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Picasso and L’Amour Fou

They also predict virtually the entire oeuvre of that popular petit maître, Henry Moore.

Two days after this drawing was executed, the sketchbook reveals one of those abrupt changes of idiom which are such a recurrent feature of Picasso’s post-cubist work: changes between the traditional eye-fooling method of representing form and the synthetic cubist approach which involved respecting the flatness of the picture surface. Gone—at least for the time being—are the well-rounded pebbles and bones; gone, too, is the heavy shading, the emphasis on mass. The artist turns his attention once again to the Apollinaire monument and takes up where he left off a month earlier in the “Carnet Paris,” exploring the possibilities of welded metal.

Welded metal was especially suited to this project, given a passage in one of the autobiographical fragments that made up Apollinaire’s Le Poète assassiné. Picasso (“L’Oiseau du Bénin”) and Marie Laurencin (“Tristouse”) are discussing the question of doing a sculpture in memory of Croniamantal (i.e., “Le Poète assassinè,” i.e., Apollinaire himself). “L’Oiseau du Bénin” claims that marble or bronze would be old hat. “Il faut que je lui sculpte une profonde statue en rien, comme la poésie et comme la gloire.” And the following day he and Tristouse set out for Meudon to accomplish this project. And L’Oiseau du Bénin has a pit in the form of Croniamantal dug to a depth of two meters in a forest glade, “si bien…que le trou était plein de son fantôme” (“so that the hole was filled with his ghost”).

In execution the statue “made of nothing” did not anticipate developments in Picasso’s sculpture as much as the earthworks that Smithson and Heizer would construct over half a century after Apollinaire’s death. All the same the concept of “une profonde statue en rien” must have been at the back of Picasso’s mind when he proceeded to fill ten pages of the “Carnet Dinard” with simple but ingenious drawings which whittle a standing figure first down to an armature and finally to an intricate linear network of which the only identifiable feature is the tiny button head.

In their “constellation”-like patterns and the way they hover on the brink between the figurative and the nonfigurative, these sketches resemble the drawings which Picasso had done in 1924 and etched the previous winter to illustrate Balzac’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu. When he returned to Paris at the end of the summer, Picasso immediately set to work with Gonzalez realizing these projects in the form of four openwork pieces made of welded metal rods. (The large version in the garden at the Museum of Modern Art is a later replica; the smaller one in the Beadleston show is one of the originals.) Quite apart from their cardinal importance in the artist’s oeuvre, these “drawings in space,” as Kahnweiler called them, opened up sculpture to a whole new range of possibilities.

As soon as he had solved the problem of the Apollinaire monument to his satisfaction (but not, as it later turned out, to the satisfaction of the committee whose members turned down this skeletal figure just as they had turned down her massive elder sister), Picasso reverted to painting. Since he had no proper studio in the Villa des Rôches, he worked on a very small scale. The first batch of these little paintings relates to the biomorphic bathers in the first section of the “Carnet Dinard,” but in the absence of heavy shading they lack the dramatic impact of the drawings (Beadleston, Nos. 1–10). To counteract this, Picasso magnified the scale of the next batch of bathers in proportion to their setting—petits formats were always a challenge to this small man’s sense of gigantism—and adopted the viewpoint of someone lying on the beach towered over by passers-by. Thanks to these adjustments Picasso’s miniature baignades have a power out of all proportion to their scale, besides a depth of meaning out of all proportion to their seemingly innocent subject matter. In painting these little scenes the artist seems to have realized that he had unwittingly unlocked a Pandora’s box of childhood fears and desires, for he took the unusual step of making small copies of each one in the “Carnet Dinard.” Picasso evidently wanted to discover how his psyche was reflected in the changing patterns of his work.

That this series of Bathers had deep personal significance for the artist is confirmed by his having taken the unheard-of step of occasionally including a recognizable, if tiny, self-portrait, ensconced within a bathing hut—his own symbol—or reaching up youthfully to catch a beach ball. (For a detailed analysis of this phenomenon, readers are referred to Gasman’s article on the caseta.6 ) Having declared himself, the artist then bows out of the scene. For the rest of his stay in Dinard the artist does variations on these ball-playing bathers. Sometimes the Marie-Thérèse figure is naked; sometimes in a striped bathing suit; sometimes she is alone; sometimes with one or two playmates (who significantly have no key to the bathing hut). In two of the paintings the bather is depicted reclining on a beach towel; the hint of yellow pubic hair is a characteristic Picassian way of informing us that this is indeed Marie-Thérèse.

He also does drawings of a scrawny bather whose vagina dentata of a mouth and dilapidated breasts immediately identify her as the artist’s termagant wife. In other works of the period—notably that deeply disturbing specter, the Grande Baigneuse (May 1929) in the Musée Picasso—the bony rib cage of the former ballerina and reproachful eyes (black holes burnt in a sheet of paper) likewise distinguish Olga’s image from Marie-Thérèse’s. But Picasso would not be Picasso if, in the months to come, he did not sometimes scramble his carefully differentiated images and perversely see the beloved mistress and hated wife as belonging to each other’s species.

In the summer of 1929 Picasso and his family went back to Dinard; so in secret did Marie-Thérèse (whether to a colonie de vacances or not we do not know). And once again he devoted a series of small paintings to his mistress. But this time she is no longer seen as a ball-playing schoolgirl but as a voluptuous nude reclining on the beach or, in one case, a bed, with her hands clasped behind her as if to offer her breasts to her “wonderfully terrible” lover. Marie-Thérèse has become a woman, and the sexy languorousness that the artist now brings out in her will henceforth characterize virtually all her appearances in his work.

Despite or because of his delight in the welded pieces executed in Gonzalez’s workshop (he said he felt as happy about his work as he had in the early days of Cubism), Picasso felt an urgent need for a sculpture studio of his own. He was tired, he told Brassaï (who had been commissioned to photograph his sculpture), of lugging studio paraphernalia to and from a succession of summer resorts. He was also, I suspect, looking for a refuge from his wife. And so in June 1930 he purchased a seventeenth-century château, Boisgeloup, near Gisors in Normandy. Far from waiting six months or more for his new house to be made ready, as is usually stated, Picasso started work in July (as witness dated drawings that have come to light in the Musée Picasso), the moment he returned from vacation at Juan-les-Pins. And on his day trips from Paris to supervise the conversion of the stables into a sculpture studio, he would make drawings of sculptural projects, including a formidable satyr—one of his alter egos—clutching a thunderbolt in one hand and his erect penis in the other.

By September Picasso was already doing sculpture; he started by whittling a dozen or more figures (skinny but recognizable as Marie-Thérèse) with a knife out of bits of knotty wood found in the park. But by the end of November he had completed a huge plaster figure, three meters high, of a pinheaded bather, which derives from drawings in the “Carnet Dinard.” To judge by Brassaï’s photographs, Picasso had finally come up with the monumental figure he had yearned to create ever since he first had the idea at Cannes in 1927. Alas, the plaster was broken before being cast; all that remains is a box of fragments stored at Nôtre Dame de Vie, his house near Mougins in the south of France.

Since Boisgeloup was cold and damp in winter (the new owner had perversely refused to install electric light or heat in the studio), Picasso spent the next few months in Paris doing paintings that are once again conceived as sculpture. Most of them carry the bonelike assemblages first sketched in the “Carnet Dinard” to a monumental conclusion—hence the “bone period” label that has come to denote these behemoths. The Musée Picasso is especially rich in great “bone period” paintings: two marvelous Femmes au fauteuil rouge, a pair of naked bathers jabbing each other’s gullets with daggershaped tongues, and a monstrous nude hurling a stone. Nor should we forget the gigantic Bather in the Museum of Modern Art: Marie-Thérèse, below the neck—that beautiful, shell-colored body—but Olga above—that predatory praying mantis of a head and vagina dentata of a mouth. But the key work of the period is the terrifying little Crucifixion (Musée Picasso) that outstrips Guernica in agony and Angst.

Despite its small scale and seemingly casual execution (it was painted in one day, February 7, 1930, but had been simmering for four years or so), The Crucifixion takes us deep into the artist’s psyche—deeper perhaps than any other work since La Danse—possibly because (Picasso told Françoise Gilot) he was a “somnambulist” when he executed it—in the trancelike state that Breton had urged on his followers during the early (1922–1924) “époque des sommeils” phase of Surrealism. Although the catalog of the MOMA exhibition in 1980 claims that the “treatment of the theme is devoid of religious significance,” this Crucifixion is imbued with a weird, blasphemous faith. It has to be seen in the light of the Surrealists’ crusade against God but also in the light of the artist’s half-sardonic, half-serious identification with Christ. Remember, too, that, thanks to the eminent priests among his forebears Picasso had deeply atavistic, deeply ambivalent feelings for Catholicism; and thanks to his early training in religious painting, a working knowledge of hagiography. And he knew instinctively how to give the most familiar horror scene in Christian art not just a perverse personal twist but a nightmarish new reality.

Lydia Gasman, who has come up with the most imaginative analysis of Picasso’s Crucifixions, concludes by seeing the tiny pinheaded figure on the cross in the 1931 painting as an “infant Jesus-Picasso”; and by claiming that “Picasso’s suggestion of birth in death corresponds to his lasting belief that…’life and death are inseparable.’ ”

  1. 6

    Poetry East (Spring-Summer 1984).

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