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Picasso and L’Amour Fou

Mystery, Magic, and Love in Picasso, 1925–1938: Picasso and the Surrealist Poets Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Part of the dissertation, in revised and expanded form, will be published by Yale University Press in 1986 under the title Art as a Form of M

by Lydia Gasman
Columbia University dissertation, 1981, available through University

Picasso’s ‘Caseta,’ His Memories, and His Poems

by Lydia Gasman
Poetry East

Through the Eye of Picasso, 1928–1934: The Dinard Sketchbook and Related Paintings and Sculpture New York

from the collection of Marina Picasso. in cooperation with Jan Krugier, Geneva, and Jan Krugier, Fine Art,
William Beadleston, Inc. (New York), 113 pp., $25.00

Musée Picasso: Catalogue sommaire des collections Musées Nationaux

published by Ministère de la Culture. Editions de la Réunion des, 320 pp., fr200

One of the principal revelations of William Rubin’s great Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1980 was the section devoted to paintings and sculptures of the early Thirties which celebrated the artist’s mistress of the period, Marie-Thérèse Walter. “Has sheer physical passion ever been made so palpable in paint or bronze?” I wrote in these pages at the time. However, these works are far more than sublime pinups. They have to be seen in the light of Surrealist theories of “convulsive beauty,” of art as something “marvelous” and “magical,” “uncanny” and “hallucinatory”—all of which has been demonstrated by Professor Lydia Gasman in her exhaustive dissertation, “Mystery, Magic, and Love in Picasso, 1925–1938: Picasso and the Surrealist Poets” (1981).

In the last few months we have had further opportunities of seeing l’époque Marie-Thérèse anew in the light of Professor Gasman’s revelations: at the recently opened Musée Picasso in Paris, which is particularly rich in works of this period. Meanwhile, nearer home, William Beadleston, Inc. has put on an exhibition, in New York, “Through the Eye of Picasso, 1928–1934,” 1 consisting of works from the collection of the artist’s granddaughter, Marina, which provide a microcosm of this fascinating period and which confirm that Professor Gasman has shed more light than anyone else not only on l’époque Marie-Thérèse but on the dark depths of Picasso’s psyche.

To understand the full impact of Marie-Thérèse Walter on Picasso’s life and art, we have to go back to the beginning of 1927, when the artist’s marriage to the beautiful but fiercely jealous Olga Koklova (formerly one of Diaghilev’s ballerinas) was foundering, and his one and only attempt at leading a life of fashionable respectability was ending in resentment and rage. Years later, the artist recalled that he was tempted to put a note on his door: “Je ne suis pas un gentleman.” He was fed up, he said, with nice little evenings at the theater followed by nice little dinner parties; fed up with watching an English governess accompany his overprotected son, Paulo, to dancing class in a Hispano-Suiza driven by a liveried chauffeur. (Ironical that Paulo should end up, thirty years later, chauffeuring his father in the very same car.)

In 1927 Picasso was forty-six years old—an age when the démon du midi is apt to strike. Picasso’s demon had been unleashed by André Breton, leader of the Surrealists. In later years the artist played down the role of Surrealism in his art before 1933 (a line that few art historians accept), but he could hardly deny the role that Surrealism played in his life. For a decade or more—mid-Twenties onward—the influence of Breton and his followers was paramount, not least in helping to liberate Picasso from the bourgeois straitjacket that Olga had tried, with some success, to impose on it. Breton’s concepts of sex and love are especially relevant to the works of this period. Concepts such as “l’amour fou,” a love that would detonate the psyche, could best be found in the street, and would have as its object the eternal “femme enfant,” guardian of mysteries. 2 In line with this belief, random promenades became a spiritual exercise for the Surrealists; that way they exposed themselves to happenstance, and according to these pioneers of aleatory principles, happenstance was the way to bring “the marvelous within reach.”

Thanks in large part to Breton’s example, Picasso’s habit of prowling the grands boulevards should be seen less as a sordid search for casual sex than as a spiritual quest for the sacred amour fou. And, sure enough, this is what Picasso did find on the grands boulevards. Outside the Galeries Lafayette, one freezing afternoon (January 8, 1927), he was captivated by the sight of a very young, very voluptuous blonde with intensely piercing blue eyes—the quintessential femme enfant. Picasso grabbed her arm, but his opening gambit almost misfired: “Mademoiselle, you have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso.” She had never heard of him; and he was obliged to take her to a nearby bookstore and show her publications in which his photograph appeared. In the course of this maneuver he managed to charm the girl into meeting him two days later at the Métro Saint-Lazare, well away from his usual haunts. “We will do great things together,” he said, and took her to a movie. Despite thirty years’ difference in age, she found him attractive; she liked the way he dressed. And the red and black tie and the ring he wore (this ring with his name on it had come off an umbrella) and the purchase she had made that fateful day at the Galeries Lafayette—a col Claudine (Peter Pan collar), named in honor of Colette’s heroine—remained the girl’s treasured keepsakes until her death. So did the artist’s nail clippings and his “last forelock.”

The femme enfant turned out to be called Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso was thrilled to discover that she was under age—only seventeen years old (born July 13, 1909). Marie-Thérèse was one of two daughters of Emilie Marguerite Walter who lived on the outskirts of Paris at Maisons-Alfort. Mme. Walter claimed to be of Swedish, or partly Swedish, origin (not Swiss, as Pierre Cabanne has written), which explains her daughter’s striking Scandinavian looks. Nothing is known of the father (since Marie-Thérèse was illegitimate, his name does not appear on the birth certificate) beyond the fact that he is said to have been a painter.

That her daughter was soon seeing Picasso regularly had to be kept from Mme. Walter, who would have had reason to worry that history might repeat itself. However, when the mother eventually met the artist, she apparently took to him—doubtless pleased that her daughter had done so well. Even when history did repeat itself, and Picasso left Marie-Thérèse after she had borne him a child, everybody remained on reasonably good terms. In the first year of the war, mother, daughter, and baby joined Picasso and Dora Maar at Royant for a short stay during which the artist did a wry portrait of the bespectacled old lady. And later, when Mme. Walter became paralyzed, he constructed a painted cardboard parrot for her—another of Marie-Thérèse’s keepsakes.

For many years Marie-Thérèse insisted that she had put up a prolonged struggle for her virtue, and that it was only after the artist persuaded her to pose in the nude, six months after they first met, that she succumbed to his advances. In 1972, however, she confessed to Gasman that he had seduced her within a week of their first meeting. Once seduced, Marie-Thérèse owned to having been a willing pupil, and Picasso, whose attitude toward sex was nothing if not polymorphous, was soon, as Professor Gasman says, “initiating the novice Marie-Thérèse into sexual practices freed from all taboos.” As well as introducing her to the works of Sade, he loved to make her cry and, by the same token, forbade her silly girlish laughter: “Du sadisme,” she told Gasman, “mais aussi de l’art qui est sérieux.”3 By the time the summer vacation separated them, Picasso was deep into the most passionately physical relationship of his life, one that would inspire some of his most ecstatically erotic as well as some of his most profoundly disturbing works. As for Marie-Thérèse, she too fell victim to l’amour fou. In this demon lover, thirty years older than herself, the femme enfant found the painter-father she had never really had. “I always cried with Pablo Picasso,” she said many years later; he was “wonderfully terrible.” In front of him she trembled (she told Gasman); “Je baissais la tête.” He “subjugated” her in the same way that he believed the “world had to be subjugated.”

The portrait drawings of Marie-Thérèse that Picasso is known to have done when he first met her have disappeared—destroyed apparently because the model had to hide them from her mother and the artist from his wife. Thanks to the need for discretion (Marie-Thérèse was still under age), a pleasure in mystery for its own sake, and, not least, Breton’s notion that “life itself asks to be decoded like a cryptogram,” Picasso makes the first pictorial references to his mistress in code. These take the form of still lifes in which the principal element—usually a guitar hanging on the wall but in one case a bowl of fruit—includes a monogram, T over M. In one of these paintings the monogram is joined to the artist’s initial, P, and superimposed on a rudimentary profile of a girl down one side of the canvas. The still life with the fruit bowl is not only embellished with the secret monogram but, as Gasman points out, also with two white silhouettes (very similar to some of the silhouettes in Man Ray’s “rayographs”): a dove standing for Marie-Thérèse, and a phallic doorknob standing for the artist.

The idea of portraying his mistress as an instrument to be plucked or a bunch of grapes to be nibbled on, not to speak of himself as a knob to be handled, is symptomatic of Picasso’s secret exhibitionism. Self-exposure in the form of allegory is a recurrent phenomenon of his later work. (This was not, of course, the first time he had added his mistress’s name to a painting as if to say “I love you.” He had done this to some of his 1913–1914 still lifes as a tribute to “Eva,” his mistress at a time when the development of Cubism ruled out portraiture.)

Apart from a very literal likeness executed as a lithograph in the summer of 1928 and glimpses of a pretty model in some of the Atelier du Sculpteur engravings, there are no overt references to Marie-Thérèse in work done during the first four years of their relationship. It was not until 1931 that the presence of a voluptuous blonde in many of Picasso’s works proclaimed her presence in his life. But even then the artist perversely continued to keep her under cover although it was no longer necessary. “I’ll pass you off as the gardener’s wife,” he once told her when his banker came to call. Marie-Thérèse resented this unkind game, but she was an easygoing girl and never made an issue of it. During his lifetime she managed to withstand Picasso’s unnerving alternation of black misogyny and intense tenderness—as witness his wonderful love letters to her. Once he was dead, however, she cracked: fifty years after their first meeting, Marie-Thérèse killed herself.

Thanks to its “promise of pneumatic bliss,” Marie-Thérèse’s well-volumed body played an important part in rekindling Picasso’s interest in sculpture—dormant for the last fifteen years. There was another spur to this new interest: shortly after meeting Marie-Thérèse the artist had been asked by a commemorative committee to come up with ideas for a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, the tenth anniversary of whose death in 1918 would fall on November 9 of the following year. And so, when summer came round and he had to leave for Cannes with his wife and son, Picasso’s thoughts were as full of this project as they were of Marie-Thérèse; and the desire to evoke an absent mistress fused with the urge to commemorate a dead friend. The monstrous bathers—specters of sex appeal which constitute the first ideas for the Apollinaire memorial—establish an atmosphere of eerie seaside eroticism that permeates much of his work over the next ten years.

  1. 1

    The present writer’s preface to the catalog of this exhibition was the starting point for this article.

  2. 2

    The catalog of the current exhibition, “L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism” (Corcoran Gallery, Washington; published by Abbeville Press), organized by Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, includes an essay by Dawn Ades which explores this phenomenon:

    The city itself…held a peculiar place in surrealist thought as a location of the marvelous, the chance encounter…. It was in the street that significant experiences could occur, and certain places seemed to be endowed with more potency than others…. There was a positive preference indeed for the boulevards and hidden quarters of Paris.

  3. 3

    Sade’s ideas—his “cosmic satanism” (to quote Mario Praz); his “inversion of values…vice [representing] the positive, active element, virtue the negative and passive,” and his “pleasure in profanation and blasphemy”—are often reflected in Picasso’s art and above all his poetry of the 1930s.

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