"Women are machines for suffering," Picasso told his mistress Françoise Gilot in 1943. Indeed, as they embarked on their nine-year affair, the 61-year-old artist warned the 21-year-old student: "For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats."
From Rembrandt and Goya to Bonnard and Stanley Spencer, male artists have drawn obsessively and immensely productively on the faces and bodies of their wives and lovers. But no one used and abused his women quite like the greatest artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso.
Looking at the extraordinary images in a new Picasso exhibition that opens later this month at the National Gallery in London, you feel that Picasso eviscerates his women in the service of his art. Here, alongside images of exquisite tenderness, are women pulled and gouged into tortured shapes, women cut in bits and reconfigured on the canvas. Yet harrowing as these images are, they are nothing beside the real life dramas that led to their creation.
Of the seven most important women in Picasso’s life, two killed themselves and two went mad. Another died of natural causes only four years into their relationship. Yet while Picasso had affairs with dozens, perhaps hundreds of women, and was true to none of them except possibly the last each of these seven women shines out as a crucial catalyst in his development as an artist. Each stands for a different period in his career, representing a complementary or opposing ideal that inspired the evolution of a new visual language. Just as they became obsessively involved with him, so he was dependent on them.
February 18, 2009