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Olga, 1923

Olga, 1923

(All images may be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Picasso[i] had several relationships, but he was a husband to Russian ballerina Olga Kokhlova (17 June 1891 – 11 February 1955). He met Olga during the production of the Ballets RussesParade (1917)In the early years of the twentieth century, there was no better creative milieu in Paris than Sergei Diaghilev‘s (1872 –1929) Ballets Russes. The Russian impresario recruited the most talented individuals of his days and, among them, Pablo Picasso (25 October 1881 – 8 April 1973). When he was employed by Sergei Diaghilev, Picasso was mixing with le tout Paris, or the cream of Parisian society.

The Legend Begins

Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes

Érik Satie (composer)
Jean Cocteau (writer)
Ernest Ansermet (conductor)
Manuel de Falla (composer)
Léonide Massine (choreographer)
Igor Stravinsky (composer)
Léon Bakst (costume and set designer)
Alexandre Benois (costume and set designer)
Marius Petipa (choreographer)
Michel Fokine (choreographer)
Vaslav Nijinsky (ballet dancer and choreographer)
Pablo Picasso (set and costume designer)

Parade (1917) 

For instance, the production of the ballet Parade (1917) brought together composer Érik Satie (17 May 1866 – 1 July 1925), legendary writer and future filmmaker Jean Cocteau (5 July 1889 –11 October 1963) and choreographer Léonide Massine (9 August 1896 – 15 March 1979).

Érik Satie (17 May 1866 – 1 July 1925) was one of the main composers of his era. Beginning in 1888, Satie composed the Gymnopédies.[ii] Jean Cocteau is the author of the 1929 novel Les Enfants terribles, which he would transform into a film in 1950.[iii] Finally, when it premièred at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet, on 18 May 1917, Parade was conducted by Ernest Ansermet (11 November 1883 – 20 February 1969) who founded l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (1918).

Shown below is Parade‘s curtain, Picasso’s largest work. It features the nimble Harlequin, a recurring figure in Picasso’s artwork,  portrayed here in the artist’s first work as costume and set designer. Parade’s curtain also features mythology’s winged horse Pegasus. Later in Picasso’s career, mythology, the Minotaur in particular, would be a significant motif.

 (Please click on the images to enlarge them.)

The Legend Continues…

The Three-Cornered Hat (1919)

In 1919, Ernest Ansermet would conduct Manuel de Falla‘s (23 November 1876 – 14 November 1946) El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat or Le Tricorne), a Ballets Russes production choreographed by Léonide Massine with costumes and set designed by Pablo Picasso. The Three-Cornered Hat premièred in London at the Alhambra Theatre, on 22 July 1919.

Pulchinella (1920)

Pulcinella (Polichinelle) is a zanni from la commedia dell’arte. Igor Stravinsky composed the music. The ballet was choreographed by Léonide Massine, who also wrote the ballet’s libretto (the text), and Pablo Picasso designed the costumes and the set. Pulchinella was first performed on 15 May 1920 under the baton of Ernest Ansermet at the Paris Opera (Palais Garnier).

The Ballets Russes would also employ costume and set designers Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois (both Russian) and choreographers Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine. However, the Ballets Russes had no greater star than Polish ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (12 March 1889/1890 [Kiev]– 8 April 1950).


Diaghilev was at times a little too punctilious, but his contribution to what composer Richard Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk (total art) is exemplary. The Ballets Russes defined an entire era of the twentieth century and Pablo Picasso’s work with the company gave enormous impetus to his career.

Allow me to quote the UK Guardian (Luke Jennings; 10 May 2010), on the Ballets Russes:

This was more than just a dance company; it was a creative movement which, from its inception, drew to itself the greatest musical, theatrical and artistic talents of the day.

American writer Gertrude Stein lived here with her brother Leo and then with Alice B. Toklas. She received numerous artists and writers from 1903 to 1938.

Americans in Paris: Gertrude Stein

On 4 April 2013, I posted an article entitled Henri Matisse: an Eclectic Modernist. It refers to Picasso’s acquaintance with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, members of Stein’s family, and the Cone sisters. The next two paragraphs are therefore somewhat repetitive. Yet, it should be mentioned that Picasso’s most fervent aficionados and promoters were Americans in Paris. He owes much of his  relatively early success to Leo Stein and his sister Gertrude Stein (3 February 1874 – 27 July 1946). In fact, we could start a whole new series entitled: Americans in Paris. These Americans were wealthy and became patrons to the Impressionists and all that was avant-gardiste in Paris: Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc.

Gertrude Stein was a salonnièreFew addresses are as famous as 27, rue de Fleurus, Paris 6. An invitation to 27, rue de Fleurus, Stein’s home and that of her lover, Alice B. Toklas, was almost as much a privilege in twentieth-century Paris as entrée to Madame Geoffrin‘s Parisian salon had been in the eighteenth century.

Madame Stein is the Gertrude Stein of “a rose is a rose is a rose” who entitled her 1933 autobiography The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. As for Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s lover, she is the author of the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook of the famous hashish cookies. Born in 1877, Alice died in poverty, the victim of greed, on 7 March 1967, aged 89. (See Henri Matisse: an Eclectic Modernist.)

Olga Kokhlova

Olga Kokhlova was a socialite and therefore facilitated Picasso’s introduction to Paris’ world of music, design, choreography, dance, and literature. The two married on 18 May 1917 and, three years after Parade, on 4 February 1921, Olga gave birth to Picasso’s first son, Paulo, depicted above as Harlequin and Pierrot (Pedrolino), Commedia dell’arte figures.

Picasso’s marriage to Olga (17 June 1891 – on 11 February 1955) was not a happy union. It seems the two were not suited for one another. In 1927, Picasso entered into a relationship with another woman. Olga left in 1935 and, as is well known, Picasso refused to divorce her because he would have had to give her half of his belongings, including his paintings. That was not acceptable to him. (See Olga Khokhlova, Wikipedia.)

Harlequin, always…

But let us return to Harlequin. In 1906, Picasso depicted him as dead (see below). At that point, reports of Harlequin’s death were premature. Picasso continued to depict Harlequin and other characters from the Commedia dell’arte, which makes him heir to Jean-Antoine Watteau (baptised 10 October 1684 – 18 July 1721).

However, Picasso’s settings of Commedia dell’arte figures are less ethereal than Watteau’s bucolic fêtes galantes. Yet both artists drew part of their subject matter from Italian comedy and from ballet, without portraying disorderly buffoons. Picasso was also influenced by seventeenth-century Spanish artists Diego Velásquez – “Las Meninas” – and El Greco.

In short, despite a failed marriage, Paris was kind to Picasso who remembered Harlequin and other characters from the Commedia dell’arte.

I apologize for not posting more often. The problem is a long and disabling episode of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Kind regards to all of you. 


Sources and Resources



[i] “Pablo Picasso”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 07 Jul. 2014

[ii] Érik Satie was one of “les Six,” probably named “les Six” after the Russian “les Cinq.” The “Six” are Emmanuel Chabrier, Claude DebussyGabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Érik Satie, and Richard Strauss.

[iii] Among other films and various works, we owe Jean Cocteau his 1946 Beauty and the Beast, but he is better known for his 1929 novel and 1950 film Les Enfants terribles.

Manuel de Falla (23 November 1876 – 14 November 1946)
El Sombrero de tres picos
Joven Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid (Sergio Alapont, director)
© Micheline Walker
8 July 2014