Pablo Picasso was not your typical senior citizen. He lived in the south of France with women half his age, fathered more children, and remarried at 79.
Those sunny days on the Riviera followed the gloom of Nazi-occupied Paris, where the artist had spent World War II. He celebrated his move to the coast with a creative outburst that is abundantly illustrated in “Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-62)” at London’s Gagosian Gallery.
Paintings, sculptures, cutouts and ceramics all show Picasso marveling at his lovers and newborn kids in a rush of joie de vivre uncommon for a man his age. The exhibition is co-curated by his friend and biographer John Richardson, who attends the opening.
So does grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, the exhibition’s other curator, who oversaw his family’s loans to the show. He looks like a slimmer, taller Picasso: the same large eyes, the same wide mouth. Urbane and self-effacing, Ruiz-Picasso says there may be a physical resemblance, “but I don’t have the same talents.”
Born in 1958, little Bernard was a regular guest at his grandpa’s Mediterranean abodes, along with his father Paulo Picasso (son of Picasso and his first wife, the Ukrainian-Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova). His grandfather was affectionate and not someone the rest of the family fussed over or treated as grand and untouchable.
The house was “like a large kid’s room with lots of objects everywhere,” Ruiz-Picasso recalls. “You could never sit on the furniture, because it was always covered with books and things.” So the little boy sat on the floor.
“He liked me to look after him, and stroke the back of his head,” says Ruiz-Picasso. “He had no hair left, so that was my job. I could stay close to him while he talked to his buddies.”
From 1946, Picasso had multiple homes in the south, first with his lover Francoise Gilot (a twentysomething artist), then with Jacqueline Roque, who became his second wife. From the pottery town of Vallauris, where he made his earliest ceramics, he moved in 1955 to a villa in the hills above Cannes, then bought a chateau in Provence in 1958, where he and Jacqueline are now buried. A final villa was bought in 1961 in Mougins, away from the overdeveloped coast.
Another regular guest of the Picasso household was Richardson, whose three-volume “A Life of Picasso” is considered the artist’s definitive biography. The fourth volume, which starts in 1932-33 and may lead all the way up to the artist’s death in 1973, is in progress, says Richardson.
Working the Room
So what was Picasso like? “With his friends, Picasso was the most generous, warmest, the most fun,” says Richardson, who is tanned and younger-looking than his 86 years. “He was touchy-feely. I mean, huge hugs.”
“If there were eight of you having lunch in the studio, you’d watch him work the room -- young girl, older woman, man he’d known forever, kids, even the dogs,” recalls Richardson. “He’d get everybody’s energy, and then he’d strut off.”
In between meals, conversations and beach outings were atelier visits. “He would show you some new work, and then he’d always ask the same question: ‘Which is the strongest?’” recalls Richardson. “Not, ‘Which is the most beautiful?’”
I suggest that the Mediterranean years, by critical reckoning, might not have been his strongest, and that Picasso might have been past his peak. “I don’t think he ever passed his peak,” replies Richardson.
“As Picasso said to me once, there’s no such thing as a bad Picasso,” he says. “Some Picassos are less good than others.”
“Picasso: The Mediterranean Years” runs through Aug. 28 at the Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia Street, London WC1X 9JD. Information: http://www.gagosian.com or +44-20-7841-9960.