Picasso's twisted beauty and the "trail of female suffering" he left behind

"I paint the way some people write an autobiography," the famous artist once said

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Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

What do you see when you look at these two pictures above - the beautiful woman on the left and the monstrous beast on the right?

Both are pictures of the same woman sitting in an armchair.

The appearance in the first picture is realistic.

She is holding a fan in her hand, staring at something, lost in her own thoughts, serene, yet filled with sadness.

The second picture shows her body and contorted features.

It's hard to tell which limb is which.

Her head was thrown back and she bared her sharp teeth.

"She's like some kind of unusual predator," says Louisa Buck, an art critic.

These images are in stark contrast, yet they depict the same woman, Pablo Picasso's first wife, Olga Koklova, a Ukrainian ballerina who danced with Russian Ballets.

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Is it possible to define Picasso's painting, 50 years after his death, as a beauty or a beast, as he himself tried to do with Olga Koklova's paintings?

"I paint the way some people write an autobiography," the famous artist once said.

The women in Picasso's life were the catalysts for his works, Buck explains.

But during his artistic life, "Picasso left behind a trail of female suffering," he adds.

"His first great love, Fernando Olivia, was left without anything. His wife Olga became very unstable and his lover Marie-Thérèse Voltaire committed suicide after his death," she says.

Picasso's attitudes towards women were problematic, but they must also be interpreted from the perspective of his upbringing, the critic explains.

"He grew up at the end of the nineteenth century in Andalusia, in a macho, patriarchal environment, where he visited prostitutes in his early teens, which was common and considered acceptable," she said.

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Picasso and Koklova met in 1917, when he was asked to design for a then-radical ballet.

She was 26 years old, and Picasso was 10 years older.

They got married in 1918, lived together in Paris and had a son in 1921.

The painting at the top of this article was completed in 1918.

"It seems slightly unfinished.

“You have these visible brush strokes in the background, and her face looks like a mask. It's pretty unfathomable," Buck says.

She explains that Olga Koklova's past helps in the interpretation of this work, which is truly touching.

"She was obsessed with the fate of her close family members, who were in Russia at the time of the Revolution, and she couldn't get in touch with them," she adds.


The critic wonders if Picasso observed his wife and sympathized with her sadness while painting her.

She also suggests that he may have painted her to please and honor her, as she had conventional taste in art.

Before the painting was created, Picasso became famous as one of the founders of Cubism, a style of painting in which the subject or object in the painting appears fragmented into geometric shapes.

But he was constantly restless and wanted to constantly change, Buck says, and the more realistic picture of Koklova from 1918 was probably painted to prove that he could not be forced into one particular style.

This restlessness was also reflected in his intimate relationships.

If we go ahead a little to 1929 - and the second picture of Olga Koklova - below and to the right at the top of this article - is much more hostile.

"The way Picasso describes his wife changes during their relationship.

"When you look at Olga's portraits, at the beginning she is a beautiful woman, while at the end of the relationship she is described as a witch and a monster, and it is difficult to recognize the love in their relationship in the work," says Michael Carey, curator of the Gagosian Gallery in New York.

In 1927, Picasso met his future lover, Marie-Thérèse Voltaire, and the relationship with his wife began to fall apart.

"All the clichés associated with a midlife crisis are present," Buck says.

Voltaire was a seventeen-year-old student, and Picasso was 30 years older than her.

"Times have changed, but even then it was a big age difference."


This second painting of Olga Koklova could represent her emotional pain due to the breakup of their relationship, but also Picasso's dissatisfaction with her, says Bak.

"He contorted her body, how he stretched it, stretched it and placed it in different directions.

"He's angry at the fact that she's somehow defying him by refusing to walk off peacefully into the sunset," the critic explains.

In the realistic painting of Olga Koklova from 1918, the colors are muted, but the red armchair in the painting next to her is more violent, more dangerous, the red color of flesh and blood adds to it.

"Don't forget that Picasso grew up watching bullfights, watching conflict," she points out.

If you're looking at a blank mirror or window in the background, you can't see outside and there's no perspective or reflection, Buck says.


Koklova and Picasso eventually separated in 1935 when Voltaire became pregnant, but Koklova refused to divorce.

She remained married to him until her death in 1955.

It must have been painful for Koklova to watch Voltaire influence his creativity, says Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, grandson of Koklova and Picasso.

As Voltaire slowly slipped out of his life, he continued to have relationships with and paint other mistresses, including Dora Mar, Françoise Guillit and his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, who took her own life after his death.

When Picasso died in 1973, he was considered a "superstar," Buck says.

Towards the end of his life, he became involved in manipulating his own image and mythologizing himself, she says.

Pictures of Picasso in a black and white striped shirt with a piercing gaze became synonymous with his brand.

"Picasso is a man full of contradictions," says Diana Wiedmaier-Picasso, granddaughter of Picasso and Voltaire.

"He can be gentle, but also fierce."


His ferocity can be seen in the way he treated his relationship with his first love, Fernand Olivia, says Alexandra Schwartz, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine.

Picasso had strange moods, she adds.

"He was wonderful in love, but when he was annoyed and angry, he wasn't really great," points out Schwartz.

He wanted to have exclusive access to Fernanda Olivia even when he was not present and therefore locked the door of his own apartment from the outside, keeping her as a prisoner in his own studio.

This is completely unacceptable by today's standards, says psychotherapist Filipa Perry, but in those days women were treated like property.

"Just as you can control paint on a canvas, he wanted to control his own world and the other people in it," she says.

Bak says that she doesn't approve of his behavior, but claims that "in all its complexity, in all its problematic, unpleasant aspects, it is about top art and that it is partly top art precisely because it carries all these problems and contradictions within itself. "

"I don't think you can write off Picasso," she says.

Just as Olga Koklova's two paintings are open to numerous interpretations, the artist is also extremely complicated.

As Paloma Picasso, the daughter he had with Gilot, says of her own father: "You cannot say that he is only a monster or that he is only a genius - he is only human".

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