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The Picasso Century? A hundred years of weeping women

October will mark the final weeks of The National Gallery of Victoria's three month long exhibition, The Picasso Century. Wagga based art curator Ashleigh Adams has a thing or two to say about another Australian cultural institution regurgitating reverence for a man who exploited women for his art. She says we all need to understand and learn more about who the women were who suffered for his 'genius'.

*Content Warning: Mentions men's violence towards women, sexual assault, suicide.

No woman ever forgets the first time a man holds power over her. It’s like waking up to a violent snapping of two fingers as you watch the bright colours of your world suddenly fall into dull hues around you. You sink into the realisation that you are living in a man’s world as the industries and institutions around you are revealed to harbour stale, patriarchal structures.

I don’t go to Picasso exhibitions anymore.

I am sick of watching the major players in the art world bruise women and immortalise men. In their latest instalment of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, The National Gallery of Victoria has done exactly that with an exhibition titled The Picasso Century. This exhibition runs from June to October of 2022 and charts the life and career of Pablo Picasso across twelve major themes and draws upon the work of his contemporaries to tell the story of his evolution as an artist.

Upon reading through the prospectus, exhibition labels and theme panels, I quickly realised a key theme missing from The Picasso Century. This was a major theme that has permeated Picasso’s life and art that is continuously and deliberately omitted from exhibitions by major cultural institutions. No theme has been more prominent or more consistent across his career, than his treatment of women.

In her memoir, Picasso’s granddaughter Marina Picasso described the way her grandfather treated the women in his life:

“He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

As a female art curator, I know for a fact that the curators, researchers and art historians who developed this exhibition were aware of who Picasso really was and what he did to the women who became entangled in his vines. Yet here they were, rolling out the red carpet for him and his silly little shapes once again. I couldn’t believe it, but also, I absolutely could believe it. Picasso is one of the most famous artists in the world. Just like the major international Impressionist exhibition that cycles through Australian art galleries every five or so years, Picasso exhibitions are blockbusters. Unfortunately, major cultural institutions like the NGV have come to rely heavily on these blockbuster exhibitions. They are low risk, turn a high profit and quite often are loaned from international institutions where the exhibition has already been researched, designed and curated. What’s even more frustrating is that major art galleries like the NGV are some of the only institutions with the expertise and the means to tell the stories of art that rarely get told. So, isn’t it curious that these major institutions with all the knowledge, access, funding and capacity choose instead to present their audiences with the same famous dead men that we’ve all seen before?

There are several fundamental issues with a major cultural institution in the National Gallery of Victoria holding an exhibition dedicated to one of art history’s most prominent misogynists. What I find most remarkable is the NGV’s failure to acknowledge the abusive nature of Picasso’s numerous relationships in which he controlled, manipulated, betrayed, abandoned, kidnapped and exploited women. The argument of separating the art from the artist always persists in conversations around Picasso, however Picasso himself stated that the seven key women in his life could be used to categorise his entire oeuvre into seven distinct styles.

To attribute nothing to the women who suffered at the hands of the so-called creative genius and to turn a blind eye to the abuse they endured is to continue to hurt women in the name of art.

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the seven women of Picasso:

One of Picasso’s early relationships was with the artist and model Fernande Olivier. In 1905, they moved in together and Picasso immediately demanded that Olivier stop modelling for other artists. Picasso forbade Olivier from leaving their apartment, locking her inside to physically stop her from modelling. Throughout their relationship, Picasso continued his pattern of domestic abuse. He repeatedly locked Olivier in their apartment so that she could not go out in public without him. When Olivier fell ill, Picasso abandoned her in search of a new lover. He became involved with one of Olivier’s friends Eva Gouel. The two were together for three years and Gouel appeared in a series of his Cubist artworks. When Gouel was diagnosed with tuberculosis Picasso quickly began an affair with a woman named Gaby. Eva Gouel passed away in 1915.

Following Eva Gouel’s death, Picasso moved to Italy and began a relationship with Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, who was his first wife. They had a son together named Paulo, however Picasso’s refusal to stop having extra-marital affairs drove Khokhlova to have a breakdown. While he was married to Khokhlova, 45-year-old Picasso had an affair with 17-year-old French model Marie-Thérèse Walter who soon became pregnant with his child. Khokhlova left Picasso and moved to the south of France with their son. Walter and Picasso had a daughter named Maya and Walter featured in several of Picasso’s surrealist works. In 1936 Picasso had an affair with artist and photographer Dora Maar in 1936 and forced the two women to physically fight each other for his affection.

Maar inspired one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, The Weeping Woman (1937), however Maar famously objected to Picasso’s depiction of her as a broken, crying woman. Maar stated that Picasso’s portraits of her were lies; “They’re Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar.”

Upon discovering Picasso’s affair with 21-year-old French painter Françoise Gilot, Maar told him; “As an artist you may be extraordinary, but morally speaking you are worthless.” On one occasion, it is alleged that Picasso beat Maar into unconsciousness, she later suffered a total breakdown.

Picasso told Gilot that “Women are machines for suffering,” and warned the 21-year-old that “For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.” On one occasion, Picasso pinned Gilot to a bridge railing, threatening to throw her into the river for being ungrateful. When she tried to leave, he attempted to brand her by pressing a lit cigarette into her cheek.

Françoise Gilot and Picasso had two children together named Claude and Paloma but Picasso’s abuse led Gilot to leave him in 1953. In 1964, she published her memoirs called Life with Picasso and moved to New York to escape his grasp. Gilot’s memoirs provide horrifying insight into the man he was:

“He had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum." She described Picasso’s “total absence of empathy and love; his lack of remorse and facile rationalizations for hurting others; a lust for seduction as a form of exercising power over women; duplicity and manipulation as a way of life; the pattern of idealize, devalue and discard in every romantic relationship he’s had; the underlying desire for control; an unshakable narcissism and the drive to do evil by damaging the lives of the women who became his partners.”

Picasso himself made no attempts to hide this bluebeard complex, famously stating “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I'd be rid of them. They wouldn't be around to complicate my existence. Maybe, that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.”

When Picasso was 79, he married his second wife 27-year-old Jaqueline Roque, who appeared in more than 400 of his paintings and ceramics. The two were together until Picasso’s death in 1973.

Picasso subjected just about every woman he claimed to love to a miserable life with him. Both Jaqueline Roque and Marie Therese Walter committed suicide on account of Picasso while others suffered breakdowns as a result of his abuse.

If reading this story you feel you need to talk to someone, please reach out:

The NGV’s fleeting mention of these women is a pitiful attempt to include them in Picasso’s story. To hold a Picasso exhibition that strips away the women to mere footnotes is to treat your female audience the same way Picasso treated his lovers. To attribute nothing to the women who suffered at the hands of the so-called creative genius and to turn a blind eye to the abuse they endured is to continue to hurt women in the name of art.

Institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria have a duty to tell audiences the full story - to acknowledge the women who survived relationships with Picasso. Instead the NGV chose to pour their time, money and resources into celebrating a man whose career was built on broken women, brushing aside his misogyny and abuse.

As a woman, I know exhibitions like these are some of the most disheartening and isolating places to be; they serve as a reminder that the art world is by no means in a league of its own. It is no better than the world of sport, politics, music and film where we see the same story over and over. Women and young girls are abused, manipulated, raped, assaulted, ignored and silenced. Our sportspeople, our politicians, our entertainers…there are Picasso’s in every industry and they continue to thrive. To all the women who have survived relationships with a Picasso, the National Gallery of Victoria would like to reassure you that just as Picasso has remained safely immortalised in the artistic canon, your abuser can remain successful in his career and with his reputation intact.

Fernande Olivier, Eva Gouel, Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque deserve to have their stories told. With every exhibition like The Picasso Century we are falling fatally short of an inclusive and unbiased history of art.

About the author

Ashleigh Adams is a 23-year-old writer and curator based in Wagga Wagga, on Wiradjuri land. She has a bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) & (Visual Culture) from Curtin University and recently completed her Master of Art History and Curatorial Studies with the Australian National University.

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