Olga's Gallery

Olga's Gallery

June 16, 2001


Olga Khokhlova, Picasso's Wife

In June 2001 we added the section of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a Spanish artist of the 20th century. He is probably the most popular artist in human history. Pablo Picasso was also the first artist that earned more than one billion dollars on his artwork during his lifetime. He left thousands of works after him: paintings, graphic, sculptural and ceramic pieces. It seems he tried everything in arts. His works gave rise to dispute during his life, and many years after his death the public opinion is still not unanimous, moreover the views are opposite. Thousands of books by his women, friends, acquaintances, and art historians are issued on him; his personality and his works are being analyzed with the persistence no scientific problem ever was.

In this mailing list we offer you a short article on Picasso's first wife, Olga Khokhlova (17.06.1891-11.02.1955), who on the 17th of June would be 110 years old.

On July 12, 1918 in the municipality of the 7th district of Paris the marriage
                     of the famous artist Pablo Picasso and an unknown ballet dancer from
                    Russia, Olga Khokhlova, took place.
Olga was born in the Ukrainian town of Nezhin into the family of a colonel of the Russian Imperial army. She joined a dancing group despite the disapproval of her parents. Dyaghilev, who loved to have “girls from good families” in his group, treated her kindly. She was never a beauty, but was nice-looking, had exquisite manners, and a “specific Russian charm”, which was in fashion in Europe. She obtained a strong decisive character and did not like compromises; this gradually developed into stubbornness, of which she was the first to suffer.

Russian philosophers, art critics, and collectors were among the first to appreciate Picasso's work. In 1914, an excellent analysis of his works by Nikolai Berdyayev was published. Sergei Szhukin and Ivan Morozov brought his paintings to Russia; they are now in the Hermitage and Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Sergei Dyaghilev, who used to attract “the best names” for his Russian seasons, invited Picasso to make costume designs and stage sets for the ballet Parade. He was 36 then and he was famous.

Pablo Picasso got acquainted with Olga Khokhlova in Rome in the spring of 1917. By that time she had been in Sergei Dyaghilev’s Russian ballet company for 5 years. She was a disciplined and diligent dancer with good techniques, she looked good on the stage, but she never was a prima. Though she had a couple of solo parts, she usually danced in corps de ballet.

Picasso's friends could not understand why he paid attention to Olga, a common dancer and not in the least a remarkable person. Maybe, the artist, satiated with love affairs, liked exactly her ordinariness and commonness, which looked as something exotic to him. Tired of his artistic explorations and inner loneliness, he was looking for a refuge, an oasis of tranquility, where he could have a rest from his own passions… Maybe, it was important that Olga was Russian. Picasso, a revolutionary in art, was very much interested in everything Russian, the Russian revolutions of 1917 worried many people in Europe, and Picasso was not an exception.
Maybe, the atmosphere in the Russian ballet company, his friendship with Dyaghilev, Bakst, and especially with the composer Stravinsky, played its part. Who knows?
But very soon Picasso was fond of Olga with all his southern temperament. Dyaghilev warned him mockingly to be very careful, because Russian girls always went for marriage. The artist thought it was a joke.

In Rome, Picasso and Olga lived in different hotels, and though they met every day and had long walks around the “eternal” city, the dancer was not in a hurry to answer the artist's feelings. She liked Picasso, and though she was not interested in his art, his fame impressed her. She also understood that her own talent was only modest and there was not any hope for her career in ballet. It was better for her to get married, but could a Bohemian be a good husband? “Could an artist be a serious person?” Olga’s mother asked Dyaghilev. “Not less serious than a ballet dancer”, joked Dyaghilev.

After Rome and Paris the Russian Ballet company, and Olga, went to Spain. Picasso followed. He painted her much, in a realistic manner, on which Olga insisted, she did not like experiments in painting. “I want to recognize my own face”, she said. In Barcelona, Picasso made Olga meet his mother, who liked the Russian girl, visited many performances with her participation, but once warned her, “My son lives only for himself, no woman could be safe and happy with him”.

… Once, when Picasso and Olga had a walk around Barcelona, a gypsy came up to them. “What’s your name?” she asked Olga. “Carmen”, answered Olga, who liked to be taken for a Spaniard. “And what’s yours?” “I am Olga”, answered the gypsy.

When the Russian ballet company left for Latin America, Olga stayed. She made her choice. Picasso and Olga returned to France, and settled in Monrouge. It was there that Picasso painted the most famous of Olga’s portraits ‘Olga in the Arm-Chair’.
Many Picasso's friends tried to dissuade him from marriage, but in vain.

On July 12, 1918 in the municipality of the 7th district of Paris the marriage of Pablo Picasso and Olga Khokhlova took place. From there the couple went to the Russian Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, where the wedding ceremony took place. Among the guests there were Dyaghilev, Apollinair, Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and Matisse.
Pablo was sure that he was marrying for life that is why in their wedding contract an article stated that all the property was mutual, including works of art.

After the marriage the newlyweds settled into a big apartment in the center of Paris. Olga decorated the apartment in accordance with her tastes. Picasso did not interfere. He was satisfied with making complete disorder in his own studio, which was on the lower floor.
Even after becoming rich the artist had very simple tastes. He was not against Olga’s expensive dresses, but himself kept using the same old suit. He liked to spend money on exotic things, which stimulated his imagination, he also used to help his less fortunate colleagues. His wife, in contrast to him, wanted to lead a life in high society. She liked expensive restaurants, receptions, and balls of the Paris upper classes. For a short period she managed to take Picasso away from his Bohemian friends.

In September of 1918 Picasso, Olga and the Russian ballet company went to London, again he was engaged in designs for the ballet. Picasso and his young wife were in the center of attention everywhere and gradually he got fond of this way of life; he ordered a lot of elegant suits and accessories. Within several weeks, a Bohemian turned into dandy. Though he never took his attire seriously, it was a part of masquerade, mystification, which he loved so much.

Increasingly this way of life began to annoy him. On one hand he loved his wife, and wanted to have his own family. On the other hand the conventions of family life interfered with his work and with his inspiration. He wanted to stay free and was ready to sacrifice everything for his freedom.

On February 4, 1921 their son Paul was born. At the age of 40 Picasso became a father. He was excited and proud. He made a lot of portraits of his wife and son, dating and timing them accurately. Olga loved her son affectionately and almost painfully, she hoped that the son would save their marriage. She felt that her husband was returning to his own inner world, where she was not admitted. Olga tried to re-capture her husband and from time to time threw huge scandals. Tired of the senseless high life and his wife’s hysterics, the artist fenced himself out of her.
In January 1927, Picasso met the next victim of his passions – Marie-Thérèse Walter. With her he wanted to cross Olga out of his life. His hatred to her he began to vent in his paintings. He painted her as a horse, or an old shrew. Later he would say, that Olga “wanted too much of me… it was the worst period in my life.”

But Picasso did not want the divorce…

The first who failed to bear the situation was Olga. She could not stand her husband’s hatred any longer, and the existence of a rival. After another family scandal she left the house with her son. But they were never divorced and she remained his official wife until her death in 1955.
During the WWII Picasso started to come to Olga, to talk about their son, who was in Switzerland at the time. It was not a revival of the old love. He was only lonely. But she understood it in her way.
In 1943 Picasso fell in love with Françoise Gilot, who became his next muse for several years. It was also another blow for Olga, who was jealous to all his new women. She used to write him letters in a mixture of Spain, French, and Russian, their content was about how low Picasso fell. She included in her letters portraits of Rembrandt, or Beethoven and wrote that he would never be as great as them.
In summer Olga went after Picasso and Françoise to Mediterranean; she was after the young woman. Françoise stood humiliations and Olga’s hysterics without a word, understanding that Olga was lonely and desperate.
Olga died of cancer in 1955 in Cannes.
Her son Paul Picasso died on June 6, 1975. Picasso's first grandson, Paul’s son, Pablo (1949-1973), committed suicide on the day of his grandfather’s funeral; Paul’s other two children, Marina and Bernard, were among the heirs of the artist.

In the next newsletters....

More hidden treasures from the Hermitage: Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse.
History of some private collections.

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