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.
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
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.’ ”
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,
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.
“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.
December 19, 1985
The present writer’s preface to the catalog of this exhibition was the starting point for this article. ↩
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: ↩
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. ↩
Brassaï, Picasso & Co. (Doubleday, 1966). ↩
From John Golding’s essay “Picasso and Surrealism” in Picasso in Retrospect, edited by John Golding and Roland Penrose (Harper and Row, 1973). ↩
Poetry East (Spring-Summer 1984). ↩
L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism, p. 86. ↩
Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (McGraw Hill, 1964). ↩
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. ↩
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.” ↩