Picasso at Gagosian, New York

by Sascha Feldman, May 2011

Gagosian Gallery’s Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou unveils Marie-Thérèse Walter as a mistress, muse, model and mother. Curated by John Richardson and the granddaughter of Picasso and Marie-Thérèse, Diana Widmaier Picasso, the exhibition acts as a record of a passionate love affair that inspired over eighty works dating from 1927 to 1940. Picasso’s desire and devotion is made tangible through drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures that demonstrate the vibrant and youthful Marie-Thérèse as a crucial creative inspiration for the artist. The enormity of the show succeeds in creating a transportive environment that is not unlike a shrine or monument: the viewer is enfolded in dozens of images of Marie-Thérèse, and the many small-scale sculptures of her face and body resemble talismans or idols. The gallery-as-monument construction is well suited as a tribute toMarie-Thérèse, who inspired Picasso’s aesthetic exploration and experimentation after Cubism.

Picasso was forty-five years old and married to Olga Khokhlova when he spotted Marie-Thérèse on the street in Paris. Though Marie-Thérèse was only seventeen and unfamiliar with Picasso’s work, the two began an affair that remained secret for many years—in the early years of their romance Marie-Thérèse’s initials were intricately woven into abstract compositions to avoid Khokhlova’s jealous gaze. Marie-Thérèse’s bright blond hair and distinctive profile emerge in Picasso’s work by the beginning of the 1930s, yet she was kept hidden from Picasso’s circle of friends even after the birth of their daughter Maya in 1935.

In one of the first portraits of Marie-Thérèse that the viewer encounters, Picasso has rendered the face of his muse both straight on and in profile as if he seeks to multiply her. There is a sense that Marie-Thérèse has been subjected to a loss of aura as imagined by Walter Benjamin, and that each reproduction renders her farther and farther away from us. There is a compulsion to try and construct a true likeness of Marie-Thérèse as a concrete individual from the numerous artworks, yet bits of her seem to splinter off as she slips into infinite shapes, forms and environments.

Picasso obsessively deconstructs and rearranges her face and body in a fashion that is both violent and tender—he strives to take mental and physical ownership of his lover, claiming, preserving and admiring her form as he represents it. Picasso’s desire is palpable and his pictures of Marie-Thérèse emanate sexuality despite the portraits’ contorted perspective. Straying far from canonical understandings of the ideal female figure, Marie-Thérèse is warped and molded into amorphous and bulbous forms that suggest frenzied lust. She channels the primitive sexuality of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Marie-Thérèse inspired Picasso to constantly reshape and reveal her likeness: she appears with sharp comedic teeth, lilac skin, monstrous tentacles or abstract ponytails that hang like parentheses. Yet Picasso has also caught softer, unguarded moments, choosing to depict his muse as she sleeps, reads or peers thoughtfully inward. In the moments when Marie-Thérèse does not directly face the artist or the viewer, Picasso seems to possess her completely—the intimacy creates a sense of transparency, bringing us closer and exposing us both to his muse and to his fascination with her.

When faced with this overwhelming exhibition, it is not just Marie-Thérèse that we examine, but what Picasso sees, feels and envisions when he looks at her. The immense amount of artwork and sprawling gallery space are countered by the emphatic emotional content of the works. Though many of the paintings and sculptures are quite monumental, Gagosian has presented the treasured products of Picasso’s love affair as if they were intimate family snapshots or diary entries. Picasso blurs the line between public artwork and private documentation, using Marie-Thérèse’s image to inspire creativity, preserve memory and portray his longing. The artwork exposes itself to the modern viewer, and we are invited to examine Picasso not only as an artist, but as a man in love. Keeping Picasso’s celebrity in mind, the stagers of the exhibition remind us that his private life has become just as culturally significant as his art. The work’s relevance to contemporary viewers is largely rooted in Picasso’s powerful, continuing influence on modern artists. Yet the figure of Picasso not only connotes artistic talent and skill: we are keen to maintain the myth of Picasso as a man brimming with vitality and passion, which reveals itself through the work.

Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou
14 April—25 June 2011
Gagosian Gallery
522 West 21st Street, New York