A new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) offers a unique perspective on Picasso’s relationship with the women in his life.

'Picasso: the Artist and his Muses' is remarkable in its consolidation of the historical and photographic archive of Picasso’s wives and lovers, from Fernande Olivier to Jacqueline Roque. While there have been other exhibitions examining Picasso’s relationships (notably 2014’s exhibition 'Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style' at New York’s Pace Gallery), this is one of the first to focus on all six women who were his long-time partners and 'muses'.

Curated by Katharina Beisiegel, deputy director of Art Centre Basel, (a city known for its Picasso collections and home to Herzog & de Meuron, designers of the new VAG) the exhibition aims to show the 'pictorial morphology' of Picasso’s relationships with the six women. In doing so, the curator hopes to 'empower' the women as active participants in his art, rather than mere passive objects of his desire.

With works on loan from 35 different collectors, and with full cooperation from Picasso’s family and foundation, highlights include early sketches of Fernande that show the beginnings of Picasso’s cubist tendencies; new photographs of former ballerina Olga Khokhlova; the 1939 Reclining Woman Reading, a portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter contrasted in its rounded voluptuous lines to the angular, fragmented portrait of Dora Maar he painted on the same day; and the 1941 nude of Dora Maar that seems obviously influenced by her experiments in double exposure/split image photography.

Also present is the famous portrait of Françoise Gilot (the only woman who dared leave Picasso, mother of Paloma and a living, working artist) Woman With a Yellow Necklace. The black spot on the left side of her face is not a birthmark, but rather a cigarette burn 'branding' by the jealous Picasso.

The cosy domesticity of his life with Jacqueline – as evidenced in the 1971 double portrait Man and Woman – contrasts with her role as 'gatekeeper' to the artist: not only did she protect his precious art making time from fans and collectors, but also barred contact with family members from previous liaisons.

The VAG exhibition offers both a deeper understanding of the osmosis between Picasso and his muses and a treasure trove of on loan works by the 20th century’s most renowned artist. The show also speaks to the gallery’s goal of offering not only contemporary Canadian art, but as articulated by senior curator Ian Thom – who helped coordinate the arduous task of shipping the works to the rather remote West Coast city – 'bringing the best of the world to Vancouver.'