by Harlow Tighe
The (New) Picasso Women. I know what you are thinking, but I don't mean Olga, Dora, Francoise, Marie-Terese or Jacqueline. I am referring to his current women. No, there have been no sightings; the King has definitely left the building. I'm talking about Anne, Helene, Jeanne, Dominique, Claire and countless others at the Musee Picasso and elsewhere. They are the New Picasso Women, the caretakers of the Picasso legacy who laughingly identify themselves as his harem and hint at the mysterious Picasso Malediction. Their dedication to the dead master is all-consuming, and their lives seem to become intricately entangled with his to the exclusion of all else. Have they somehow been hypnotized by that infamous magnetic gaze which, almost a century later, still haunts viewers from the gelatin silver depths of his self-portraits?
Anne Tucker, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Gus and Lyndall Wortham the curator of photography, propelled by her purposeful stride innocently walked into that timeless web of influence while in Paris in 1994. The Musee Picasso was exhibiting the first of three exhibitions dedicated to Picasso and photography. Even though that first installation received scant attention from the international art community, Anne Tucker immediately recognized the enormous appeal and import of the collection of photographs by and of Picasso from the first years of this century. A collaboration of the two institutions ensued resulting in the MFAH exhibition, The Dark Mirror: Picasso, Painting, and Photography, November 16,1997-February i, 1998. The exhibition was a synthesis of the Musee Picasso's three exhibits on the subject and featured approximately 300 photographs, paintings, drawings and prints by Picasso.
Of course, putting together any exhibition requires much thought, preparation and organization. However, when a show features the most well-known artist of the 20th century, budgets explode, insurance costs soar, bureaucrats tangle, egos swell and collapse and lenders often don't respond to the most desperate appeals by fax, phone and Federal Express. Most large exhibits are organized several years in advance, but this enormous undertaking was given less than a year to get off the ground. When Anne Tucker, who has a notoriously hectic work schedule of exhibitions, articles and lectures, informed me that I was to handle many of the administrative duties of this important project, including several trips to Paris ... well, lets, just say I did my best to conceal any inappropriate squeals of joy in the workplace. While I had never had but a passing interest in Picasso, the excitement of working on such a large, international project was exhilarating and addictive. Little did I know that these were the first symptoms of the dangerous Picasso Malediction.
My first mission to Paris was of a reconnaissance nature; the main objective was to return with a concrete checklist and firm insurance values in hand. I was to wrangle with these slippery concepts for months to come. Nevertheless, being entrusted to handle these responsibilities was nothing short of glorious for a young museum worker like myself. I headed off to the Musee Picasso, a magnificent villa in the heart of the Marais district which has been refurbished to house many fine examples of Picasso's art as well as his personal art collection and archive of photographs, letters and ephemera. Picasso was quite the packrat.
After bumbling my way past security to the curatorial offices, I tried to get a grip on my first-day-at-school nerves and take in the atmosphere. The staff was solemn but courteous, and the library/archives seemed to be the main hub of activity. As I watch the researchers, curators and other personnel quietly go about their business, it dawned on me that there were very few men around. The environment was predominantly female. At the time I interpreted this as a healthy sign of female excellence in the field. Foremost among this group were curators such as Anne Baldassari, the intellectual force behind our exhibition, Helene Seckel, chief curator of the museum, and the many members of the research staff who intimately know the recesses of the archives and are only too happy to help a fellow devotee. I was told that there was a male director, but I was never to lay eyes on his (possibly mythical) person.
Only later, when I was fully immersed in the hair-pulling stress of sorting through innumerable details and demands and I was so thoroughly addicted to the project that I had postponed my wedding to the loveliest but increasingly impatient Italian man, was the so-called Picasso Malediction fully explained to me. According to the insiders (and lifetime Picasso zombies), Picasso somehow manages from beyond the grave to attract a trusty female coterie who selflessly devote their energies to his life and works (much as this consorts in life did). With that delightfully black French humor, they informed me that women often die young on the job and to my horror began ticking off the names of women who had succumbed to the Malediction. Perhaps they were exhausted and emotionally depleted like Picasso's real wives and lovers, whose dramatic lives included tuberculosis, mental institutions and suicides?
I was caught, but it was too late to go back. And as Picasso's lifetime lovers surely found out, there are certain benefits to intimacy (intellectual or otherwise) with the great man. How often do you get to minutely examine unglazed, naked Picas-sos; watch as conservators remove masterpieces from their frames to reveal an unknown border or verso; assist curators in searches through vaults and find little-seen works along the way, visit private collections where magnificent Picassos hang over the couch? Did I mention that during one trip to Paris I rented an apartment in the Marais district that, as it turned out, had been decorated by Paloma Picasso, daughter of the artist and dear friend of the owner. The new had fully , closed.
Pablo Picasso was undoubtedly a man of many surprises. Who knew that the painter, sculptor and printmaker also directed that gaze through the lens of a camera? Well, a few informed women knew, but the point is that some aspect of Picasso's genius lay in his ability to recognize something of value, to extricate the essential or file it away for future use. He was a collector of photographs, clippings, postcards and even people. The list of Picasso women who idled on the sidelines even after they had been replaced is a long one. He never quite let them out of his life. Whence comes the joke of the Picasso Malediction. It keeps people on standby, even now.
My brief but rewarding affair with Picasso is over, and I have since moved to Milan, far from the eye of the all-consuming storm. Or maybe I have just inched closer to the source. Will I escape unharmed from the long reach of those otherworldly tentacles? I guess only time will tell. •
Harlow Tighe, former curatorial assistant for works on paper at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is currently living in Milan, Italy. While recovering from culture shock, she is working as a freelance editor and translator for various publishers and is pursuing independent projects on Italian photography and futurism.