Pain and Painting

The stars were especially bright that night. They twinkled at me so I twinkled back because I was in love walking arm in arm with the man I loved. A woman on the corner of Saint-Germain des Pres and Rue Jacob was singing Fréhel’s “Si tu n’étais pas là” (“If you were not there”) and holding a cup hungry for coins. The words “Quand je suis dans tes bras, mon coeur joyeux se livre” (“When I’m in your arms, my happy heart surrenders”) made me sigh and press my head against Hugh’s shoulder. Ah, 1935 was a lovely year to be in love.

To toast our love we went to Café Les Deux Magots. My glass of pastis was almost empty when I noticed the woman sitting next to us. She was Jean Renoir’s set photographer, Dora Maar. I‘d seen some of Dora photomontages and had found quite intriguing. So I continued to watch her from the corner of my eye. But my eye almost popped out of its socket when Picasso and Paul Eluard walked in and sat down at her table. Dora was wearing black gloves with embroidered pink flowers. She began stabbing in between her fingers with a pen-knife. Sometimes she’d miss causing blood to appear on her gloves. Picasso was blatantly fascinated and, once Dora had stopped stabbing herself, asked for the gloves as a memento.

Thanks to my friend Mona, I knew that Dora and Georges Bataille had once been lovers. And let me tell you that that Bataille was some weird dude. As a young man he’d hoped to become a priest believing in the mystical juxtaposition of pleasure and pain. Now he was a writer addicted to sadistic transgressions. Anyone who’d been to his studio knew that Bataille kept a photo of Fou Tchou-Li, the man who was executed by being slowly dismembered to death because he killed a Mongolian prince. Bataille said that Fou Tchou-Li had a look of ecstasy on his face as they were slicing him away. You know, the same look of ecstasy Bernini gave his Saint Teresa.

“Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled, not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it” Bataille had said. So when Dora, 28 years old, got involved with the 54 year old Picasso notorious for how he loved to humiliate women, she was just continuing on a road she’d already started with Bataille. That’s why it didn’t matter that Picasso had already left his wife Olga to live with the young and beautiful Marie-Therese but now wanted Dora, too. Because Dora had some messed up idea that suffering and love were almost synonymous. One day Dora and Marie-Therese accidentally met at Picasso’s studio on rue des Grands-Augustins. The two demanded that Picasso choose who he wanted to be with. Picasso told them they’d had to fight it out. So the women began hitting one another. Later Picasso would say the scene of them fighting for him was one of his best memories.

In Picasso’s words, women were either goddesses or doormats. And if the woman was a goddess, Picasso did his best to turn her into a doormat. And the best way to do that was to make her suffer and cry. Picasso loved Dora’s tears so much that they inspired him to paint a series of Weeping Women.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Dora, more politically aware than Picasso said “Hombre, you’re a Spaniard. Show some indignation for your country.” He responded with “Guernica”. Dora took photos of the painting in progress and it’s thanks to her that this masterpiece exists.

Picasso liked to dabble in photography and, seeing Dora’s talents, made photograms with her. When he realized that he would never be as good a photographer as Dora, he said, “Mujer, you must give up photography and paint like me”. To encourage this, he collaborated with her on a painting and they jointly signed “Picamaar”. Seeing it as an artistic marriage, Dora fell victim to her own desire to please Picasso. So she abandoned her own talents just to make second rate Picasso-like paintings.

This S&M rapport went on for nine years. Then Picasso met the extremely young and beautiful Françoise Gilot and dumped Dora causing her to have a nervous breakdown. A concerned Paul Éluard sought the help of psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan, who treated Dora with electroshocks. This is the same Lacan who owned Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde but, because his wife Silvia (ex-wife of Bataille) found the painting too disturbing, had it covered by a sliding wooden panel. One wonders why a man who permits himself to be censored thinks he can illuminated another.

Éluard reprimanded Picasso for the way he’d crushed Dora but Picasso responded that Dora’s downfall was not his fault but that of the Surrealists. To ease his conscious, Picasso bought Dora a house in Provence. Here Dora turned to abstract painting and sought comfort in the Catholic religion. Years later, Picasso went to visit her and told her he was surprised she hadn’t committed suicide. Dora responded that she hadn’t only to keep him from having that satisfaction.


Picasso hadn’t been totally wrong when he said that Dora’s downfall was the fault of the Surrealists. Despite their claims of being avant-garde, Surrealists were just as misogynist as conservatives.

Initially many women found Surrealism appealing because it was an alternative to a status quo that had never accepted them. Although never taken seriously as artists, Surrealism did give women the space to be introspective and self-referential.

In 1929 André Breton, founder and leader of Surrealism, wrote that “the problem of women is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in the world” appropriating Freudian theories for his manifesto. Freud believed many women have problems because they suffered from penis envy. Of course, that was just wishful thinking on his part. The real problem is the male fear of the vagina dentata, the vulva with teeth that can bite off a penis since a man enters as a macho but leaves as a wimp. Maybe that’s why the French use the expression “petite mort” (“little death”) as a slang for orgasm.

Surrealism had heavy sadomasochistic undertones. Bataille (a Marquis de Sade disciple), Picasso, and Man Ray were all into bondage. Picasso painted his mistress Marie-Thérèse all tied up (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) based on a bondage photo taken by Man Ray.

So why the need for men to tie up their women? It’s obviously about a power struggle. And women, brought up to feel guilty about having sexual desires, could appease this guilt if tied up and helpless.

After the horrors of WWII, Breton realized that his male oriented movement lacked a spirituality that, for biological reasons, only women possessed. Furthermore, women could no longer be considered the irrational sex as it had been men and not women who’d caused such a devastating and stupid war.

Lessons learned.

Beauty is ephemeral. If you base your life on your looks, you’re never going to be happy once you hit menopause.

Create your own identity and don’t let someone else try to do it for you. Never underestimate the value of your own self-esteem.

Just because you look good in a photo doesn’t mean you look good in real life.

In a patriarchal society, women will always be minimized next to a man.

Never love someone more than you love yourself. And, if you don’t know how to love yourself, it’s time you learned.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)


About Art for Housewives

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