga truly haunts Picasso’s painting and engulfs the space of his studio, supposedly his refuge. Her image is transformed into a threatening, monstrous woman with a pointed nose like a dagger, grinning from ear to ear. In several paintings and drawings she even covers Picasso’s self-portrait in profile, thereby clearly demonstrating the hold she continued to exert on the man and the artist. The Baiser from 1931, which portrays a figure with eyes closed, abandoned, and a figure looking away, symbolises the decline and ambiguity of this amorous relationship which cannibalised the relationship between the couple.
Room 12. Crucifixions and corridas
Powerful and central themes in the work of Pablo Picasso in the early 1930s, bull fights (corrida) and the crucifixion are, over and beyond their own symbolism, intimately linked with the artist’s personal life. More especially, in the female bullfighter, we can identify the face of Marie-Thérèse Walter, while certain organic and threatening forms of the Crucifixion resemble, through their stylistic treatment, representations of Olga as they appear at the same period, especially in certain mineral bathers. At times reduced to a contest between the bull and the horse, the corrida, by evacuating the bullfighter (torero), increases the violence of the confrontation of two entities which, by extension, can be interpreted as the male and the female, Pablo and Olga. Here too Picasso appropriates a traditional iconography and revisits it from the perspective of his own personal history. His private life had an influence on his work and conveyed a tragic dimension which is both a reflection of a troubled historical period and a marital situation that Picasso was experiencing more and more as a painful test, for which corridas and crucifixions constitute poignant metaphors.
Room 13. Eros and Thanatos
Figure par excellence of the uniting of the forces of life and death, the Minotaur, the new alter ego of Pablo Picasso, symbolises the complexity and ambivalence of the relations that the artist maintained with women in the early 1930s. Torn between his passion for Marie-Thérèse, who gave birth to a daughter – Maya – in September 1935, and his duty as the husband of Olga, Picasso transposed his own story to ancient mythology. The violence of the amorous relations and the impetuosity of desire are personified in the depictions of abduction, scenes inspired by Dionysian antiquity. Picasso will even go so far as to create his own personal mythology, merging several iconographic sources (corrida, crucifixion and Minotaur) in the celebrated Minotauromachy, a tragic fable that crystallises the turmoil in his life at that time and which also saw a temporary halt in his painting in 1935. From that year, during which the married couple finally separated, the presence of Olga in Picasso’s work becomes more discreet and less aggressive, reflecting the solitude and suffering of a woman who would continue to write daily to the man who – in the eyes of the law – would remain her husband up until her death in 1955.
Room 14. Olga Forever
An Italian artist born in Brescia in 1971, Francesco Vezzoli has always been fascinated by cultural icons, actresses, dancers and singers. His work incorporates images of stars and questions the way in which fame or talent can alter identity. It also reveals the gap that may sometimes exist between the public image and private reality. Completed in 2012, Olga Forever comprises a series of nineteen oil painting portraits of Olga Picasso inspired by photographs of her selected from the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte (FABA) private archives. Enlarged and reworked using collage and embroidery techniques that overlay patterns of tears and characters from the Ballets Russes, these portraits materialise the suffering and longing of this woman who was both rich and famous. “Olga weeps for all the ballets she never danced out of love for Picasso,” explains Vezzoli. “Through this work I am paying homage to Olga, who embodies my sensitivity and obsessions.”
Website : Musée national Picasso – Paris
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