LONDON—As pick-up lines go, this one takes some beating: “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso.”
This was delivered spontaneously outside the Galleries Lafayette department store in Paris as Pablo Picasso encountered a 17-year-old girl from a Paris suburb named Marie-Thérèse Walter. He was 45, already established as the most dominant and original force in modern painting. She had no idea who he was.
Picasso was a skilled seducer, with a primitive attitude toward women, but this encounter in 1927 was to be one of the most consequential in his life.
There are many ways in which an artist draws power from a muse but there rarely has been a relationship as deeply carnal as this, as though Picasso in middle age recharged both his libido and his genius by hungrily jump-starting energy from this innocent girl from the quiet bourgeois life.
Walter was rather Nordic in appearance: blonde with a robust athletic body. She was the polar opposite of Picasso’s wife Olga, a former Russian ballet star with a beauty and temperament as delicate as porcelain, who had suffered Picasso’s womanizing with an increasingly brittle mood.
Paris in the late 1920s and 1930s made the weather in modern art. All the most influential artists, dealers, and critics were there and Picasso was by then rich and prolific in his output. Just how prolific he was is measured literally on a day-by-day cycle through the seminal year of 1932 in an astonishing show at the Tate Modern. Walter appears in a succession portraits that poured from him like a fever of L’amour Fou. Even then few outside a small circle around Picasso knew of Walter’s role.
Seen in parallel with Antonio Banderas’ performance as Picasso in the National Geographic channel’s new season in the Genius series of bio-dramas there will no doubt now be a tendency to make a more cold-eyed revisionist assessment of the painter as all-devouring misogynistic monster, picking up and dropping a series of women who in very different ways sustained his lust and his imagination.
That assessment is true and deserved but it cannot detract from the mesmerizing brilliance of the art, which is attracting huge crowds to the Tate. Nor should the steadily darkening mood of the times be discounted. Fascism was already established in Italy; Hitler came to power at the dawn of 1933 and soon Picasso’s homeland would see unparalleled violence in a civil war that led to fascism’s longest lasting regime in Europe.
Picasso attempted to insulate his life from this totalitarian tide. But he couldn’t escape his obvious prominence as someone who was systematically blowing up all the conventional rules of European painting and sculpture. Nor could he escape the counter forces that he provoked; ominously, the cult psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung suggested that Picasso’s frequent changes of style indicated mental health disorders, including schizophrenia. This played directly into the hands of Hitler’s declaration that all modern art was degenerate.
For sure, the circle in which Picasso reigned in Paris was a good target for an outbreak of cultural tyranny. It was inherently radical and promiscuous, including leading surrealists like Salvador Dalí whose private lives were sometimes as bizarre as their public work. But, as yet, it was not a sexually free spirit from that milieu that held Picasso’s imagination in her grip but the outwardly entirely conventional Walter.
Picasso’s Paris studio was an apartment above the one where he lived with Olga and their son Paulo, a space as unkempt and chaotic as the one below was, under the iron discipline of Olga, impeccably regal. But the place where, in 1932, he took Walter’s body and manipulated it into the new dimensions of his painting and sculpture was a ramshackle chateau in the Normandy village of Boisgeloup.
Buying the country chateau was by then well within his means. He rode around in grand style in a Hispano-Suiza limousine driven by a white-gloved chauffeur and joked that he liked to live “like a poor man with lots of money.”
The portrait that everyone is steered to at the Tate (it appears on the cover of the catalogue as well as on T-shirts and shopping bags in the gift shop) was painted on Sunday, Jan. 24, 1932. It is titled The Dream. Walter is seated, as often, in an armchair in a state of rapture—whether before or after sex is unknown, but the condition is explicit—with her eyes closed, one nipple exposed, and her hands resting in her crotch. (In 2006 it was sold to a collector for $139 million.)
One thing that’s especially noticeable in this show is how many of the works come from private collections. It’s almost as though the intense intimacy between Picasso and Walter, for the most part furtive at the time, drove collectors to preserve the lovers’ secret by dispersing among themselves the graphic evidence of what is only revealed now, brought together in serial progression, to have been an accelerating orgy of adoration.
On Sunday, June 26, Picasso painted three nudes of Walter in which limbs, breasts, and buttocks intertwine in what seems to be her total surrender to his eye—and will.
That kind of coupling is way beyond anything permissible on the National Geographic channel. In any case the ripeness of it can’t remotely be conveyed by the crudity of hard or soft porn. Ecstasy, the hardest of pleasures to seize and to hold, has rarely been as exquisitely transferred to canvas with such feeling or frequency.
Inevitably, passion of such a level was bound to consume itself.
Walter remained Picasso’s favorite model for a few years and in 1935 she gave birth to a daughter, Maya. Having learned of this, Olga filed for divorce but, because Picasso refused to obey French law and divide his wealth evenly between them (although he gave her the chateau at Boisgeloup) she remained technically married to him until she died in 1955.
But early in 1936 another woman appeared from the swirling bohemia of the surrealists who was an artist in her own right, physically as alluring as Walter but also challenging in intellect in a way that Picasso had not before faced and was irresistibly drawn toward.
Picasso was sitting with a friend at a table in the legendary Left Bank intellectual watering hole, the Café des Deux Magots. At a neighboring table he noticed, according to the friend, a young woman with a serious face “lit up by pale blue eyes which looked all the paler because of her thick eyebrows, a sensitive uneasy face, with light and shade passing alternatively over it.”
Strangely, she was stabbing a small pen-knife into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared on her embroidered black gloves. Picasso introduced himself to her in French. She replied in Spanish.
Her name was Dora Maar, and at the age of 28 she already had a reputation as an avant-garde photographer. They did not meet again until that summer, in the South of France. Once they did, they took long walks together and had secret trysts. Picasso made numerous drawings of her, one showing Dora opening a door to discover a naked and bearded satyr sitting in a chair with a snarling dog on his lap and another of her nude with her thighs spread invitingly.
Maar was born in Paris but spent a large part of her youth in Argentina, where she became fluent in Spanish. She and Picasso shared what a friend identified as a particularly Spanish torment of the soul described in French as “mourir de ne pas mourir”—to die of not dying. They kept mementos stained with each other’s blood. For example, he took and kept the gloves that Maar wore when stabbing the café table.
Where Picasso had attempted to keep politics out of his work, Maar had long been a radical activist. Now, with the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it was impossible for him any longer to ignore the violence of the fascist forces as they advanced northward. Early in 1937 they took his birthplace, Málaga.
The fascist leader, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, was supported by German and Italian units, while the Republicans had the support of troops and airplanes from the Soviet Union. Spain became the testing ground for a new level of total war. For the first time, massed air power was used against unprotected civilians. In April 1937, a combined attack by German and Italian bombers used carpet bombing to raze the northern Spanish town of Guernica.
Early in 1937, Maar urged Picasso to move into a new and larger studio in Paris in the attic of a 17th century mansion. It was soon filled not only with Picasso’s own work but with his extensive collection of canvases by other painters including Matisse, Braque, and Modigliani. Picasso kept virtually everything he was given—Jean Cocteau, having visited, commented: “He considered that anything that had come into his hands formed part of himself.”
But the new studio was also large enough for a monumental work to be created there. The Spanish Republican government, still clinging to power, asked Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 Universal Exposition, to open in Paris in May. With Maar at his side, recording every stage of the work, Picasso painted the 26-foot wide canvas that was to become his most famous single work, Guernica, in little more than a month.
The creation of an artistic masterpiece had never been documented with such evolutionary precision as it was in Maar’s photographs. She shot him from many angles, often as he was just thinking his way to his next brush stroke. She caught him high on a ladder, paintbrush in one hand, cigarette in the other. She was even allowed to add some strokes of her own.
Her own features were evident in the profile of a woman with an extended arm holding a lamp. But, as knowing as she was about Picasso’s often coded imagery, she must have recognized that the face of another woman, the mother of a dead baby in anguish under the head of a minotaur (the man-bull that represented in his paintings Picasso as the virile predator), was modeled on Walter.
Did Picasso deliberately orchestrate this inclusion of the two women in his life? Whether planned or not it was inevitable that the two should have an explosive meeting—and it occurred as Guernica was being painted.
Walter arrived unannounced, emerging from the deep dark staircase under the eaves of the mansion. Finding Maar and Picasso working together, she insisted that Maar should leave.
“I have a child by this man” said Walter. “It’s my place to be here with him. You can leave right now.”
“I have as much reason as you have to be here” snapped Maar. “I haven’t borne him a child but I don’t see what difference that makes.”
Picasso kept painting while they continued to argue. Finally, Maar left. Recalling the clash later Picasso said, “I liked them both, for different reasons. Marie-Therese because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent.”
Picasso continued to see both women for several more years, with each of them keeping to their own assigned territory, Walter as the passive muse who had slowly lost her physical appeal, and Maar as his intellectual sparring partner who accepted that, in her words, “I wasn’t his mistress, he was just my master.”
But her master often got malicious pleasure from gaming the two women: He painted portraits of them in which he gave each of them recognizable costumes of the other and on one occasion bought them identical dresses but switched the address labels so that each would know they were not the only one.
Eventually Walter stopped seeing Picasso and Maar was brutally discarded when, in 1943, Picasso met Françoise Gilot.
She was an accomplished painter, critic, and author, who was 20 years younger than Maar and 40 years younger than him. She was a beauty more in the mold of his wife Olga, tall and slender. To make clear his attitude to women early in the relationship he told her, “For me, there are only two kinds of women—goddesses and doormats.” Nonetheless she had a 10-year affair with him, and bore him two children. She said, “Whenever he thought I might be feeling too much like a goddess he did his best to turn me into a doormat.”