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Picasso and L’Amour Fou

The argument for “In my beginning is my end” is convincing, but we should not rule out other interpretations. Hazard—often in the form of pentimenti or errors that have instigated pictorial developments—plays an important part in Picasso’s work, also black humor and perceptual jokes: for instance the way small things in The Crucifixion (the sponge) are painted as if huge, and vice versa (the toy picador who pierces Christ’s side). When Gasman describes the little red figure who nails Christ to the cross, and is painted as if made of nails, as “an extreme refinement of the real nails of fate,” I see what she means, but isn’t it also a brilliant visual pun? Gasman likewise equates Christ’s tormentors with “Picasso’s enemy, fate”: I would like to add a postscript: the artist once characterized the “tormentors” throwing dice for Christ’s raiment as “art dealers.”

For all its glimpses into the artist’s private Golgotha, the 1931 Crucifixion constituted an exorcism, a release from inner strife. According to friends, Picasso seemed exalted after painting it—exalted, too, by the concupiscence of his amour fou for Marie-Thérèse, by the ever increasing recognition of his genius, especially in America; and, not least, by the suspicion that he was some kind of God—if not Christ, maybe Dionysus. The Catalan sculptor, Fenosa, at the time a close friend and protégé of Picasso, overheard him repeating, “I am God, I am God….”

Certainly there is a streak of divine possession in the way Picasso installed himself at Boisgeloup early in 1931 and set about creating a series of monstrously beautiful heads in plaster of Marie-Thérèse—monstrously beautiful as the great Nimba mask (now in the Musée Picasso) which the artist had recently acquired and installed like a guardian spirit in the hall across from his studio. As Picasso knew (William Rubin has this information from Michel Leiris), the Nimba mask was a goddess of fertility—a fact that doubtless inspired the artist to come up with a totem of his own: against the evil machinations of his wife, against the manipulative magus that Breton threatened to become, against malevolent destiny and death. As Rosalind Krauss has written about a very different artist, Hans Bellmer, “To produce the image of what one fears in order to protect oneself from what one fears is the strategic achievement of anxiety.”7 That Picasso thought along these lines is confirmed by an observation about the impact of African art (in 1907–1908) that he made to Françoise Gilot:

Men had made those masks… for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realised what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way.8

A form of magic…a way of seizing power”: this is what the four monumental heads of Marie-Thérèse which Picasso proceeded to execute in the first half of 19319 care all about. Hence their ability to enchant and (at least in the mind of the artist) to protect. Hence also their ability to disturb and destroy: by setting up a nice suburban girl as a goddess of demonic sex, Picasso set in motion forces that would in the end destroy her. Another woman sacrificed to his art.

Brassaï, who was among the first of the artist’s friends to be allowed to see the new sculptures, stresses that they were done in utmost secrecy. He had been struck, he said, by some large sculptured heads in recent engravings for the Atelier du Sculpteur series (a series in which Picasso apotheosizes himself in his new role of godlike creator). But he had no idea that such “barbarian goddesses” actually existed until he went to Boisgeloup in December 1932. Familiarity has not diminished them. We can still share Brassaï’s sense of amazement when we visit the vaulted cellars of the Musée Picasso and come upon these heads—plâtres originales as well as casts in cement and, the artist’s least favorite material, bronze (“the only advantage is it doesn’t break”)—in all their hieratic glory (see illustration on page 66); together with an incomparable display of related drawings done after as well as before the actual sculptures.

In the first of these great heads, it is true, Picasso takes a backward look at his neoclassical paintings which were nothing if not coolly sculptural, and adopts a style of Maillol-like correctitude. But the second head is far more hieratic, far more totemic, thanks to the effrontery with which the artist combines the forehead with Marie-Thérèse’s flap of hair to form buttock-like protrusions that merge into a huge phallic nose. This proboscis also embellishes the third of these heads, except that two large eyeballs nestle on either side of it like testicles. As for the fourth head, it is all the more daunting for being physiognomically both ithyphallic and callipygian—male as well as female, fore as well as aft. Here at last is the monstrous deity who had been haunting Picasso’s work since the hallucinatory studies of his penis in the form of a gigantic female that he had done at Cannes in 1927.

Besides the Nimba mask and the prehistoric Vénus de Lespugue (of which Picasso owned two casts) Matisse’s sculpture has been suggested as the inspiration of these works: specifically the heads of Jeannette (above all No. IV), which had been done between 1910 and 1913 but recently (1929) reworked, as Picasso almost certainly knew. To my mind, the Jeannettes constituted less an influence than a challenge. Where Matisse was concerned, Picasso had always been very competitive, and his monumental Marie-Thérèses are above all a bid to outdo his rival’s work in power, scale, and magic—especially magic. In Picasso’s view, Matisse’s beautiful bronzes were in the last resort “an aesthetic operation,” whereas his own sculptures transcend their artistic function and evoke dark, Dionysiac mysteries, Priapic rites—rites such as Apollinaire described in La Fin de Babylone (1914). This erotic historical novel was written at the height of the poet’s friendship with Picasso, who would hardly have forgotten the spectacular, sacrificial orgy—de Sade as visualized by De Mille—presided over by a gigantic statue of Baal, “le grand phallus dressé à sa gauche.” From “une voix d’outre tombe” comes an amazing invocation to the god which could just as well be addressed to the numina of Boisgeloup:

Celui qui forge les nuages
Celui qui donne l’enchantement,
La face malfaisante,
L’oeil malfaisant,
La bouche malfaisante,
La lèvre malfaisante,
La parole malfaisante,
Esprit du ciel, souviens-t’en!
Esprit de la terre, souviens-t’en!

Apollinaire may have misunderstood modern art, as Picasso (and Braque) always maintained; still he exerted an enormously formative influence on Picasso’s mind, filling it with facts and theories to do with mysticism and magic, history and literature, high fashion and the wilder shores of sex, and much else besides, not least the notion (Pop Art, avant la lettre) that “catalogues, posters, advertisements of all sorts” could be “a source of inspiration…. They contain the poetry of our epoch” (said by Apollinaire to André Billy, see Soirées de Paris, October 1912). Picasso never forgot all that he had learned from Apollinaire, and I feel that not only the welded metal construction intended as his memorial but all major sculptures of the early Thirties can in some degree be regarded as monuments to “Croniamantal.”

If Picasso’s paintings and drawings of the early Thirties often feature his sculptures rather than the girl who was their model, the reason, as we have already seen, was partly economical. But it also has to do with the artist’s reverse Pygmalion complex: the psychological need to make the loved one as submissive and passive, as much of an object as possible (a complex that also helps explain Picasso’s voyeuristic obsession with sleeping figures). Nor should we overlook his desire to keep Marie-Thérèse’s existence a secret—all part of his penchant for concealment and disguise. The pictorial code that Picasso formerly used in references to Marie-Thérèse now gives way to metamorphosis—an approach that may spring in part from his recent engravings for Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1930). But Picasso’s reason for portraying people in inanimate terms is best explained in his own words (to Françoise Gilot): he said he envisaged objects in a “metaphorical sense, just like Christ’s use of parables…. That’s the way I use objects…. They’re my parables.”text2 In the light of this statement let us compare four paintings done between 1931 and 1937, each of them a “parable” involving Marie-Thérèse and himself. First of all two masterpieces in the Musée Picasso. Despite appearances, the Grande Nature morte au guéridon (March 1931) is not really a nature morte at all: the jaunty phallic pitcher stands—a bit like a Toby jug—for the artist, while the fruit dish corresponds to Marie-Thérèse’s head, a pair of apples to her breasts, and the curlicue base of a table to her legs. In Le Sculpteur (December 1931), however, Picasso is more overt in that he has thinly disguised himself as a cross between Zeus and Praxiteles, and his mistress as a sculpture on a plinth—in a very literal sense a blockhead. A year later, in a painting belonging to Marina Picasso (Beadleston No. 71), she again reappears as a large plaster head while Picasso reverts to impersonating a pitcher—this time filled with suggestive-looking philodendron leaves. Finally in 1937, when Marie-Thérèse has been supplanted, Picasso, somewhat gloatingly, paints a recognizable portrait of the poor Angst-ridden girl pressing herself against the window of a room in which he, the pitcher, stands in solitary, self-important state. If I have concentrated on the pitcher rather than on other no less symbolic objects (books, lamps, mirrors), it is entirely out of convenience. Picasso was far from consistent in his use of symbols; and the pitcher can be female or male, good or bad, propitious or unpropitious, according to pictorial as well as personal circumstances.

In retrospect it is easy enough to spot the countless references to Marie-Thérèse in Picasso’s work, but at the time few of the artist’s friends discerned her existence even when her appearances were no longer in code. For instance, Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer, maintained that he was kept in the dark until 1945, but Kahnweiler could be very blind when it suited him, especially when he risked being caught in the cross fire between an artist and his wife or mistress. Jealousy, too, can be blind. Olga did not apparently identify her rival until the great retrospective at the Galerie Georges Petit in June 1932. Confronted by the radiant portraits done earlier in the year—notably the sublime Dream (collection of Mr. and Mrs. Victor W. Ganz, New York), which encourages us to regard the dozing Marie-Thérèse with the voyeuristic adoration of the artist—Olga could no longer overlook the presence of a voluptuous blonde in her husband’s work and life. Did Picasso—a pastmaster at manipulating the lives of his women through his work—want to force the truth on Olga? Probably, for Marie-Thérèse is now depicted in flagrantly recognizable terms, usually seated, as if for a portrait, in an armchair rather than playing on the beach or writhing on her back. “When I paint a woman in an armchair,” Picasso told Malraux, “the armchair implies old age or death…or else the armchair is there to protect her.” Besides protecting Marie-Thérèse against Olga’s malevolence, the chair confirmed that she was enthroned in her lover’s life: from the fall of 1930 onward in a small apartment at 44, rue La Boétie, down the street from the Picassos and—no less convenient for the fabrication of alibis—around the corner from two of his dealers.

  1. 7

    L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism, p. 86.

  2. 8

    Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (McGraw Hill, 1964).

  3. 9

    This is earlier than the date given by Werner Spies’s catalog of the sculpture. New dates for these and other important sculptures have been established in the useful new catalog of the Musée Picasso, on the basis of material that has come to light in the artist’s collection.

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