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Nightmare at the Picasso Museum

The greatest museum of Picasso's works has been engulfed by scandal and crisis. Closed for the past five years, it is finally ready to reopen its doors to the public. But has the bitter struggle for Picasso's legacy been resolved?


Pablo Picasso

On June 30, 1972 Pablo Picasso created his last self-portrait. He had depicted himself many times before, but never like this. His face looked like a skull with stubble. Its colour was greenish-grey.

The mouth was a straight slit. Only the lines under his eyes proved his features were flesh and not raw bone, which seems to protrude from his head at the left of the picture, where it is set against red fire, blood, or a setting sun.

From his youthful self-portraits to his bare-chested appearance, at the age of 75, in Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1956 film The Mystery of Picasso, the artist, so fit and long-lived, enjoyed showing off his muscular body. But in his last images of himself, the shoulders that were still so powerful when he displayed them in Clouzot's adoring film had shrunk to the dried flatness of a mummy.

Pride of place

This was his 91st year. Picasso looked at himself without illusions, underlining the true state of things with heavy black lines.

When friends came to visit he would show them the self-portrait of June 30. It had pride of place on an easel apart from his routine clutter. He wanted to know how others saw it.

Picasso habitually studied his own works in this meditative way: his studio, and all his homes, were filled with his own artworks, going right back to juvenilia from his teenage years in Spain.

He kept a bank vault in Paris, filled with paintings, prints, sculptures, and even poetry. But his self-portrait as a death's head was something else; he kept goading friends to interpret it, insisting they gaze with him into its big terrifying eyes. This picture of a death foreseen was, for Picasso, "a mirror", his friend and biographer John Richardson told me.

Less than a year after making it, he died, at home in Mougins in the south of France, on 8 April 1973.

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He was buried at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, in a striking final homage to Cézanne - whose hesitant, searching paintings of this mountain did so much to inspire Picasso's cubist revolution in the early years of the 20th century.

He was survived by his second wife, Jacqueline, as well as his "legitimate" son by his first marriage, Paulo, and Paulo's three children, Pablito, Marina and Bernard.

Then there was his former lover Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter Maya. And Françoise Gilot, the author of Life with Picasso, a merciless picture of an ageing artist lording it over his much younger lover, rich with embarrassing details of his habits and opinions - such as his insistence that one cannot be a real woman without becoming a mother.

After failing to prevent its publication in 1964, Picasso tried to cut their children, Paloma and Claude, out of his life.

He also left 1,876 paintings, 1,335 sculptures, 7,089 standalone drawings, 18,000 prints, 2,880 ceramic pieces and 149 notebooks of drawings. It was the greatest collection of Picasso's art in either private or public hands.

After his death, the vast personal collection that was discovered in his various studios and homes befuddled even his closest friends and most intimate students. No one had known the scale and substance of this private dimension to Picasso's genius. It was not just the stupefying quantity of works he kept, but how and why he kept them, which had no equivalent in art.

Legacy

The collection that Picasso left came to about 70,000 items. But it took nearly a decade to sort out his legacy. First, the rights of his children and grandchildren had to be established - hardly a simple matter.

Picasso loved fatherhood, as his portraits of his children demonstrate, but he performed its duties inconsistently.

As the diverse and fragmented Picasso family tried to settle the estate, they suffered a series of misfortunes that still offer the darkest possible material to those who see the painter of Guernica as a misogynist who ruined the lives of his wives, mistresses, children and even grandchildren.

His grandson Pablito died from drinking bleach a few days after being refused admittance to Picasso's funeral by his second wife, Jacqueline, who kept out everyone but herself and his eldest son.

Pablito's father Paulo died in 1975, after a life wrecked by alcohol. Marie-Thérèse Walter, the lover whose opulent body is the theme of some of his wildest art, hanged herself in 1977. Nearly a decade later, in 1986, Jacqueline herself committed suicide.

Even in his lifetime, Picasso saw his private life become unpleasantly public. It is sometimes implied his lovers were passive victims of his demanding, even childish character but more than one of them got her own back in print.

Fernande Olivier, the lover of Picasso's youthful days in Montmartre, was first to publish in 1930. Gilot caused even more of a sensation with her revelations.

In 2001, Marina Picasso, Paulo's daughter, published a book accusing her grandfather of damaging her childhood, first by crushing her father's character, and then by refusing adequate financial help to a family he knew to be struggling.

Out of the infernal soap opera of the Picasso family in the 1970s, Claude Picasso, the painter's only surviving son, emerged as the leader of the family and took a highly influential role in shaping Picasso's artistic legacy.

To be continued

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