PARIS — There’s a telling photo of Pablo Picasso and Olga Khokhlova in Rome in 1917, at the very beginning of the couple’s courtship. Picasso, flanked by the grinning woman who would soon become his first wife and his friend, the playwright Jean Cocteau, isn’t even looking at the camera. His body is turned to the side, his piercing gaze intensely fixed on Olga. You can feel the yearning burning through him. The relationship was fresh, lustful, perhaps the closest it ever came to bliss. Olga would dominate his works over the next several years, reading or holding their son Paul, yet always seeming to shy away from his scrutiny. By the end of the following decade, Picasso had shifted his attentions to another woman, but that same ferocity would return in the form of blistering depictions of Olga.
That photo, on view at the Picasso Museum as part of Olga Picasso, the first exhibit devoted to the artist’s first wife and one of his longtime muses, is remarkable for another reason: It’s one of the rare moments we see Olga smiling. Born in 1891 in Nezhin, a Ukrainian city that was then part of the Russian Empire, Olga Khokhlova joined Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912. She left home to travel with the company in 1915, two years before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, and she never saw her family again. Our perception of this woman rests almost solely on the prism of Picasso’s gaze and, later, his cooling affection for her.
In his paintings, Olga is a constant melancholic figure: eyes averted, face partially hidden. In the pastel work “Pensive Olga” (1923), she sits with her deep, dark eyes cast down, two fingers to her temples, hair set in a severe center part, pale skin nearly overwhelmed by the blue of her dress. She assumes a nearly identical position in “Woman Reading” (1920), though the blue dress has been replaced by one of a less-stifling gray, and her attention is drawn to a letter in her hand. Her mind is clearly elsewhere; Picasso has become an outsider, seemingly unable to penetrate her thoughts, intruding on a moment of sorrow.
The exhibit, which assembles letters, family photographs, and dance slippers alongside Picasso’s portraits, attempts to shed new light on Olga. Her tours with the Ballet Russes and her marriage to Picasso in Paris in 1918 meant that she never saw the violence of the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent Russian civil war. Between 1917 and 1920, she lost all contact with her family. When the letters finally arrived, they brought news that Olga’s father and brothers had died fighting with the counterrevolutionary forces and that her mother Lydia and sister Nina had left for Georgia. “Life here is dreadful,” Nina wrote to her sister in 1920. “How lucky you are to have escaped.” In a letter that same year, Lydia apologizes for Nina’s plea for Olga to send money and asks her daughter to describe her daily life. We can only imagine what Olga’s responses must have been, as there are no records of her letters to her family.
Meanwhile, Olga and Pablo were rapidly climbing the societal ranks in Paris as Picasso’s fame grew. They moved to an apartment on rue La Boétie in the ritzy 8th arrondissement, enjoyed the company of Igor Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau, and went to balls thrown by Count Étienne de Beaumont.
The birth of their son Paul in 1921 marked a new phase for the couple. Picasso’s portraits of Olga in this period show a warm, tender woman utterly absorbed by the infant playing in her arms, her hefty silhouette a call to Picasso’s renewed interest in classicism. Paul’s arrival briefly united the strained couple, but it’s notable that while her body is relaxed, enveloping her son, her face is still partially turned away from the artist and tinged with sadness.
In 1927, Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter, then just 17 years old. Enamored, he secretly brought her to Brittany during a family vacation and was inspired by his new mistress to create his Bathers series (1928). In the paintings, Walter was everything Olga was not: bright, aerial, erotic. With his marriage essentially over, Picasso began to eviscerate Olga in his paintings. In “Nude in a Red Armchair” (1929), her contorted limbs are splayed over the seat, her breasts dangling from her throat, her mouth open in agony. It’s a disturbing, grotesque image, a violent distortion of the woman Picasso had painted in another armchair just a decade earlier to celebrate their engagement.
While Olga’s physical manifestation filled Picasso’s earlier canvases, it’s her metaphorical presence that looms over his paintings dating after this period. Walter’s arrival as Picasso’s new muse cemented the growing rift between the couple, though they would stay legally married until her death in 1955. Recognizable by her disheveled hair, open jaw, and bared teeth, Olga appears in many of the artist’s Crucifixion scenes and even in his self-portraits, underscoring his obsessive need to continue to render her on his own terms.
Yet the Olga we see through Picasso’s paintings is markedly different from the one we glimpse in home movies from around 1930. In one of the exhibit’s few documentations of Olga that isn’t directly colored by her husband’s gaze, she smiles and plays with the family dogs in a garden, picks petals off a flower, and squints at the camera, her hand raised to block out the sun. She appears both shy and eager to win over the viewer. And, for just a few minutes, she exudes a sense of delight and openness that we never get to see elsewhere.
Olga Picasso continues at the Musée National Picasso (5 rue de Thorigny, Paris) through September 3.