Pablo Picasso, who died 40 years ago, said he was not afraid of death. He claimed to see a kind of beauty in it. Giridhar Khasnis writes about the immortal artist.
“There is no single true version of Pablo Picasso,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times (Picasso’s Family Album/April 28, 1996). “He painted, again and again, his friends, lovers, wives and children. And likewise, they and others have had their own different versions of him. Almost a quarter of a century since his death at 91, people still fight over his history and reputation, the way they once fought for his affection.”
Picasso died on Sunday, April 8, 1973 in his 35-room mansion near Cannes on the French Riviera. His second wife, the 47-year-old Jacqueline Roque, and Paulo, his son from his first marriage to a Russian ballerina Olga Khoklova, were with him when he succumbed to a heart attack brought on by pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs).
Picasso had claimed that he was not afraid of death; he even saw a kind of beauty in it. What he feared was falling ill and not being able to work. To his credit and good fortune, the Spaniard, who produced thousands of paintings, sculptures and drawings in his lifetime, never stopped working till the very end.
In fact, when death came calling on that fateful April morning, Picasso was in his 91st year, and in the midst of preparing for a major show of his works at the Avignon Arts Festival, which was to open on May 23. Less than a year earlier, the Louvre Museum in Paris had organised his retrospective in its grand gallery to mark his 90th birth anniversary; that was the first time Louvre had ever granted an exhibition to a living artist. Two years before his death, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which boasted of having the world’s largest public collection of his works, had also put on a special exhibition of Picasso’s works.
In the last decade of his life, Picasso lived as a recluse and worked in isolation. Almost no one was let inside the iron gate of his tile-roofed, vine-covered stone villa. Roque, who stood by his side all through their marriage, was so possessive that she incited Picasso to cut off relations with almost everyone, including his children. An exception was made for Paulo, Picasso’s only legitimate son, who had been allowed to remain close to him.
The day before Picasso’s death, everything had seemed normal. In the afternoon, he had taken a walk in the little park that surrounded his sprawling stone house overlooking the reddish foothills of the Maritime Alps. Later in the evening, Picasso and his wife had entertained a few close friends for dinner. “Drink to me; drink to my health,” Picasso, in good spirits, had told his lawyer and friend, Armand Antebi. “You know I can’t drink any more.”
At around midnight, he had excused himself saying, “And now I must go back to work.” He painted until 3 am before going to bed. And the next morning he was gone.
The news of his death spread like wild fire. “A long-haired telegraph boy rode his motorcycle up and down the hill from Mougins to Picasso’s Notre Dame de Vie villa, delivering hundreds of telegrams expressing sorrow at Picasso’s death,” revealed a newspaper report. “One of them was from the Spanish government, which Picasso so disliked that he had lived in exile for the last 30 years.”
People braved the downpour outside the villa waiting to pay their respects, but were denied entry. Among them was Pablito, son of Paulo, who too was prevented from entering the house, ostensibly under Roque’s instructions. Not permitted by the local authorities to be buried in his mansion in Mougins, Roque decided to make the grounds of the Château of Vauvenargues as his last resting place. It took a week to make arrangements, and his body went into the grave only on April 16. On the night of the burial, Roque wore her white nightdress, stretched out on the burial mound in the snow and slept there all night. She had been entirely devoted to Picasso, despite the 45-year age difference between them; she even referred to Picasso as God.
“Jacqueline was very sensual, and with Picasso, the chemistry was immediate,” noted Pepita Dupont, author of The Truth about Jacqueline and Pablo Picasso. “There was a strong complicity, love and eroticism. And in her, Picasso found all that a man seeks in a woman: she was at the same time his mistress, his mother, his sister, his accomplice and his muse.”
Picasso’s death led to another tragedy in the family almost immediately. Pablito, who was heartbroken at not being allowed to pay his last respects, swallowed a bottle of bleach, damaging his organs so badly that he couldn’t eat anymore. He died three months later, and was buried next to his grandmother Olga in Cannes. Paulo himself did not survive for long; he died on June 5, 1975 of liver cirrhosis.
After Picasso’s death in 1973, Roque, who was his muse and model to many of his paintings, became lonely and took to alcohol. She would be found sitting and weeping in a darkened room, addressing a photograph of her husband as though he were still alive. She did survive Picasso for more than a decade, but in the early hours of October 15, 1986 she pressed a revolver to her right temple and pulled the trigger. As per her wishes, she was buried in a Spanish black cape like Picasso, in the vault next to him in front of the castle.
Picasso’s grave was out of bounds to visitors. It was only in 2009 that small groups of visitors were allowed to see the final resting place. His step-daughter Catherine Hutin agreed to open the gates of Château of Vauvenargues for six months and allow the artist’s admirers a rare glimpse into his life. Public visits to the Château resumed in 2010 from June 30 until October 2.
Picasso’s death inspired a Paul McCartney song in an interesting way. Released in November 1973, it was composed, quite by chance, during a dinner party in Montego Bay, Jamaica where actor Dustin Hoffman was shooting for the film Papillon. Hoffman asked Paul how he wrote his songs, to which the singer-poet explained that he just made them up. The curious actor pulled out a copy of the Time Magazine (dated 23 April 1973), pointed to an article (Pablo Picasso’s Last Days and Final Journey) and said, “Could you write a song about this?”
Paul glanced at the article, picked up a guitar, started to sing Drink to me, drink to my health. The song goes like this: The Grand Old Painter Died Last Night / His Paintings On The Wall / Before He Went He Bade Us Well / And Said Goodnight To Us All./ Drink To Me, Drink To My Health / You Know I Can’t Drink Any More…