Last night I finished reading Picasso My Grandfather, an autobiographical account of Marina Picasso, granddaughter of the great Spanish-born painter.
Marina talks about how members of her family were driven to despair by the overwhelming personality, both in presence and absence, of the great Pablo Picasso. Marina's father Paulo was a weakling who acted as Pablo's chaffeur and who had to beg him for money. Her mother cared only for herself and appearances besides. Marina and her brother Pablito felt unwanted and stupid and guilty for their dysfunctional family, cursed with the Picasso name.
Marina and Pablito begged for their upkeep while their grandfather was this hotshot billionaire painter hailed as a genius the world over. Alas, when he was in his early twenties, Pablito committed suicide, infected by the Picasso virus as well, and Marina was left to deal with her troubles on her own.
She was lucky. She had a good heart, a good head on her shoulders and a genuine concern for sick children. She took jobs in health centers for mentally sick kids. Much later, when her grandfather and father died, she became an heiress. Marina felt weird about having lots of money after growing up deprived of the most basic things. She bought a few luxury items without becoming attached to, or deriving pleasure out of, them. She gave fur coats to friends. Coats were a way fo remembering her grandmother Olga, a Ukrainian ballerina whom Picasso seduced and lost interest in only a few months into their marriage. Olga was the only person who showed love to Marina and Pablito. But the genius Pablo taught their son Paulo to hate his mother.
Marina set up her own center for orphans in Vietnam. She felt for abandoned children; after all, she and Pablito felt like orphans themselves while they were growing up.
Marina is blessed, not for becoming an heiress after years of having nothing, but for having the will to do something more with her life, undefeated by the absence of love, the rejection and the selfishness her elders displayed. She was not unscathed: she had to battle anxiety attacks and other lasting effects of her harrowing childhood. After she emerged from her therapy, she went out of her way to give others the love that she grew up so hungry for.
As a footnote to this blog entry I would like to share this article written by Jeremy Josephs entitled Marina Picasso on the Art of Survival.
Talk about posh. Of course it pains me somewhat to admit to being so superficial and shallow as to be bowled over by fabulous wealth and riches. But Marina Picasso’s pad in Cannes – and I’ve seen a few des res in my time as a writer on the road – surely takes the biscuit. Not an altogether inappropriate turn of phrase, as it happens, since her stunning white villa overlooking the Iles de Lérins and the Med has been described as a wedding cake of a house. A wedding cake which happens to contain dozens of Picasso originals – a dazzling and unrivalled mélange of paintings, sculptures, bronzes and ceramics – each and every item crafted by her grandfather’s fair hand. Fair hand? Hardly. For Marina is poised to relate what to her has become an all-too familiar tale: that the legendary Pablo Picasso was in fact a cruel and sadistic monster who needed to be appeased with human sacrifices in keeping with the best traditions of an Aztec god. “No one in my family managed to escape his stranglehold”, she says. “He needed blood to sign each of his paintings.” Marina was duly called upon to become a blood donor herself but, unlike others, she survived.
For those who might be thinking ‘poor little rich girl’ Marina is obliged to rattle off a series of rather unpalatable home truths, each one chipping away at the enduring myth of the dominant creative genius of the twentieth century. It involves so much misery, such disproportionate quantities of death and destruction that one hesitates to label the Picassos as merely dysfunctional for fear that the word is too weak. Marina’s brother Pablito tried to commit suicide just a few days after Picasso’s death in 1973 – “my grandfather’s second wife, Jacqueline, wouldn’t let us near him, whereas all Pablito wanted to do was to say goodbye to the dead body.” Whereupon she found her brother lying on the kitchen floor, blood haemorrhaging from his mouth, having downed the best part of a bottle of bleach that perforated his stomach lining. Three months of intense suffering later, aged just 24, he was dead. Marina was obliged to borrow money to pay for his coffin - which rather knocks the ‘poor little rich girl’ theory for a six, does it not?
Her beloved grandmother (the most formative influence in her life) – the once beautiful Olga who had danced in Diagilev’s Ballets Russes died ‘not only paralysed but humiliated, degraded and betrayed’. Then it was Jacqueline’s turn – she chose to end her own life by putting a bullet through her temple at Picasso’s home Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci in Mougins – while Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s muse, duly hanged herself from the ceiling of her garage in Juan-les-Pins. In other words it was not exactly happy families chez les Picassos – and I have spared you the details of the miserable life and times of Marina’s own parents where the watchwords were alcoholism, abuse and neglect. It is entirely attributable to the Picasso effect, Marina will have you believe, a burden which she too has been carrying for the whole of her life. But she considers that with the modest tally of just one nervous breakdown, dozens of fainting fits and fourteen years of psychoanalysis - that she got off rather lightly.
“When I began my therapy I introduced myself not as ‘Marina Picasso’ but as ‘Picasso’s granddaughter’. For I too had succumbed to the Picasso virus - we all fell victim in our different ways. This virus was subtle and undetectable”, she says, “a combination of promises not kept, abuse of power, mortification, contempt and, above all, incommunicability. We were defenceless against it.”
Far be it from me to spring to le Maître’s defence, especially after what I’ve just heard. But I do feel obliged to point out that in life things are seldom black and white – even Hitler loved dogs, for heaven’s sake – and that there surely must have been some tender moments together, as one would expect between a grandfather and granddaughter.
“I am sorry to disappoint you but there were not. I would love to be able to tell you how he had loved us all, of how he would take me in his arms with my dolls and hug me. But that just didn’t happen.” And Marina Picasso proceeds to develop her theme of contempt – describing how her grandfather would only have to sign a paper tablecloth in a restaurant to pay the bill for forty people. And of a man who would boast of being able to buy a house without needing a lawyer by handing over three paintings that he would not hesitate to describe as ‘three pieces of crap smeared in the night’.
Which leads me to enquire if Marina appreciates the works of art that adorn her very walls. Having inherited a quarter of her grandfather’s fortune (including some 400 paintings) you can hardly look up, or to the left or right for that matter, without a Picasso of some shape and form staring back up at you.
“That’s precisely why I refused my inheritance”, she explains. “I was convinced that all of our family’s misfortunes flowed from this man – this God, this King, this Sun, this Genius”, she says dismissively, mocking the adjectives of adoration which are bandied about as soon as his name comes up for dinner party discussion. “You might think that that sounds rather funny – but when I would try to go and visit my grandfather in Cannes – this was precisely the message which Jacqueline would communicate to my brother and I via her gatekeeper – that ‘the Sun is resting.’”
When the director of the BNP bank in Paris offered to open the doors to the vault containing her share of Picasso’s work, she flatly refused. Persuaded by her legal advisers that the refusal of a legacy was not possible according to French law, she duly but reluctantly accepted –promptly stacking the paintings against the walls on the grounds that out of sight meant out of mind. Meanwhile, the artist’s three illegitimate offspring – Claude, Paloma and Maa – had thrown their hats into the legal ring, anxious to see their slice of the action. Whereupon there followed an acrimonious ten-year legal battle – all part and parcel of Picasso’s plan, according to Marina, to suck everyone into his vortex upon his death, precisely as he had planned.
Call me cantankerous if you will. But my unconscious desire seems to be to want to speak up for the old man. I can’t even explain why. Maybe I too have digested and imbibed the myth that Marina is so anxious to dispel. And unlike other reporters who know that there job is to sit down and shut up, I can’t help but throw in my two centime’s worth.
“Nevertheless the fact remains, Madame Picasso, that here you are, hugely wealthy, living in this amazing home which once belonged to your grandfather, with his works of art adorning each and every wall. Is there not something a little unwholesome about your describing him as a kind of blood-sucking vampire whose sole ambition in life was to destroy?”
Convinced that I am about to be given my marching orders, Marina Picasso is entirely unfazed. Maybe she has heard it all before.
“I am perfectly well aware”, she retorts, “that everything I have in financial terms is entirely attributable to Picasso. All I have been trying to do is to tell my side of the story. I have come to appreciate both the quality and quantity of his work. In fact I have even gone out of my way to buy some of his works to be able to complete my collection.”
“Does this mean”, I enquire, “that you have been able to forgive him for all that you, and the other members of your family, have been through?”
“To forgive implies that I am in a position to be able to judge him”, she replies matter-of-factly. “What I can say is that I have made a huge effort to understand him.”
“Pardon my impertinence - but that doesn’t sound like much of a forgiveness to me.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but some of the past simply can’t be undone –especially the death of my brother. I was at his bedside for 3 months watching him die and that’s beyond repair. I too am a Picasso – and even though you may see me now in this somewhat luxurious setting I too have paid dearly I can tell you.”
It was at this point that a bubbly 13-year-old Vietnamese girl walked into the lounge. Having completed her day at school she was evidently happy to be home.
Marina Picasso then explains that she has made the plight of abandoned children her particular concern. And through the work of the Marina Picasso Foundation – she says she has been able to recapture the childhood she was denied. These were no idle words. For back in 1990 she adopted a four-month-old Vietnamese boy, Florian. So successful was this adoption that she returned to adopt two more Vietnamese babies, Mai and Dimitri. It was Mai who had just walked in. Marina’s ‘Village of Youth’, as it is called, is situated in Thu Doc, a northern suburb of Ho Chi Minh City and it consists of a school, gymnasium, swimming pool, a park and a number of small houses designed to create a family atmosphere – precisely what was denied to Marina in her own upbringing.
Having recently published her no-holds-barred biography I conclude by asking what le Soleil might have made of her book. Of course it’s an impossible question to answer.
“To be honest I think it would have done him a power of good. It might have got him thinking and made him realise that he was not the only person in the world where everyone was speechless, in awe or on their knees before him. My greatest regret is that I was never able to get to know him as a mature woman. No guardian of the sleeping soleil would have prevented me from seeing my grandfather. Now I know that you have to learn to climb walls, to break windows to get what you want in life. But then, as a child, I stayed in my place – suffering in silence. It does give me great pleasure though, I must say, to know that its Picasso’s legacy which underwrites my Foundation and which gives hundreds of children a chance in life which would otherwise have eluded them.”
I am just about to set off when there is a sudden downpour. As Marina sees me packing up my affairs and doing my best to prevent my tape-recorder and camera from getting wet, she waves goodbye. She has been a delightful hostess.
“You know what you could really do with now?”, she shouts out across the forecourt, “its le Soleil! Terribly sorry but he’s not in just now!”
Which indicates to me that unlike others in the fold, Marina Picasso knows all about art: the art of survival and of winning through.
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