Haven’t most of us gazed profoundly at a captivating portrait willing it to speak? As a child, particularly obsessed with Picasso, I would line up postcards of paintings depicting his lovers/wives/partners (as he rarely painted a person who didn’t fit into this category) to try and intuit each woman’s true being beyond the two dimensions before me. Picasso himself interfered with my quest, of course, as each painting contained so much of him, making it difficult to sort the subject from the artist. Picasso, (perhaps all artists do), thrust himself into the works as a palpable (albeit invisible) layer of paint. To me, each Picasso portrait, ranging through so many eras and “periods,” shares a narrative. As a child my viewpoint found them deliciously surreal—as if each portrayed a character from an Alice in Wonderland-style fete. As an adult, I’m more taken by their otherworldliness. Looking at them, I simply want to know more about the subjects. Until recently, I had a favorite wife/partner. I preferred portraits of Dora Maar, perhaps because she was (usually) rendered in such bright colors and in whimsical shapes. But the muse I knew the least about, was Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife. She was the one I found the most difficult to conjure from his work. She seemed an enigma—perhaps even to Picasso himself.
Born in the Ukraine, legendarily a general’s daughter, Olga was a ballet dancer, personally chosen by Nijinsky himself when she auditioned for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Picasso met her in 1917 in Paris on the set of the company’s provocative production of Parade, which sported choreography by Leonide Massine and stage work by Jean Cocteau. Picasso had been tasked with costume design. (It seemed Cocteau was always inducting him into such things.) Observers claim it was love at first sight between Olga and Picasso. The great artist had just returned from Rome, where he’d suffered a lover’s rejection of his marriage proposal, his second rebuff in a short time, according to various chronicles. Rumor had it, Picasso, a man many said was obsessed with sex, was angling for a wife and a son. Whether truly in love or soothing a bruised ego, Picasso dove in, purportedly sweeping Olga off her feet. The two courted, and in no time, Olga had retired from ballet, settling with Picasso, first in Barcelona (where he painted the famous portrait of Olga in a makeshift mantilla to please his mother, who wasn’t happy with the former ballet dancer’s provenance), then in homes in Paris and the South of France.
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Now back to the story of our art muse...
Some archivists suggest that Olga was Pablo’s one true love, though he continued a pattern of infidelity. The two set up glamorous digs in Paris, wore expensive clothes, had a car with chauffeur, threw hedonistic parties, and had a penchant for champagne and caviar. Olga continued to practice ballet at the bar most days. Picasso, it is said, enjoyed the elegance and stability she brought to his formerly bohemian lifestyle. Anxious times, later, however, were spent in the south of France as Olga followed the news of the Russian Revolution and the fate of her family. Many writers have explained her dour expression in portraits and sketches created during that time as evidence that she was tense and concerned about the war. However, possibly, her resting face was simply dramatic and melancholy, as in the countenance of the best prima ballerina. Case in point, Portrait of Olga Khokhlova, 1918, currently in a Private Collection, where she gazes with serious eyes, as if listening.
Pablo Picasso and Olga Khokhlova in the painting studio in London, 1919. Private Collection. Strictly for Editorial use only. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.
In 1921, Olga gave birth to Paolo, and Picasso got the son he told friends that he desired. Before Paolo, Picasso’s Olga Phase had consisted of myriad drawings, sketches, paintings—even a print or two—depicting Olga realistically. She was often shown reading, seated demurely, or lounging on a porch. Usually, these works invoked Ingres, equally neo-classic and romantic at once, clear studies in texture and light. Supposedly, Olga had said she wanted to be portrayed true-to-life, so Picasso had cast aside his current Cubist ways to please her. In my view, the paintings, though marked by Picasso’s finesse, portray Olga hollowly, as if she refused to let him access her interiors, as if she kept a secret he couldn’t unlock. His drawings of her at the time exhibit a lively urgency that suggests he was trying to capture what he was not allowed to see. Conversely, his paintings of Olga, though skillfully mastered as beautiful homages, seem ponderous, more about line and color than the muse. But that changed after Paolo. Picasso celebrated family, motherhood, and children for a spell with a period of joyous work—such as the famous portrait of Paolo as Harlequin (1924), as well as Maternity (1921) and Family at the Seashore (1922).
Later, when he began his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927, the relationship between Olga and Picasso floundered. The couple separated in 1935, though they stayed officially married until her death in Cannes in 1955. During their final years together, at at time when Picasso had begun to embrace Surrealism, his portraits of Olga took on a vengeful, angry quality, again, perhaps not adequately unveiling Olga—instead, revealing more about Picasso. Note, The Kiss, 1931, which has an aggressive, nearly self-loathing quality. It is rumored that Olga continued to write to Picasso each day for the rest of his life, and may have stalked or bothered his mistresses and partners.
Always having wanted to know more about Olga, I leapt at the chance while in Malaga in 2019 to see Olga Picasso, an enthralling show at Museo Picasso Málaga. Not just an exhibition of some 41 paintings, 74 drawings, sundry graphic works and a sculpture, the show also included the revelatory contents of Olga Picasso’s personal travel trunk. This trove, found in the family villa in Boisgeloup in an empty room, was rediscovered by grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, who shared the cache, as one of the exhibition’s curators. Brimming with information about the muse, including personal letters in Russian and French tied in be-ribboned bundles, tutus, dance shoes, ballet programs, notebooks, a crucifix, an orthodox Russian Bible, and photographs galore, the trunk revealed much about the woman that Picasso’s portraits didn’t. Not only did the show portray Picasso’s evolution as an artist, but it hinted at how Olga defined herself—as an ex-pat Russian and a dancer, I found that poignant. Most fascinating was the chance to see Olga and Picasso in twelve never-before-made-public films. In motion pictures, Olga shone. What Picasso didn’t elicit in his myriad portraits poured out in the movies. Lithe, full of laughter, carefree and aware of the camera, Olga has the presence of a dancer dominating the stage, the angles of her classically alluring face capturing light at every turn. She seems happy, something Picasso never managed to convey.
Some places to see Olga paintings:
- Olga Khokhlova in a Mantilla, 1917, at Picasso Museum Malaga
- Portrait of Olga In an Armchair, 1917, at Picasso Museum Paris
- Dance, 1925, Tate Gallery
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