Pablo Picasso, considered the most influential artist of the twentieth century, was as well-known for his art as his sexual appetite. Picasso simply couldn’t resist women – according to Mark Hudson on The Telegraph he had at least seven ‘great loves’ and possibly hundreds of lovers throughout his lifetime. It is unclear and doubtful whether he was true to any one of them at any given time.
Picasso was an unashamed womaniser, adulterer and perhaps even a misogynist, alternately displaying great love and great cruelty towards the women in his life. Before the beginning of their relationship, he even warned one of his lovers that “For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats”. In no uncertain terms, Picasso was telling her what kind of woman he expected her to be.
Picasso moved from Barcelona to Paris in 1902. He was at once taken by the Bohemian freedom of women in France. The women he knew in Spain were either nuns or prostitutes. Certainly the more relaxed aura he found in France would have been his first taste of his ‘goddesses’.
His first steady relationship in Paris was with a tall, beautiful, open-minded and promiscuous French model, Fernande Olivier, whose demeanour enchanted the Spaniard. If he was smitten it was however short-lived: Picasso’s love of all women led to countless affairs and eventually Olivier left him. This scenario seems to play out all throughout Picasso’s life: he meets one great love whom he considers a goddess, they share each other’s lives and beds, Picasso has various affairs and his great love either leaves him or he pushes her away. It would seem that the goddess often became the doormat.
To understand Picasso’s perspectives on women as highlighted in his quip about goddesses and doormats, it is important to study the advent of first wave feminism at the beginning of the twentieth century – the movement that fought for female education and voting rights, better working conditions for women and the abolition of double gender standards.
For the first time women’s rights became a household term and the emancipation of women became a popular concept, even if it was still confined to relatively small communities in North America and Europe. Paris was one such community.
In other words, Picasso lived and loved at a time when women’s liberation in political, economic, social and existential spheres was taking hold. The effect that this shift in European civilisation had on his lovers, himself and subsequently his art is reflected by the discovery of correspondence between Picasso and several feminist organisations situated in France. These records show the frequency with which he deposited money into their accounts and gave permission for them to use his work for fund-raisers. He appears sympathetic to the singular cause of all the organisations: the improvement of living standards for all women. The Telegraph’s Roya Nikkhah reports that these discoveries paint Picasso in a new light: no longer the narrow-minded male predator ravaging women, rather a great artist greatly concerned about the liberation of all women.
To suggest that Picasso’s particular reference to goddesses and doormats is a reflection of his general attitude towards women, considering his involvement with various feminist organisations, would be irresponsible. What then did he mean when he categorised women so famously, given the advent of feminism? And crucially, how can we reflect on it today, and what pieces still hold true?
Emma Goldman, a North American political anarchist at the beginning of the nineteenth century, warns in one of her essays written in 1911 that a female emancipation that disregards existential liberation in favour of political, social and economic equality would create a society in which women are, again divided into classes: those that have attained measurable equality, and those that have not.
Her warning seems very applicable to the entire movement for the emancipation of the woman, even today: emancipation has offered a small percentage of the world’s women true liberation, turning them into idols, millionaires and goddesses. The reality is however that the vast majority of women still experience oppression and discrimination daily – they still live a doormat existence compared to their enlightened sisters. Is it possible that Picasso, in directing his quip at a love interest forty years his junior to warn her of his personal disposition, was touching this issue? Does the world, whether Paris in 1910 or Cape Town in 2014 only see women as one of two kinds – either Beyoncé-like goddesses or nameless doormats?
Hudson, M. Pablo Picasso’s love affair with women. February 2009
Nikkhah, R. Picasso revealed as a feminist in new exhibition. March 2010
Goldman, E. The tragedy of women’s emancipation. 1911