“I was born of a white feather and a small glass of Andalusian eau de vie. I was born to a mother the daughter of a fifteen-year-old girl born in the percheles of Málaga the handsome bull who sired me with his forehead crowned with jasmine.” – Picasso: Écrits. Paris. Réunion des Musées Nationaux Gallimard, 1989.
Mercedes swivelled suddenly, her brown leather bag stuffed with tickets stubs and empty water bottles crunching against my hip as she held my arms and looked me square in the face with dark eyes livid and shining, bubbling over with barely concealed passion.
You would have thought that I was used to the fire and the fervour that seemed to simmer just below the surface of most of the Malagans I had met so far, but it still jolted my prim little English self like a rabbit caught in the glare.
“Do you know Picasso? Do you love him? Well, today you will.” She intoned in looping, Spanish splashed English, punctuating her sentences with empathic head nods, like a bright little bird observing a worm it’s just trapped in its claws.
“Ah…good.” I replied meekly, trying to muster some convincingly reverent energy against the mega watt rays of her enthusiasm.
“Come, come, we will explore eaaaavarythink. I will show you it all.”
She refocused the intensity of her gaze into the first room of the Palacio de Buenavista – a great, sweeping Andalusian mansion that has been turned into the home of some of Picasso’s most intimate paintings – and ushered me on, honing in on a painting that, from a distance, looked like a mess of square and splotches.
The Fruit Bowl
I’ve never really got Picasso. Well, to be truthful, that’s an understatement. I never really liked him. That also may be an understatement. I have, without doubt, never understood him.
There was always something that rankled, perhaps the harsh, geometric lines, those misshapen, melting faces broken apart and reformed like your own reflection is mangled in water when you stick your finger in and swirl.
They’re indistinct and fragmented and, underneath it all, there’s that venomous little slithering whisper that thinks given enough paint and canvas any artistically gifted child could do just as well.
But then, one sunny Spanish morning in Malaga, where Picasso was born, my guide Mercedes whisked me around and began to slowly instil her deep seated and deeply rooted adoration for this renegade painter and serial womaniser in me.
It grew slowly, burning softly at first, born from a grudging respect that sprouted in my belly and grew in increments, finally bursting forth in front of one painting that managed to wrench tears from me as Mercedes stepped back, finally satisfied that her job had been done.
But it took a few paintings before I got there, each picked out from the multitude by Mercedes who pulled me from room to room, positioned me at different viewing points; forced my eyes to watch from doorways and corners and impossible angles to reveal strange aspects in seemingly ordinary pieces and opened a deep well of pure, unfettered emotional attachment to paintings I would have, save for her, observed politely before shrugging off.
As a rather unproductive writer, I can’t help but admire such a prolific artist as Picasso was. He produced thousands of works of art and was still painting in his 90s before he died. He had mastered and dismissed stuffy still life and angular, Renaissance perspectives by the time he was 17, although that’s not to say he didn’t admire the masters: El Greco, Matisse, Degas…he just liked them deconstructed and reformed through his own eyes.
Which is probably why I find it hard to appreciate his work, because he paints everything at once and it’s too much. Picasso saw that real people moved, and objects showed you their whole selves from every angle at once; not just a blank, prettily one dimensional facet. So his works became a multitude of positions and expressions all contained in one canvas. It’s confusing, it’s arresting, it’s bold and it’s what made him unique.
But it wasn’t Picasso’s reinterpretations of still life or inanimate objects that made me love him, that made me feel him. It was his women, which he talked about through the portraits he painted of them. And one woman in particular, Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, a Russian ballerina and his first wife.
They weren’t his most famous pieces and they certainly weren’t his most celebrated, but they were, to me, his most accessible and they were all tucked away in this little collection kept in his home town.
“I think about Death all time, it is as a woman who will never leave me.” – Pablo Picasso
It started with a painting that wasn’t actually of Olga, it was of one of Picasso’s later lovers, a photographer called Dora Maar. It’s her face that later became The Weeping Woman and it’s her screaming face I see in Picasso’s most famous piece: Guernica.
“Look at her hands, fighting and clawed; look at her eyes, she is full of fear and pain.” Mercedes whispered to me.
Woman with Raised Arms
Her hands were up, tearing through the canvas. Her body was militated and deformed into a human wheel, her mouth open in an endless, unquenched scream. Her picture, while it seemed harmless enough at first, terrified me.
And then Mercedes showed me Olga.
Picasso married Olga in 1918 and they had a son, Paulo, together.
Later, Picasso started having an affair with a 17-year-old French girl called Marie-Thérèse Walter and she became pregnant. When Olga found out in 1935, she took Paulo and moved to France and asked for a divorce. Picasso refused to divide his property with her, despite the law, so they stayed legally married until she died from cancer in 1955.
Picasso didn’t attend her funeral.
Olga Khokhlova with a Mantilla, 1917
Wearing a classic Spanish Matiquilla Picasso makes a young Olga look cold, yet dewy and rosy. She looks like she’s made from fresh cotton and the underside of a lily; untouched and clean. When Picasso looks at Olga in 1917, a year before they were married, she appeared pristine and perfect to him. This was Picasso’s Olga at the peak of their love, at the very beginning.
Mother and Child, 1921
This painting might not even be specifically of Olga, but she was still his muse in 1921, which was the year she gave birth to their first son, Paulo.
Suddenly Olga has taken on a beatific, religious and almost regal air, She’s lost her almost waxy, floral glow and been replaced by a white holy fervour. Gazing fixedly at her child she looks like devotion incarnate.
She could be a renaissance oil masterpiece, a old madonna and from afar this painting makes her elegant, white and swanlike. But, as you step closer, creeping like grandmother’s footsteps, her image mutates and she appears dumpy and squat up close, her body obscenely fat. There’s something almost cannibalistic in it, as if she’s drawing her bulk from Picasso to feed to the infant. His brush and paint devouring her image in return.
In the final painting I saw of Olga, she was transformed again. There was none of the florid prettiness of before or of the overt womanliness. There was just a pale woman with her head in her hands. The blue of her housecoat sapping her colours.
She and her painter no longer seem to like each other, their love has dimmed and all that’s left is this painful distance between canvas and eyes. She looks withered, all her original rosy softness has been carved away to this ivory boney lines, her plumpness deflated.
As Mercedes recounted the decline of Olga and Picasso’s love and marriage it all felt so unutterably sad and as she talked, my eyes begin to mist over and the blue of Olga’s coat swam in my eyes, burning through the water.
But it wasn’t just Olga’s portraits that made me finally fall for Picasso, it was all the paintings of his lovers, his muses, his wives.
It was his French ladies, painted feline and blue, all elongated and calm.
It was the pink and round paintings of Marie, flushed with youth and gleaming.
It was the depictions of ‘The Flower’, Françoise Gilot, her face wreathed in petals.
And it was his raw, sexual and strangely regal portraits of Jacqueline Roque.
It took all of Picasso’s women for me to finally love his work, to finally connect to it, although I couldn’t help but wonder as I left the cool shade of the Palacio de Buenavista, was it really Picasso that I loved or was it the women he loved through paint and portrait.