Pablo Picasso’s mother, on meeting Olga who was to become the artist’s first wife, warned her ‘you poor girl, you don’t know what you are letting yourself in for..I don’t believe any woman would be happy with my son..he is available for himself but for no one else’. These words would haunt Olga and the many other women in the artist’s life as while Picasso could be charming and loving he could equally be abusive and cruel. These emotions were best expressed by the artist in his paintings and the current exhibition at the Musée Picasso, Paris, which is organised in partnership with Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, and simply entitled ‘Olga Picasso’, presents us with works reflecting Picasso’s feelings for Olga as the relationship rose and declined.
Olga Khokhlova was born in 1891 in Ukraine in the Russian Empire and in 1912, wanting to become a ballerina, she became a member of the Ballet Russe. In 1917, during the troupe’s tour in Rome she met Picasso who was designing the decorations and costumes for the ballet. Picasso and Olga, who was 10 years his junior, married the following year in Paris. However, the couple were very different, Picasso being essentially bohemian, Olga preferring to move in the upper levels of society. Picasso began to shed his bohemian lifestyle and the couple entered a new social environment all this corresponding with the fame Picasso was now receiving as an artist. It was a time too when Picasso’s artistic style was changing and following the horrors of the First World War, he entered his classical period.
His figures of this period are monumental being influenced by the statues he had seen during his time in Rome. However, a certain gloom hung over Olga as her family back in Russia were experiencing many difficulties following the Russian Revolution and this is well highlighted by correspondence between Olga and her family shown at the exhibition. This gloom has been suggested as the source of Olga’s melancholic expression in Picasso’s portraits of her at this time.
The couple’s only child Paolo was born in 1921 and his birth inspired Picasso to create many works evoking tender maternity scenes between mother and child.
However, the marriage began to decline and in 1927 Picasso began an affair with the 17 year old Marie-Thérèse Walter with whom he would have a relationship for many years to come. Picasso and Olga finally separated in 1935 but they never divorced. Picasso’s changed feelings for Olga are expressed brutally in his paintings during this time , such as ´Bust of a Woman with Self Portrait’, 1929, Private Collection (above left) and ´Large Nude in a Red Chair’, 1929, Musée Picasso, Paris (above right). In the latter, Olga is depicted with a contorted body, gaping mouth and teeth bared, the image not a very pleasant one.
A very interesting feature to the exhibition is the section devoted to the large trunk that Olga’s son Paul retrieved after her death. It contained letters, photographs and various objects some of which, together with the trunk, are displayed at the exhibition. Many of the contents relate to her life as a ballerina, a part of her life that was cut short but for which she never appears to have lost interest in. These objects give you a real sense of the private life of Olga.
Finally, the exhibition takes place at the Musée National Picasso-Paris, a beautiful old mansion built in the 17th century set right in the heart of the Marais with it’s central staircase and balcony being it’s masterpiece. The museum is the permanent home to Picasso’s private collection comprising of works from old and contemporary masters and is well worth a view. The museum also has a café with a lovely terrace in a rooftop setting where you can stop before, during or after a visit.