At the Vancouver Art Gallery, Picasso: The Artist and His Muses impresses as much as it provokes questions

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until October 2

      Muse is such a curiously antiquated term. Divine woman breathing inspiration into the mind of the creative male? Really? Still, Picasso: The Artist and His Muses has a more visitor-friendly sound to it than “Picasso and the Women He Fucked and Painted”. Not that visitor-friendly titles are a necessity where Pablo Picasso exhibitions are concerned.

      The mere name of the man—easily the most famous artist of the 20th century, whose personal myth is built as much on his prodigious womanizing as on his protean art-making—guarantees attendance. Irrespective of what’s on view. Irrespective, too, of the challenges his work might pose to contemporary critics.

      Organized with Art Centre Basel in Switzerland, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s big-draw summer show includes some 60 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints ranging across the years 1905 to 1971. Borrowed from an international array of public and private collections, it is the most ambitious exhibition of Picasso works ever shown in Western Canada.

      What curator Katharina Beisiegel proposes is that the six women cited here—Fernande Olivier, Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque—had a profound influence on Picasso’s art-making. Both the show and the accompanying publication argue that his relationships with these women, whom the artist depicted in various shapes, states, and degrees of nudity and abstraction during the roughly 10-year period he spent with each, triggered important stylistic and conceptual changes in his work.

      Olivier, for instance, was Picasso’s model and lover during the time when he (together with Georges Braque) pioneered cubism, one of the breakthrough movements of early modernism. The most dramatic cubist work in the show is not a painting but rather a 1909 bronze bust, Head of a Woman (Fernande), which is characterized by sharp angles and colliding planes. Khokhlova, who was a ballet star before she gave up her career to marry Picasso, seems to have inspired his neoclassical period, as seen in the 1922 oil-on-canvas sketch Seated Nude.

      Here, the female figure possesses both heft and monumentality. And Maar, a surrealist photographer, apparently inspired Picasso’s series of semi-grotesque portraits in which facial features and body parts are split apart and rearranged. Maar’s experiments with double-exposure photography are also cited as an influence on Picasso, for example, his 1941 painting Nude, in which the palette is tightly restricted, and front, back, and profile views are melded into one.

      Still, there were overlaps, in Picasso’s love affairs as well as in his styles of art-making. (During one period, Picasso juggled relationships with Walter, Maar, and Gilot.) In the exhibition, what might be termed “cubo-surrealist” paintings of Walter and Maar, from the late 1930s, employ similar techniques and formats.

      Also notable here is Head of a Woman, a 1931 portrait bust in which Walter’s nose and eyes take the form of male genitalia. Not only does this work function as a literal illustration of Picasso’s belief that, for him, art and sex were the same thing, it also demonstrates the modernist conjoining of masculine creative and procreative imperatives. Not incidentally, the cock and balls completely overwhelm the identity of the female subject.

      Of course, there is much in the exhibition that is impressive. Especially compelling is Picasso’s mastery of so many styles and forms and the restless energy and inventiveness that drove his work forward. Still, there remain some problematic curatorial assertions.

      We are asked to believe that the six women featured here (as opposed to the many unnamed women he merely had sex with) were somehow partners in his art-making, even that his relationships with a couple of them were “collaborative”. Collaboration suggests a degree of equality, and while it appears that, initially anyway, Picasso was impressed by the creative accomplishments of both Maar and Gilot, the power imbalance in all his relationships is impossible to overlook.

      It’s notable that as Picasso’s fame and fortune increased, so did the age difference between him and the women he professed to love. Olivier was the same age as Picasso, Khokhlova was 10 years his junior, and Walter was 17 years old when the 45-year-old Picasso, still married, picked her up at a department store in Paris. Maar was 27 years younger than her most famous lover, Gilot was 40 years his junior, and Roque, the person who served as Picasso’s devoted companion during the last two decades of his life, was 46 years younger.

      If you fold biography into the premise of your show and insist that certain women were muses rather than mere models, that their roles were as much creative as sexual, that they inspired Picasso’s shape-shifting development as an artist, then you also have to examine personal costs and consequences. Not all of Picasso’s exes fared as well as Gilot, who forged a successful career as a painter after having the nerve to leave him.

      According to essayist Laurence Madeline, Maar was hospitalized for depression after Picasso dumped her, the long-separated but never formally divorced Khokhlova died “bereft and alone in a clinic”, and both Walter and Roque committed suicide after the artist’s death.

      “(T)he human toll of Picasso’s romances is high,” Madeline writes. For some of us, much too high.