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Picasso’s sex life

Never have I watched the sky with such apprehension. Today my entire bedroom ceiling is off. Ah, such fresh air and light! Such dark clouds above! They have discovered even more rot. The scaffolding outside my back door shakes as they climb about, sawing, hammering, smashing. The sawdust is cascading down. But the rain has held back.

My home is chaos and noise. But it could be worse.

Yesterday, great pleasure – the Picasso exhibit at the AGO. On the streetcar there, I read an article about David Rakoff, the pessimistic humorist who just died. He wrote:


The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out: a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.


Not a happy picture.

And then I stepped into Picasso’s world – to be confronted with a spirit so overwhelmingly vigorous, so supremely social and self-confident, not just as an artist but as a man – just another planet than Rakoff’s. Picasso’s work is joyful, sexual, the incessant outpouring of a powerful, implacable soul; it seems effortless. A lot has been made of him as a devourer of women, and that side is certainly on display, as he wore out one lover and moved right along to the next – women as mollusks, fruit, jugs, as holes and slits – and of course, as themselves, like Dora Maar, bright yellow with jagged edges and claws. In later work, we can see the influence of Matisse, but there’s none of Matisse’s sweetness and warmth in Picasso. Energy, sex, power. Get out of my way! The word that encompasses this man is thrust.

Something else the exhibition makes clear – his incredible skill as a sculptor, rivalling his work as a painter. A stunning goat; the famous bicycle seat bull. What a talent.

At exhibits and museums, I wait for the moment when something hits me in the gut, and here, nothing did until the very end. I was full of admiration and wonder, but unmoved, until the last two canvasses, painted in 1972, the year before his death, when he was in his nineties and still working constantly. There’s a landscape that’s wild, free, pulsating, as if he’s relishing every shred of life – and then, last, a simple portrait of a child/man in a big hat with a paintbrush. I went back to the beginning of the exhibition to see a portrait of Picasso at 14 – yes, the same jet black round eyes as the simple face painted when he was 91. “This is all I am,” he seems to be saying, “a boy with a brush, who sees.” A ferocious boy; a brilliant brush; eyes that mesmerize.

I paint the way some people write an autobiography, he wrote. The paintings … are the pages from my diary.

Finally I stepped from Picasso to the gallery of the Group of Seven and other Canadian artists. What a shock, all those trees and lakes and leaves and villages in the snow. Where are the penises? Where are the breasts and bellies and mouths? Did these painters not have lovers? Canadian art at the AGO is beautiful and serene but utterly asexual.

It took a priapic Spanish genius to point that out.

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3 Responses to “Picasso’s sex life”

  1. theresa says:

    Yes, that moment when you realize why you're there. For me, last year in Vienna, it was seeing a small Cezanne, a road leading up to a village in what's obviously Provence. The warmth of that painting, the sense of, well, opportunity — for where does the road lead, if not to heaven? So ravishingly beautiful.

  2. beth says:

    It's funny, isn't it, how you can look and look and suddenly something hits you between the eyes. I remember so clearly my first time, at 28 – Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, looking at Vermeer and falling madly in love. What a thrill it was, to feel such a powerful bond with that small piece of very old canvas. I'll have to go to Vienna and look for your Cezanne.

  3. beth says:

    P.S. My dear friend Patsy pointed out that I should see the sexual symbolism of deep lakes and tall trees in Canadian art, and I do – but right after Picasso, who doesn't bother with symbolism, just paints the organs, the desire, the open mouths and thrusting bodies – lakes and trees just don't grab in quite the same way.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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