Give like Picasso

Picasso’s Eyes by Duncan, 1957

Damn. Pablo Picasso can still fix you with a stare.

Black and white photos preserve the mirada fuerte – the strong gaze. His eyes smoulder like cigarette burns.

Picasso’s daughter Angela Rosengart once recalled sitting for a portrait:

Bulls, horses and doves. Guitars and flowers. Men and women, women, women. All were lit by his vision.

They wilted, warped, bucked and bulged in the furnace of Picasso’s imagination – becoming the 26,000 pieces of art catalogued by researchers. Relics of a staggeringly productive life.

The Bull by Picasso, 1945

For Picasso’s younger daughter, Paloma Picasso, the subjects of these paintings and sculptures were willing victims:

Picasso for TIME magazine by Mili, 1949

So said Picasso.

As a young man, his thoughts were coloured by emotion: they were blue with grief; rose-tinted with cheer.

Then, his thoughts snagged on the central problem of painting: how to render three-dimensional objects on flat canvas.

Picasso’s solution was cubism. He mapped every surface, turned objects inside out.

To deepen his work, Picasso then sank into his subconscious, connecting his life with myth and Freudian symbolism.

Picasso in a Bull Mask by Quinn, 1959

That process took Picasso from painting like this in 1906:

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso, 1906

To painting like this in 1932:

The Dream by Picasso, 1932

And I want to linger on those two masterpieces. Because they reveal what it takes to produce like Picasso. 

We have the timeline: Picasso went from Blue Period to Rose Period, from Cubism to Surrealism.

But I’ve made it sound like he was making discoveries alone, through introspection like a philosopher. Or through trial-and-error experimentation like a scientist in a lab. And that’s only part of the truth.

Biographer John Richardson provides the rest: Picasso was fuelled by people who influenced his mood, thoughts, and style.

That last name belongs to the woman in the red armchair: Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Photos show her as tanned and athletic, sand between her toes, blonde bob slick with seawater.

Marie-Thérèse Walter, 1930s

But that isn’t how art history sees Picasso’s “golden muse”.

Through 1932, as Picasso prepared for a major retrospective, he thought her into something new: an endlessly available lover.

Hundreds of images amassed during the summer. Walter slept, sprawled and dreamt in oils. And, then, in the autumn, she fell.

While kayaking, Walter toppled into the rat-infested water of the river Marne. She became gravely ill, lost her brilliant blonde hair, and saw less of Picasso.

Picasso, being Picasso, wrung inspiration from her crisis.

The Rescue by Picasso, 1932

There isn’t a noble lesson to draw from Picasso’s treatment of Walter.

Nor can we find anything to praise in the treatment of his wife, Olga Khokhlova. She had to view the byproducts of her husband’s affair at a crowded exhibition opening.

Picasso took far more than he gave in these relationships. Borrowing language from Wharton professor Adam Grant, we can call him a classic “taker”.

Manage your relationships in that way and you’ll never be taken advantage of. But there’s a danger to being a taker.

Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down. Studying the performance of engineers and salespeople, Grant found “givers” win out in the end.

Picasso at a bullfight, 1955

In 1935, Olga divorced Picasso and took custody of his son, leaving the artist bereft. A friend of Picasso recalls abandoned paintings. All his take-take-taking begins to look unsustainable, and not a little like self-sabotage.

By 1932, Picasso was world-famous. He was a chauffeur-driven celebrity, shopping for Normandy mansions. Perhaps we should have expected an ego.

Looking back to 1906, we spy a more sympathetic Pablo: someone who still had the capacity to give.

That was the year he finalised the breakthrough portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Gertrude Stein at home (with Picasso’s portrait) by Man Ray, 1922

The painting was a frustrating, unrewarding labour for Picasso. Even after 80 or 90 sittings, he couldn’t properly render her head.

His struggle was understandable. Stein’s head was the seat of formidable forces of personality, intellect and creativity.

She was a writer who broke the rules of narration. Her language circled and turned. See this line from her poem about Picasso:

With her partner Alice Toklas, Stein was also the host of Paris’s leading salon. Hemmingway said it was “warm and comfortable and they gave you good things to eat and tea and natural distilled liqueurs”.

No wonder Picasso’s paints stuttered before her. Evading the problem, Picasso left for Spain, where he saw ancient Iberian sculptures.

Head of a man, 4th century BC

The artefacts provided the visual language Picasso needed. In 1906, he confronted the gap in the picture and gave Stein a mask with penetrating eyes.

Some questioned the likeness. Stein was never in doubt: Picasso revealed her as she was.

He didn’t use her as a prop, as he had Walter. No – in this earlier relationship, Picasso gave more than he needed to. He relearned his art to do justice to his friend.

Here is where we can finally learn something, because Picasso the giver was also successful. Stein and her family became his greatest collectors (until they were priced out of the market). They got him through a precarious stage of his career.

And there was something about their relationship that kept Picasso generous. At the height of his fame, when Stein could no longer afford his art, Picasso continued to gift her pieces.

So, that’s a measurable return on good behaviour. Other rewards are harder to express in numbers – but somehow seem even more profound.

While Picasso’s daughters remembered him as a blazing sun, Stein’s recollections have a gentler glow.

Read an extract from Stein’s book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein – ever subversive – refers to herself in the second person:

I’d call that loving, challenging, and stimulating friendship one of Picasso’s greatest works.

And I’d apply those same three adjectives to the portrait of 1906.

Loving, challenging, and stimulating. The kind of success you only get if you give.

Picasso drawing with Paloma and Claude by Quinn, 1953
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