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Picasso and L’Amour Fou

Marie-Thérèse was the quintessence of dolce far niente,” said a friend who was around at the time, “and if Picasso usually depicted her dozing or sunbathing or playing games, it was because these passivities and activities were the be-all and end-all of her easygoing nature.” Besides lovemaking, swimming is said to have been Marie-Thérèse’s favorite exercise: hence the way she is frequently portrayed offering herself up to the embraces of the artist—breasts uplifted by arms that are clasped behind her head—or to the embraces of the waves. Hence, too, the series entitled Sauvetages (1932) in which her voluptuously inert body is being saved from drowning—but positioned, it is all too apparent, for sex. Although Picasso never learned to swim (“I can swim very well up to here,” he told Jacqueline, pointing to his waist), he held the sea in a veneration that was nothing if not erotic. Sex and swimming are often seen in terms of each other: witness paintings of the mid-Thirties which evoke Marie-Thérèse—often in the presence of her adored sister of whom Picasso was apparently jealous—cavorting in the waves.

Nor does this involvement with the sea abate after Picasso had bought Boisgeloup and ceased going to the seaside. When summer came around, nostalgia for the beaches of Dinard or Juan-les-Pins would overcome him. And just as, later in life, he would console himself for being unable to attend a Sunday corrida by painting or drawing what he was missing, so on summer days (and sometimes in the depth of winter) in the early Thirties Picasso would console himself for being stuck in his studio, hours away from the sea, by imagining Marie-Thérèse on the beach, as in that great pneumatic monument, Bather with Beach Ball (recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; see illustration on page 61). Painted at Boisgeloup in August 1932, this work should be seen as the apotheosis of the girls in striped bathing suits of four years earlier—a two-dimensional version of the colossae he had envisaged erected on the Croisette at Cannes. The following summer Picasso once again trots out his pneumatic giantess, this time without her bathing suit (Beadleston No. 77). And what an unforgettable sight this rubbery Marie-Thérèse is as she literally breasts the waves, propelled by futuristic flipper-feet and huge, paddle-like hands, holding her huge sexual organ of a head aloft with the obscene pride of an exhibitionist.

The sexually explicit mouth that is such a striking feature of this and other Marie-Thérèse figures is in dramatic contrast to the ever more menacing mouths that Picasso contrived for his ever more menacing wife: malefic orifices with a penislike tongue protruding from a crenellation of broken teeth. Olga, who was given to making faces when angry, had stuck her tongue out at her husband once too often. Worse, as Roland Penrose confided to William Rubin, she had threatened his life. Picasso’s revenge was to write fiendish poems about “the evil tongue” and “la puce qui pisse la pluie“; and to replace the Ingresque image of ideal beauty that the former danseuse noble had inspired ten years earlier with some of the most hate-filled portrayals of a woman ever executed, the cruelest being the ones that are not just ferocious but ferociously genteel.

The publication of a book of harmless memoirs by Fernande Olivier—a long-discarded mistress of whom Olga was inordinately jealous—precipitated a final row. Early in 1935, when Marie-Thérèse found she was pregnant, Picasso decided on divorce. But this turned out to involve impossible sacrifices, since the marriage was subject to communauté des biens. More out of vengefulness than greed, Olga had seals put on her husband’s property, including most of his work, even his paints and brushes. “The worst time of my life,” the artist later maintained. Toward the end of 1935 a far from amicable separation was arranged. The “lachrymose nanny goat,” as Olga was known, was awarded custody of Paulo and went to live in a Paris hotel; she also got Boisgeloup, which put a temporary stop to large-scale sculpture. Still she continued to bombard her husband with lettres d’injures. In despair Picasso temporarily renounced art for verse, and sent for his loyal old friend, Jaime Sabartés—a dour Catalan poet—to return from Guatemala and be his secretary-companion, dogsbody, and father figure.

As for Olga, melancholia and malevolence corroded what was left of her wits. And for the rest of her life she dogged Picasso’s footsteps, whenever possible harassing his successive mistresses—not always to his displeasure (he thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar fighting over him in front of Guernica). By the time of her death in Cannes, twenty years later (1955), she was far gone in madness. Mme. Ramié (wife of Picasso’s potter) described to me how Olga, who had reduced her possessions to a trunk of memorabilia, died screaming for one last visit from the husband she still loved and hated to distraction. Picasso was implacable. No luckier in death than in life, Olga was buried by mistake in a Protestant instead of an Orthodox cemetery.

In the long run Marie-Thérèse was not much more fortunate. On October 5, 1935, as she was giving birth to a daughter, Maïa, Picasso, who had taken to prowling Saint-Germain-des-Près, caught sight of a striking girl across the Café des Deux Magots—a girl he could not get out of his mind. A few months later, thanks to Paul Eluard, they met and started an affair. Dora Maar was true to Picasso’s type in that she was full-bosomed and bottomed and short (short as he was), but in every other respect the reverse of Marie-Thérèse; dark instead of fair, chic instead of sloppy, tormented instead of placid, intellectual instead of sportive—differences that would soon be reflected in stylistic changes. The strident color code associated with Marie-Thérèse—sour lemon and orange, neon mauve and pink—gives way to the more resonant palette associated with Dora. Likewise, curves give way to angles, sexual transports to Guernican tears.

At first Picasso tried to behave well. In March 1936 he took Marie-Thérèse and their child in greatest secrecy to Juan-les-Pins for six weeks’ vacation, en ménage. A mistake. In the nine years of their affair the lovers had never cohabited for any length of time; now that they were in a position to do so l’amour fou evaporated in the light of everyday life. When “absence became presence,” “what had been fantasy and dream became reality,” is how Françoise Gilot put it. As Marie-Thérèse told Professor Gasman apropos photographs of this doomed honeymoon, “You see, he was bored.” And no wonder! By comparison with the artistic and articulate Dora, who could discuss—in Spanish if need be—the finer points of avant-garde painting, poetry, politics, or (Dora’s own forte) photography, Marie-Thérèse now seemed immature and limited and, except in bed, ordinary. And whereas Marie-Thérèse was usually forbidden access to the studio, Dora now had the run of it. The cooling-off is reflected in the references to Marie-Thérèse in drawings where, as noted by Gasman, the wreath of flowers in her hair seems to have withered and when she gazes at herself in a mirror, all she sees is a black shape—“the black light of the looking glass.” As Françoise Gilot wrote, Marie-Thérèse “had replaced Olga as the one to escape from.”

Racked by guilt over Olga and Marie-Thérèse, Picasso’s psyche was further racked by the deteriorating situation in Spain and by pressures from within and without to take an antifascist stand—a considerable volte-face for someone who, as Kahnweiler has recorded, “était l’homme le plus apolitique que j’aie connu.” (When, in the early years of their relationship, Kahnweiler asked him where he stood politically, Picasso replied, “Je suis royaliste. En Espagne il y a un roi, je suis royaliste.”) Eluard, who had recently become a close friend (to the extent of making his beautiful wife, Nusch, available to the pashalike Picasso) was particularly pressing. So was the politically minded Dora, whose sympathies lay with the left wing of the Surrealist movement. As a gesture of support for the Frente Popular, the artist agreed to become director of the Prado. And then, after making his abhorrence for Franco’s uprising (July 18, 1936) absolutely clear, Picasso left Paris for Mougins, this time without Marie-Thérèse.

The reason given was that the mother and child still had to be kept secret from the Eluards, Zervoses, Man Rays, and Penroses, who awaited him in the south. But the truth was that he wanted to get together with Dora, who was already ensconced at Saint-Tropez; she was also more sortable in intellectual circles than Marie-Thérèse. As soon as he arrived, the artist drove over and brought Dora back to the Hôtel Vaste-Horizon where he spent what was left of this ominous summer living it up, for a change, and treating Dora and the other ladies in the group as his harem. Dora’s debut as maîtresse-en-titre is celebrated in a drawing of her dressed for a journey, unlocking the door of a room where a laurel-wreathed worthy awaits her—a worthy suspiciously like the classical sculptor who presided over Marie-Thérèse’s debuts. History of course repeated itself: the worthy soon threw off his chiton and turned back into the tormenting and tormented minotaur who prowls the work of the mid-Thirties. And Dora’s beautiful eyes that Picasso first depicted sparkling with stars soon sparkled with tears.

The gathering storm of the Spanish civil war—brought horrifyingly close by the murder of Lorca in August—transformed Picasso into a politically conscious artist: at this point not so much communist as antifascist and antiwar. (“J’exprime clairement mon horreur de la caste militaire,” he publicly declared in May 1937—doubtless with his cousin, General Juan Picasso González, in mind.) It also had a catalytic effect on his new relationship. By the time Picasso came to paint Guernica the following year, Dora was not just his mistress but his muse and the costar—with Marie-Thérèse, Olga, and of course the artist himself—of his great polemical painting. Indeed, Guernica would not have been such a powerful denunciation of public atrocity if Picasso (who abominated the thought of official commissions) had not conceived it in terms of his own private agony. We should not, however, jump to cut and dried conclusions about who stands for whom in this tableau à clef. Better leave everything equivocal. Picasso told Larrea that the agonized horse was Olga, also that it was “Franco’s Spain,” but he informed Jerome Seckler that it stood for the Spanish people—statements that Picasso would not necessarily regard as conflicting. By the same token we can see the woman with the lamp as Marie-Thérèse or Dora, or a combination of the two; and the artist, who told Seckler “the bull is not fascism but it is brutality and darkness…,” has at the same time provided enough clues to suggest that the bull is standing for a suffering Spain, or a suffering Christ, or a suffering Picasso—perhaps all three.10

Meanwhile what was to become of Marie-Thérèse and the baby? Ambroise Vollard unwittingly provided a solution. The formidable old dealer—one of the first to buy Picasso’s work—had recently acquired an attractive farmhouse and barn at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, near Montfort-l’Amaury, largely for his artists. Rouault had turned it down as a place to work. Picasso, on the other hand, was only too happy to use it as a weekend retreat, particularly now that Boisgeloup was no longer available. And there (autumn 1936) Marie-Thérèse was installed until Vollard was mysteriously bludgeoned to death by a Maillol bronze in what was called a “motor accident” in 1940. In the mid-Fifties Vollard’s heirs lent Douglas Cooper and me this hide-away, and, thanks to a garrulous gardener who rambled on about how happy and domesticated Picasso had always been on his visits to “la petite amie et la gosse,” I realized that for all his involvement with Dora, Picasso still cherished the illusion of leading, at least on a part-time basis, a normal family life—if only to have something “good” to transgress against. As he pictorially put it, “good was always attended by a zone of shadow.”

The artist sometimes lied, but his work usually came out with the truth. Even Marie-Thérèse was bright enough to deduce from the paintings of Dora and herself—some of them combinations in which Dora’s image tends to prevail—that she was in eclipse. (“It must be painful,” Picasso told me with sardonic pride, “for a girl to see in a painting that she is on the way out.”) However, shortly after he had eased Marie-Thérèse out of the prime place in his affections, he began to have reservations about Dora. The latter’s intelligence made him almost as nervous as the former’s lack of it. “Dora m’a tou-jours fait peur,” Picasso said by way of explaining why, from 1938 onward, he depicted her again and again as mercilessly as if she were his antagonist in some titanic struggle. What frightened him? In her memoir, Françoise says he told her that “Dora had such a Kafkaesque personality (a reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis whose hero…find(s) himself changed into a beetle),” that he would transform spots on the walls of her apartment into small eye-fooling insects. More to the point, the fact that Dora was (except in regard to him) a free spirit and in many respects his intellectual equal seems to have outraged Picasso’s Spanish misogyny, his male chauvinism. At all events the buildup of aggression, very occasionally tempered by compassion, is what gives Picasso’s tortured, tearful portraits of Dora a manic, Van Gogh–like intensity. It also explains why, at the end of World War II, Dora’s spirit broke. Picasso had succeeded in propelling the former Egérie of the Surrealists into the arms of God.

Marie-Thérèse’s affair with Picasso lingered on for another fifteen years or so: Thursdays and Sundays, when their child was out of school, were her “days.” Picasso evidently adored the daughter he had named after his favorite sister who died of typhoid at the age of four. But while in some respects an incomparably beguiling father, he could also be as perverse in his precepts as a character out of Sade. For instance Marie-Thérèse told Gasman how horrified she was when Picasso suggested that their teen-age daughter should turn promiscuous: “qu’elle se débauche, qu’elle fasse la noce avec tout le monde.” (This, I am sure, was said to épater: in practice the artist was rather censorious of his children’s behavior.) But perhaps the most revealing instance of Picasso’s “dialectic of perversity and chastity” that Gasman cites is his overwhelming shame when, after “having at first obstinately refused to allow Maïa’s (first) communion, he fell on his knees in front of Marie-Thérèse and exclaimed…’je suis une ordure…tu es un ange.”’

Despite, or because of, these perversities and the fact that Picasso boasted of treating Marie-Thérèse as an orifice, she continued to love him passionately. If they did not meet for any length of time, she bombarded him with letters—a strange mixture of epistolary lovemaking, requests for money, and minutiae of Maïa’s health—which he would use to tease and needle the other women in his life. (“Somehow I don’t see you writing me a letter like that…that woman really loves me,” he told Françoise Gilot.) When Olga died in 1955, Marie-Thérèse emerged from the shadows in a bid to marry the widower and thus legitimize her daughter; in this respect she did not succeed any more than her mother had. All that happened was that Jacqueline Roque (subsequently Picasso’s second wife) was by this time sufficiently well entrenched in Picasso’s life to put an embargo on further contacts.

Given her role as sacrificial maiden, it was perhaps inevitable that Marie-Thérèse should end up by identifying with other victims of her demon lover: above all with Paulo’s children, Pablito and Marina, who had been virtually abandoned by their father and grandfather alike. When, in the throes of familial rejection, Pablito swallowed an ultimately fatal dose of eau de Javel, Marie-Thérèse showed remarkable compassion and, in view of her modest circumstances and innate thriftiness, remarkable generosity: she sold part of her small collection to pay the boy’s medical bills as well as help with the girl’s education. Alas, this identification with Pablito ended in her eventually following his example: in 1977, fifty years after she had met the artist outside the Galeries Lafayette, Marie-Thérèse Walter hung herself. As the new museum reveals, some of Picasso’s most rapturous works are the fruit of her ordeals.

  1. 10

    Picasso’s friend, José Bergamin, recounts that, while working on Guernica, the artist took some red paper and cut it into the form of what he called “a tear of blood,” or a “furtive tear” (it is possible but unlikely that Picasso, who was unmusical, knew the tenor aria, “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore), which he tried attaching to each of the eyes in Guernica in turn. When he decided that it would not work, he told Bergamin, “We’ll put it in a box and we’ll go at least every Friday and paste it on the bull.” As Gasman says, the tear recalls Les Larmes de Jésus (discussed in Documents, No. 5, October 1929), “and Good Friday is of course the day commemorating the Crucifixion of Christ.”

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