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Pablo Picasso

Contrary to expectation, these books provide new information about and expand our understanding of Picasso and his art

Was Picasso gay?

Thirty-three years after the artist’s death, the Picasso industry shows no sign of flagging. Type “Picasso” into Google and you’ll be offered a staggering 54 million entries (of 20th-century figures, only Adolf Hitler, with 68 million, gets more). With the exception of the delightful Lump, these new books, in their own different ways, expand our understanding of Picasso’s art.

Adopting an essentially biographical approach, Anne Baldassari and Elizabeth Cowling relate the art to two people who played a decisive role in Picasso’s complicated life—the one emotionally and artistically, the other professionally. Christopher Green’s Picasso: Architecture and Vertigo, suggests the more speculative nature of his enquiry, which leads the reader into areas remote from conventional art history.

Dr Baldassari’s Picasso: Life with Dora Maar. Love and War 1935-1945 accompanied an exhibition earlier this year of the same title at the Musée Picasso in Paris, where the author is director.

The beautiful, half-Croatian photographer Dora Maar (Markovitch) was Picasso’s mistress from early 1936 until 1943 or 1944, when she was gradually replaced by Françoise Gilot. She suffered a breakdown in 1945 but lived to be 90, increasingly as a religious recluse. When she died in 1997 much of her estate passed to the Musée Picasso in lieu of tax. Lavishly illustrated with material from this rich resource, Dr Baldassari’s book charts Maar’s relationship with Picasso during a turbulent political decade. She took photographs of Picasso and of his work, invaluably documenting Guernica in its various stages, while she in turn was the inspiration for some of Picasso’s most haunting portraits in all media, including the series of Weeping Women.

Picasso and Maar spent the summers of 1936, 1937 and 1938 relaxing at Mougins in the south of France, where they met up with artist friends such as Man Ray and the poet Paul Eluard and his wife Nusch. On the second of these holidays they were joined by the English surrealist painter and collector Roland Penrose and his new girlfriend, later his wife, the American photographer Lee Miller. The Penroses continued to visit Maar in Paris long after she and Picasso had split up. The now commonly accepted theory that, with each new woman, Picasso changed not only his house, pet dog and favourite poet, but also, crucially, his style, was originally proposed by Maar in a long conversation with Penrose in 1955. This theory found its way from Penrose’s notes into his biography of Picasso, the first full-scale work in English, that appeared a few years later. What Penrose did not repeat was Maar’s conviction that Picasso was a repressed homosexual. Maar confided in Penrose because she was certain he would be discreet.

We know this thanks to the prodigious detective work undertaken by Elizabeth Cowling, whose Visiting Picasso: the Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose reads more like a novel than the feat of scholarship that it is. Based largely on material in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s Penrose Archive which I was responsible for acquiring (I should add I had no influence on Dr Cowling’s book apart from contributing a foreword), and illustrated with some of Lee Miller’s photographs, Visiting Picasso traces a deepening friendship over 35 years that at times resembles a one-sided marriage.

Whatever the true nature of Penrose’s infatuation with Picasso, the tact, discretion and charm that Maar recognised in Penrose persuaded countless museums and private collectors to lend to the landmark Picasso retrospective that Penrose organised at the Tate in 1960. This was followed at the Tate seven years later by the first major show of Picasso’s sculpture. This dogged persistence marked Penrose’s pursuit of The Three Dancers, which Picasso finally agreed to sell to the Tate (where Penrose was a trustee) in 1965. Arguably the most important classic modern picture in the Tate’s collection, its acquisition was Penrose’s greatest single achievement.

The Three Dancers featured in the Hayward Gallery’s recent exhibition “Undercover Surrealism” about the short-lived, subversive magazine Documents, its founder and editor Georges Bataille and its principal contributors, including the ethnographer and friend of Picasso, Michel Leiris. Bataille and Leiris are quoted at length in Professor Green’s book, which argues that there is a tension in Picasso’s work between “architecture” (order, structure, system) and “vertigo” (the irrational, uninhibited, uncontrolled). For Bataille, vertigo meant loss of control and hence loss of self, leading to the ecstatic, ritualised experience so disturbingly evoked in The Three Dancers.

From the vertiginous heights of Professor Green’s complex arguments, the photographer David Douglas Duncan brings us down to earth with a bump. The story of Lump the dachshund has been told before, but it is good to be reminded of Picasso’s relationship with a dog who was not one of his own pets. As a bonus, the publisher has reproduced in colour 14 of Picasso’s variations on Las Meninas in which Lump modelled for the dog in the foreground of Velázquez’s masterpiece.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Was Picasso gay?'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 175 December 2006