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Picasso and L’Amour Fou

Cooped up in Cannes (first in the Châlet Suisse, then in the Hôtel Majestic) with the reproachful wife he had come to loathe rather than the easygoing girl he had come to love, Picasso became a prey to sexual Angst and onanistic fantasy—to judge by a series of surrealistically disturbing drawings which depict his mistress’s nubile body in terms of his own tumescent penis. As Robert Rosenblum has written, these bathers are “composed entirely of erectile tissue.” In the simpler images the glans becomes the bather’s head, the urethra a minute mouth, while the scrotum is metamorphosed into breasts and buttocks. But as the series develops, the anthropomorphic permutations become ever more complex and perverse; erections sprout lesser erections which turn into legs or arms holding a symbolic key to a symbolically locked bathing hut. “Keys have always haunted me,” Picasso explained to Antonina Valentin. So apparently did bathing huts. How and why is one of the many mysteries elucidated by Gasman’s dissertation, where the caseta (the Spanish word for bathing hut that crops up more than once in the artist’s verse) is seen as “perhaps Picasso’s most puzzling alter ego…a disguised symbol for himself.”

Appropriate as these pneumatic polyps were to commemorate a great poet who was also a great pornographer (in Picasso’s view Appollinaire’s most obscene book, Les Onze Mille Verges, was his masterpiece), they were ultimately turned down by the committee as impractical. However, Picasso did not give up hope of having his projects executed. As he told Christian Zervos in 1929, he envisaged them as a series of gigantic statues embellishing the Croisette at Cannes. But although they were never realized in three dimensions, these drawings provided the inspiration for a number of paintings that require to be seen as sculpture. Large two-dimensional versions of the Cannes bathers, dating from winter, 1927–1928, are among the first in a series that continues into the early Thirties: mock-ups for sculpture which the artist was not yet in a position to execute. For until he acquired the Château de Boisgeloup in 1930, Picasso had no studio in which to sculpt on a large scale; but even when his atelier de sculpture was installed, his imagination was apt to prove too quick and prolific for the lengthy and cumbersome processes involved. Another factor was a lack of interest in large modern works—painting as well as sculpture—on the part of collectors and dealers: a situation that lasted until after 1945. Just as Fernand Léger never found patrons for the great murals he envisioned in the early Thirties, and was obliged to scale his ideas down to easel size, so Picasso had no option but to create some of his most ambitious sculptures on canvas. “I am obliged to paint them,” he told Kahnweiler, his dealer, “because nobody will commission them from me.”

At the end of the summer the lovers were reunited in Paris; from then on Marie-Thérèse permeates virtually all Picasso’s work, although in a covert way that initiates will have no trouble decoding. At its most recognizable, her head is rendered as a generalized white profile, but Picasso is forever varying and simplifying his formula: Marie-Thérèse’s face occasionally appears as a huge heart (biographers have overlooked the fact that the young Picasso devoted a large canvas—probably hung in a church since it was destroyed in Barcelona’s anarchist riots of 1909—to the cult of the Sacred Heart), also in outline as a kind of boomerang. My own view is that this recurrent form refers to the col Claudine (the Peter Pan collar) which had brought the lovers together, which was emblematic of Marie-Thérèse’s girlhood, and which (as snapshots of the period reveal) she habitually wore. Typical of Picasso on occasion to degrade this girlish emblem with vaginal eyes and mouths. But, as he said—echoing Georges Bataille—why not put sexual organs in the place of eyes and eyes between the legs?

In their diagrammatic simplifications, these col Claudine heads (1927–1928) anticipate the welded metal sculpture that Picasso already had in mind and which he now decided to put into construction. For technical advice he turned to Juli Gonzalez, the most gifted member of a gifted family of Catalan metal workers, who had moved to Paris around the turn of the century. The two men were old though not very close friends whose paths had crossed when Gonzalez, aged twenty, had shown a Bouquet of Flowers made of forged and beaten iron at the Fine Arts Exhibition in Barcelona in 1896, at the same time that Picasso, aged fifteen, was making his official debut with a large, fustian painting of his sister’s first communion. At one point they had quarreled—nobody quite knew why—and drifted apart.

According to his daughter, Gonzalez had subsequently renounced art and gone to work in the Renault factory, where he had learned oxyacetylene welding. He had then resumed life as a sculptor in a workshop on the rue Médéah; and it was there, early in 1928, that Gonzalez set about showing Picasso what welding was all about. There is—or at any rate was—a widely held view that Gonzalez’s work greatly influenced Picasso’s first welded pieces. (An important historical point, this, because the technique involved revolutionized sculpture, above all in the US.) In fact, as Alan Bowness has pointed out, the shoe was on the other foot: Gonzalez’s first mature sculptures date from after the time that Picasso worked in his studio. There is, however, no reason to doubt Gonzalez’s contention that it was he who did all the actual welding to specifications which Picasso drew directly onto the metal. If anyone influenced Picasso’s sculpture at this juncture, it was not Gonzalez but Giacometti.

Once he had become familiar with the possibilities of welding, Picasso did little more than sketch out a few projects before going off for the summer to Dinard in Brittany. Odd that he should have returned to this comme il faut resort, for his previous visit there in the summer of 1922 had been cut short by Olga’s severe illness; and the place might have had ominous associations for someone as superstitious as Picasso, unless in his misogynistic way he wanted history to repeat itself. Odd, too, because he had come to regard the Côte d’Azur as a second home—hadn’t he gone there five years running and been part of the group (including the Scott Fitzgeralds and Gerald Murphys) that made the summer season as fashionable with the young as the winter season had been with the old?

By comparison, Brittany’s Côte Eméraude was irredeemably bourgeois—far more to Olga’s taste than Picasso’s. However, everything becomes clear when we learn, as Gasman did from Marie-Thérèse, that arrangements had been made for the girl to spend July and August of 1928 at a local colonie de vacances. What perverse, surreal pleasure Picasso must have derived from having his teenage mistress—the femme enfant whom he showered with dolls—concealed from his wife in a holiday home for children; concealed, likewise, from all his friends, except possibly the Surrealist poet Georges Hugnet, who lived just across the water at Saint-Malo and would come over on the ferry to rescue Picasso from Olga and help out with alibis.

We do not know exactly when Picasso arrived at Dinard, probably around the quatorze juillet—the classic date for the start of French vacations—which was, incidentally, the day after Marie-Thérèse’s eighteenth birthday. Two dated sketchbooks of the period enable us to keep track of chronology and study stylistic developments. The first of these—the so-called “Carnet Paris,” which ends on July 8, just before the artist left for Dinard—includes ideas for welded sculpture and drawings of a biomorphic figure which look ahead to the first drawings in the so-called “Carnet Dinard,” the focal point of the recent exhibition at William Beadleston, Inc. This “Carnet Dinard” is of great historic interest, for it charts the course that Picasso’s painting and sculpture would take over the next five years or so; it also provides clues to the obsessions which the démon du midi was churning up.

Between July 8, the last date in the “Carnet Paris,” and July 27, the first date in the “Carnet Dinard,” no work seems to have been done. It was a fallow period, a period for unwinding on the beach. Whenever possible, Picasso would escape from his wife’s sulks and the stifling atmosphere of their ugly rented house (the Villa des Rôches in the Saint-Enogat quarter of Dinard) and make for the Plage de l’Ecluse in another part of the town. Marie-Thérèse would be playing ball with some of the children from her holiday home—a scene Picasso would repeatedly portray on the spot over the next few weeks, and from memory laced with fantasy over the next few years. And there against a backdrop of beach towels and beach balls and striped bathing suits flapping in the wind, the artist and his pneumatic young mistress would enjoy afternoon idylls on the sand and evening ones in the confines of a cabana—not one of the lock-up huts which Picasso portrays in his paintings and which, Gasman claims, were associated with his first glimpse of a woman’s pubic hair (these casetas, as Picasso called them, had long ago vanished), but one of the more up-to-date canvas ones. And just as the previous summer at Cannes he had depicted ithyphallic women extending ithyphallic arms to unlock the door of one of these casetas, so, this summer at Dinard, Picasso again and again depicts a bather who is Marie-Thérèse holding the magic key and unlocking the caseta which represents not only Picasso’s psyche but also—Gasman’s comment is inspired by a poem in André Breton’s Clair de Terre—a stage “for sexual transgression and illumination, for amorous encounters where the outer limits of sexual satisfaction are maximized by sacrilege, thus reaching the frontiers of the surreal.”

Unlike the femmes phallus of Cannes who look as if made of “erectile tissue,” the biomorphic bathers of Dinard are fabricated of less highly charged matière: driftwood, pebbles, and bones that have been smoothed and sculpted by the sea. “Pebbles are so beautiful,” Picasso told Brassaï, apropos some stones he had carved,

that one is tempted to work on all of them. The sea has already done it so well, giving them forms so pure, so complete that all that is needed is a flick of the finger to make them into works of art…. One I don’t dare touch: the nose and sockets hollowed out by the sea formed a skull.4

And John Golding has described the subjects of these drawings as

propped and piled onto each other in arrangements that are precarious and yet have a quality of static balance reminiscent of ancient dolmens. In their extreme distortion and abstraction of body imagery and…the way in which the figures are built up of various formally independent elements, these “bone” drawings…look forward to the more orthodoxly “Surreal” drawings of An Anatomy, reproduced in 1933 in the first issue of Minotaure.5

  1. 4

    Brassaï, Picasso & Co. (Doubleday, 1966).

  2. 5

    From John Golding’s essay “Picasso and Surrealism” in Picasso in Retrospect, edited by John Golding and Roland Penrose (Harper and Row, 1973).

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