Picasso's Legacy

updated 07/08/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/08/1985 01:00AM

Like Cosima Wagner a century earlier, Jacqueline Picasso at first hovered in the twilight zone between life and death, her desire to follow Pablo in death as she had followed him in life at war with her will to live for his memory as she had lived for his pleasure. She calls his paintings her "children" and she refuses to sell them and have them disappear into private collections, inaccessible to the public. She has given seven to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and while she is determining her "children's" ultimate homes, she shares them with the world in exhibitions—like the one that opened last weekend at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (it will run until November 10).

After a small dinner given in her honor by Bernard Lamarre, the museum's president, Jacqueline stood in front of the portraits of Picasso and herself that hang in the first gallery and announced, "Monsieur et Madame are ready to receive."

She is only about 5'1" tall, but her head, with its enormous eyes, bold mouth, prominent nose and imposing forehead, would sit with great ease on the shoulders of an Amazon. And her way of relating to the world is clearly that of a queen. "My whims" is what she called the reasons for selecting these particular 81 works (Picasso's estate included more than 1,800 paintings) and for asking that they are hung the way that they are. In fact she sat for hours in front of the paintings, thinking and rethinking their connections, before she arranged them in the maquette that the curator of the exhibition, Pierre Théberge, had taken to her home in Mougins, France. The unity behind her selection could be called a caprice in that it is not a thematic, art-historical or chronological unity, but a unity born of all the personal associations in which each picture is steeped for her. It is the unity of a life—irrational, elusive, but organic and appropriate to a man whose work has been described as "fanatically autobiographical."

Even when Picasso was alive, Jacqueline was the one who helped make many of the selections for his exhibitions. "We always made our important decisions at night," she said once. "Pablo always worked late. Then we would go to the kitchen to have something to eat. At that moment he would decide." And, more often than not, he would change his mind. One night in the kitchen, toward the end of 1965, when Jacqueline asked him to make up his mind over the retrospective with which the French government wanted to honor him on his 85th birthday, his answer was no. "An hour later," she remembers, "before he went to bed, he told me: 'If you want, do it, but I'm not dealing with anything.' "

Of course when the time came he could not resist dealing with almost everything, but this back-and-forth illustrates the major tug-of-war at the end of his life between work and anything that seduced him away from work, whether it was celebrations, or friendship, or children or politics or honors. On the day of the opening of this major retrospective at the Grand and Petit Palais, which he refused to attend, what amused him most was the thought of all the painters who were flocking to see the exhibition. "Poor, poor painters," he said laughing, "because of me, they have achieved nothing today, while I have not stopped working from the moment I got up! How many other painters' white canvases I must have on my conscience!"

Blank canvases were a reproach, a reminder of how much he still had to say and how little time was left. In 1969, four years before he died, he complained: "Two months ago, Jacqueline bought 60 canvases from a paint supplier who was going out of business. Well, there are still 11 canvases un-painted, absolutely blank!"

In Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Picasso's last house in the south of France, paintings were, as he put it himself, "breeding like rabbits." The entire house was a studio to him and a storeroom, and even a terrace had to be enclosed to give him more room. Paintings were stacked up everywhere.

Picasso long ago had gained the freedom to be himself and to do whatever he chose. And what he chose was to work. "He had a warrior's mentality," his cousin Manuel Blasco said: "Fight during the day and fornicate at night." And when the mechanics of old age put an end to his active sex life, even the sexual energy was channeled into the work, until sex in anticipation, sex in action, sex in retrospect became the dominant motif of much of his late work.

He had always described his work as a battle, and when he was producing and winning, he would often emerge from his studio shouting, "Jacqueline, Jacqueline, they are still coming, they are still coming." And then the miracle of Picasso, the godlike creator, would spill over onto everything, however commonplace, and the everyday life of the house would be transformed by his magical exuberance. "Everything is a miracle," he said once to Jean Cocteau. "It is a miracle not to melt in the bathtub like a lump of sugar."

When, however, the work was not going well, the anger and frustration would tear at him and at whomever was closest to him. Also, the onset of old age increased his irascibility. For a man who had always worn his vitality like a badge, the limitations imposed by his failing health were despised as signs of his inevitable mortality. His ulcer operation, his growing deafness, his failing eyesight, his having to give up chain-smoking in 1965, his having to use the elevator that Jacqueline installed in the house in 1971, were all reminders of his lifelong enemy—death. "Even after I gave up smoking, I would still reach in my pocket for a Gauloises," he said once. "It's the same with sex. The desire never goes."

Picasso met Jacqueline Roque in the fall of 1952 when she arrived in Vallauris to work as a salesgirl at the Madouro Pottery. With the passing of each year, his dependence on her grew. But even at the beginning of their relationship, while they were still living at La Californie, his villa near Cannes, Jacqueline was extremely reluctant to leave his side. "I wouldn't be happy just thinking that he might want something merely because I wasn't there." He always had needed a woman's distinct and definite—but discreet—presence. In the last years, however, his dependence on the last woman in his life became almost childlike. It was Jacqueline, Jacqueline, Jacqueline. Maurici Torra-Balari, a compatriot who had known Picasso ever since his early days in Paris, remembers an afternoon after lunch at Notre-Dame-de-Vie when he, his cousins and Jacqueline had driven to Vallauris. "He was going to take a nap, and it was he who had suggested that Jacqueline come with us and be back by 5, by which time he would be up. But he must have woken earlier and Jacqueline wasn't there. Thunderbolts were in the offing. 'How could you leave me?' he cried when we got home. 'You have abandoned me!' " It was a child's tantrum, but Jacqueline made no attempt to defend herself.

There is no doubt that Picasso, an old man and a deeply superstitious Spaniard, was terrified of death. It was a subject that neither Jacqueline nor anyone else around him was allowed to mention, and his fear precluded his even considering making a will.

Death was the great adversary, and the only weapon he could pit against it was work. Jacqueline became the guardian of his isolation. Any correspondence that was going to be kept up had, of course, to be kept up by her. Her letters, a mixture of irony and tenderness, usually started with profound apologies for not writing earlier. "Dear Totote and Rosita," she wrote to the widow of Manolo, one of Picasso's oldest friends, and her daughter, "Mea maxima culpa. I am lazy. He is lazy (for writing!). But we are often thinking of you. Here nothing changes. Thank God. Pablo works, works—invents, invents. Jacqueline is growing fat. Life goes fast...I embrace you affectionately. Jacqueline and Pablo."

"Women," Picasso once said, "are suffering machines." And he often applied to his relationships with women the principle he pronounced one day while he was making a pottery dove: "You see, to make a dove, you must first wring its neck."

By offering no resistance, by making his battles her own and by providing him with constant adoration and protection, Jacqueline, far from getting her neck wrung, survived and transformed herself into the woman who today fills the empty mantle.

The Ritz-Carlton, where she stayed in Montreal, flew in her honor the Picasso flag with the logo of the exhibition. Jacqueline Picasso on her visit to Canada was the representative not of another country but of another world, the Picasso world, of which she has for the last 12 years been the reigning widow.

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