Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain, and was the son of a Basque drawing teacher named Blasco Ruiz and an Italian mother, Maria Picasso. According to Spanish naming traditions, his name was Pablo Picasso y Ruiz, and so he signed his earliest pictures. Before he died at the age of 91, he would sign over 45,000 works.
One professor of fine arts told me that Picasso had five passions: “his art, his ego, his image, his women, and his dogs, in that order.”
In fact, Picasso’s life was full of dogs. He had many, of many different breeds, including terriers, Poodles, a Boxer, Dachshunds, a German Shepherd, Afghan Hounds, and numerous “random bred” dogs. Many of these were “borrowed” or “stolen” from friends and associates in the same way that many of his women were. The dogs were as much a part of his life as his female companions, and they went everywhere with him. He also gave dogs to his friends as gifts, in part to ensure that he would never be in their company without a dog. When his various relationships broke up, Picasso would often leave all of his goods behind him and go off to live in a new place with a new woman. Usually, he would only arrange to have a few things returned to him, including some of his recent paintings, some of his brushes and paint, and his dog or dogs. The rest was all left to friends or to the woman whom he was leaving.
One of the most important of Picasso’s “stolen” dogs came from David Douglas Duncan, a photographer for Life magazine. Picasso liked Duncan and, for nine months, the photographer was drawn into the world of La Californie, Picasso’s villa near Cannes. He was given carte blanche to photograph whatever and whomever he liked.
When Duncan came to visit he brought along one of his own dogs, a Dachshund named Lump. The dog took a liking to Picasso, and the feeling was mutual. “He jumped ship,” remembers Duncan. “He was a very engaging dog, and as soon as he arrived at Picasso’s house he decided this was heaven and this was where he was going to stay.” Picasso played with the dog, gave him bits from his breakfast, and sat Lump on his lap to caress him while talking and being photographed by Duncan. When Duncan was about to leave, Picasso held Lump and said to Duncan something like, “You will leave him, of course?”
In his book on Picasso and Lump, Duncan suggests that, although he was fond of the dog, Lump was getting along badly with a larger dog that he owned. In addition, his nomadic lifestyle made travelling with the small dog difficult. Actually, the likelihood is that Duncan, like most other people who interacted with Picasso, simply found it difficult to refuse any request that the artist made, whether for money, services, or the companionship of women or canines.
Picasso’s dogs often worked their way into his art. One of his first pieces was a paper cutout of a boyhood terrier. Lump was drawn into several of Picasso’s interpretations of Velásquez’s painting Las Meninas. The artist replaced the massive hound in the foreground of the original with abstract renderings of Lump. Freaky, a mixed-breed, is the subject of many drawings as well, while Kabul, his Afghan Hound, appears in several paintings with one of his wives, Jacqueline.
I got to meet Picasso once. The occasion was a reception held in honor of the unveiling of a large piece of public sculpture that was commissioned by a New York University. The reception was one of those large formal affairs. I no longer remember why I was invited; however, I was there with a few other academics, mostly from fine arts departments.
Picasso was already well into his eighties. I remember being surprised by how small and wiry he looked. What I remember most were his eyes—they were enormous in relation to his head and, at first glance, they seemed almost black in color. He was surrounded by a number of dignitaries who were controlling the flow of people who wanted to meet him.
One of my colleagues leaned over to me and said “We can go up and try to say hello, but he really only talks to important people or people who can do something for him.”
“Well, I’d like to try,” I said, “I wanted to ask him a question.”
I had recently read that, despite the fact that he had lived in France for around 50 years, Picasso remained very proud of his Spanish heritage and since I spoke that language reasonably well I hoped that might gain me a moment of his time.
Once I was in front of him, I quickly asked him in Spanish “Excuse me. I know that this occasion has to do with your art, but might I ask you a quick question about your dogs?”
On hearing his native tongue being spoken, he looked directly at me with the barest hint of a smile.
“Certainly,” he said.
“I have seen photographs of you with so many different breeds of dogs. Is there any one breed, or any one dog, that was your favourite?”
Now he did smile.
“I have had so many,” he said and as he started speaking his dark eyes drifted upward, “Some were gifts, some I found. Breeds… I do not usually get the same breed of dog again. I want each to be an individual and I do not want to live with the ghosts of the other dogs. Of course there was Lump, my Dachshund. I used to put him in my paintings when they needed something to make them lighter and more amusing. I suppose that I am fickle in my affections, but after a dog has left my life I try to quickly fill its place with another. Right now I have an Afghan Hound named Kabul. He is elegant, with graceful proportions, and I love the way he moves. I put a representation of his head on a statue that I created for Daley Plaza in Chicago and I do think of him sometimes while I am in my studio.”
He looked directly at me, and as he continued speaking, his right hand was making lines and curves in the air, as if he were drawing something on an invisible canvas in front of us.
“Often, if he comes into my mind when I am working, it alters what I do. The nose on the face I am drawing gets longer and sharper. The hair of the woman I am sketching gets longer and fluffy, resting against her cheeks like his ears rest against his head. Yes, if I have a favourite, for now at least, it is my Afghan Hound, Kabul.”
He smiled at me in a way that told me that my audience was over.
Since that meeting, I have looked at Picasso’s art in a different way. Now, I always look at the noses and hair and wonder if the picture I am looking at has a bit of Afghan Hound in it.