A Man Under the Influence: Picasso and His Muses

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Pablo Picasso, Femme couchée lisant, 1939, oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris. © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016). Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: J.G. Berizzi

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) new Pablo Picasso exhibition offers a fresh perspective on the fabled artist. Picasso: The Artist and His Muses, on view until October 2, 2016, is the most significant show of Picasso’s work ever staged in Vancouver, and explores the influence of Picasso’s complex romantic relationships on his art.

The exhibition begins in early 20th-century Paris, taking visitors on a chronological journey through the lives and personalities of six women: Fernande Olivier, Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot and Jacqueline Roque. Many visitors will recognize the women from Picasso’s most famous works — several of which are on display here. The exhibition highlights the roles each played as key influences not only in the artist’s personal life, but also in the evolution of his career. 

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Pablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman (Dora Maar), 1938, oil on canvas. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966. © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016). Photo: Cathy Carver

Roughly three years in the making, Picasso: The Artist and His Muses was created by Art Centre Basel, in collaboration with the VAG. The show features 60 works from 37 lenders around the world — including 26 oil paintings — making this the largest number of Picasso paintings ever assembled in Vancouver. 

“This exhibition examines Picasso’s work in a way that hasn’t been looked at before,” said VAG curator Ian Thom in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Picasso’s romantic life was very complicated. He was married to his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, until she died, so he was not free to marry anyone else during that period. His relationships with Marie-Thérèse Walter and the others continued regardless, including Picasso having children with three of the women.”

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Pablo Picasso, Femme Assise, 1947, oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, Katherine Ordway Collection. © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016)

Three of the works in the show are on loan from the national collection: Woman in a Hat with Flowers (1944), Weeping Woman (1937), and Marie-Thérèse's Face (1928). Woman in a Hat with Flowers is believed to be a portrait of Picasso’s mistress Dora Maar, with whom he had a relationship from 1936 to 1944. Marr, an artist in her own right, was deeply influential to Picasso professionally, helping him cement his relationship with the Surrealists, which altered the style of his work.  

“Once Picasso added something to his artistic vocabulary, that material became available to him in his later work,” says Thom. “Dora Maar was particularly influential in that regard.” It was Marr who documented the creation of Picasso’s famous mural Guernica (1937), his depiction of the German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Weeping Woman is one in a series of portraits of Maar, and is generally regarded as a continuation of the theme Picasso depicted in Guernica.

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Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937, etching, drypoint, engraving, and aquatint on laid paper. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016)

Marie-Thérèse's Face is a small lithograph from shortly after Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter became romantically involved in 1927. Walter was 17 when the relationship started and Picasso, 45, was still living with his first wife. The lithograph shows an extreme close-up of Walter’s face. “It celebrates how extraordinarily enchanted Picasso was with her,” said Thom.  

The VAG isn’t the first to stage an exhibition focusing on the women Picasso painted, sculpted and drew. “But it has never before been expressed explicitly that women influenced his work,” says Thom. “As each woman comes into his life, it evokes a change to the figure. The exhibition reveals how critically important these women were in the artist’s life, and delves into the subject of a woman in the woman’s body as a principal subject in Picasso’s work.”

The National Gallery is staging its own Picasso exhibition this summer: Picasso: Man and Beast. The Vollard Suite of Prints. The Vollard Suite consists of 100 prints, and is one of the treasures of the national collection. Currently on view until September 5, this exhibition represents the first time in 60 years that all 100 prints in the series have been shown together. Marie-Thérèse Walter was the inspiration for many of Picasso’s Vollard Suite etchings.


Picasso: The Artist and His Muses is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery until October 2, 2016. Picasso: Man and Beast. The Vollard Suite of Prints is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until September 5, 2016.

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