Diary of an Affair: Picasso and Marie-Thérèse

As the sun set in Paris, on January 8, 1927, Pablo Picasso was walking past a fashionable department store when his eyes fell upon a young shopper. Immediately infatuated, the artist (then unhappily married and in his mid-forties) took Marie-Thérèse Walter by the arm and said, “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together!” She was confused by the man and unaware of who he might be. Picasso introduced himself by dragging her into a bookshop and showing her a book filled with reproductions of his paintings. Thus began a passionate affair and an enormously productive period for Picasso.

Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, 1928

Seventeen at the time, Marie-Thérèse lived with her family and, like other teenagers – past and present, told them she was going to a girlfriend’s house while actually leaving for a rendezvous. But in her case the trysts were with the world’s most famous artist. By spring, they were meeting every day, so Marie-Thérèse invented an imaginary job to explain her absences to her parents.

Marie-Thérèse Walter, 1936, photograph by Pablo Picasso

Picasso once said that “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary” and one way to understand his work, as abstract as it may appear, is to follow its stages through the women he loved. Picasso’s paintings initially referred to Marie-Thérèse in a kind of visual code. In the first pictures, she is depicted as fruit in a bowl or a guitar. This change in his style is a clue to her identity. His new lover was not a thin dancer like his wife, but a sturdy athletic young woman, with a Grecian nose, large breasts and strong legs. The previously hard edged, angular shapes of his Cubism make way for rounded, sensual lines. Soon, he abandoned this subterfuge and portrayed Marie-Thérèse directly – in sketchbooks full of drawings, etchings, sculptures and paintings. Their passion made them reckless and daring. Even while vacationing with his wife and child on the French coast, Picasso found a small hotel for Marie-Thérèse nearby. They met secretly in a cabana while his wife played with his son on the beach.

In the year before they met, Picasso had experienced a lull in his creativity that was very unusual and painful for him. Now, there was a flood of pictures. It was, as he told Marie-Thérèse, that he never tired of looking at her. He particularly loved to paint her when she was asleep.

Picasso, The Dreamer, 1932

The Dreamer from 1932 is a good example of Picasso’s new approach to painting. Cubism was no longer a drab, strict, analytical study of forms but a doorway to freedom and creativity. The artist explores his passionate feelings with curving, voluptuous forms and colorful, luscious, thick paint. The sleeping Marie-Thérèse appears as a lovely, sexual being in harmony with nature.

In the summer of 1936, Picasso wrote her,

I love you more than the taste of your mouth,

more than your look,

more than your hands,

more than your whole body,

more and more and more and more than all my love for you will ever be able to love

and I sign

Picasso.

Picasso, Girl Before Mirror, 1932

In this period before World War II, Marie-Thérèse appeared in many guises: model, muse to the gods, and even a Madonna in Girl Before Mirror. In 1935, their daughter Maya was born and she, too, became a favorite subject.

From 1930 to 1937, their love affair inspired one of the high points in Modern printmaking — a set of etchings that have come to be known as the “Vollard Suite.” They were named for the French art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned them and gave Picasso his first Paris exhibition. Most of the one hundred etchings are set in a mythical sculptor’s studio along the Mediterranean. Filled with classical themes of love and passion, one subject is dominant —  an artist and his adoring model living in paradise.  At this time, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse were living in their new home and studio, the Château de Boisgeloup outside Paris.

Dora Maar in Picasso’s studio in Paris, 1946

But Paradise was about to be lost. Sometime around 1936, Picasso met Dora Maar, a well-known photographer and artist, and she began to compete with Marie-Thérèse for his affections. Maar would become his next muse, portrayed in many pictures of the late 1930s and early 1940s, as well as serving as the model for the grieving mother in Guernica. He later said that for him, [Dora] was always the weeping woman.

Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937

After their affair ended, Picasso continued to support Marie-Thérèse and their daughter. He provided an apartment in Paris and a home in the South of France. Even as Picasso moved on to other mistresses over the next forty years, Marie-Thérèse remained devoted to the memory of their love and always hoped he would return to her. They continued to write each other. Picasso had once told her that she had saved his life and his art of the 1930’s documents their great passion. According to his friend and biographer, John Richardson, she “was the greatest love of his life; he absolutely adored her…He had her in mind always, all the time; everything relates to her.”

Sadly, life in a world without Picasso was too much for Marie-Thérèse. Four years after the artist’s death in 1973 and fifty years after they first met, she hung herself in the garage of her home in the South of France.

[Adapted from Lewis and Lewis, The Power of Art, third edition.]

Guess What? How the teacup got its fur

Méret_Oppenheim_Object

Méret Oppenheim, Object (Luncheon in Fur), 1936. Fur covered cup, saucer, and spoon

The concept for Méret Oppenheim‘s most famous sculpture, Object (Luncheon in Fur), was born in a conversation with Pablo Picasso at a Paris café.

As Rebecca Mead tells it in the March 23rd issue of The New Yorker:

In 1936, Meret Oppenheim, the Swiss Surrealist artist, had tea with Pablo Picasso at the Café de Flore, in Paris. Oppenheim was wearing a bracelet, of her own design, that was clad in ocelot fur. Picasso admired it, noting that one could cover anything with fur. Soon afterward, Oppenheim produced her most famous work: a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with the creamy-tan fur of a Chinese gazelle. The piece is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and is celebrated for its suggestive conjunction of the domestic and the erotic.

After Picasso’s casual observation, Oppenheim, who was just finishing her tea, reportedly joked “even this cup and saucer.” As the idea took hold, she turned and called out, to the amusement of all, “Waiter, a little more fur!”

Object is rich in sexual connotations, its back story in art world connections.  Also seated at the table during the conversation was the photographer, Dora Maar — she and Picasso were then lovers. Maar posed for some of the most intense paintings Picasso ever made. Oppenheim herself had posed for their friend, the photographer Man Ray.

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

The unforgettable sculpture came to life when André Breton, the leader of the French Surrealists, asked Oppenheim to exhibit something in their next exhibition in Paris. Oppenheim went to a local department store to purchase the cup and saucer and the marriage of fur and teacup was consummated. It was Breton who came up with the name “Luncheon in Fur” (Déjeuner en fourrure), as a reference to Édouard Manet’s famously scandalous painting of 1863. The imaginative bracelet that caught Picasso’s eye was later bought from the struggling, young artist for a few Swiss francs by the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Object was later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which purchased it in 1946. Its fame has only grown since then.

If all the talk of the eroticism of Object eludes you, simply imagine drinking hot liquid from the furry cup.

Duncan’s Dog meets Picasso

Dachshund-Picasso-SketchIn April 1957, the photographer David Douglas Duncan visited his friend Picasso at La Californie, the artist’s villa in the South of France.  He brought along his dachshund, Lump, and a mutual love affair began.

Picasso and his wife, Jacqueline, were having lunch when Lump first saw Picasso.  The confident young dog immediately walked up to him and put his paws on the man Duncan always referred to as “Maestro.”  Picasso looked down and said, “Buenos dias, amigo!” Lump jumped into Picasso’s arms and gave him a kiss.  Jacqueline was shocked. While Picasso’s own dogs were often in his studios, Jacqueline had never seen Picasso allow them to sit in his lap. But Lump was no ordinary dog.  He immediately made himself at home and thereafter became a regular visitor. Continue reading

The Unwanted Gift: Picasso and Matisse

Detail, New Hebrides Mask (Musée Picasso)

Detail, New Hebrides Headdress (Musée Picasso)

In Paris’s Musée Picasso, a four-foot tall idol from the Pacific Islands sits in a glass case.  Wild eyed and dramatic, with arms flung out stiffly, visitors might justifiably assume that it was one of the many native objects that Picasso kept in his studio for inspiration.  But the story behind it is much more complicated. The idol was a gift from Matisse that Picasso didn’t want.

While their styles were quite different, both artists were inspired by the art of aboriginal peoples (‘primitive art’ as it was known then).  For Picasso, it is well known that African art was the catalyst for his Cubist revolution.  What is less well known is that Matisse collected African sculptures even before Picasso. In fact, he was the person who introduced Picasso to one of them at a soirée in Gertrude Stein‘s apartment in Paris in 1906.

According to Max Jacob, a friend of Picasso, who was there that evening,

Matisse took a wooden statuette off a table and showed it to Picasso. Picasso held it in his hands all evening. The next morning when I came to his studio the floor was strewn with sheets of drawing paper. Each sheet had virtually the same drawing on it, a big woman’s face with a single eye, a nose too long that merged into a mouth, a lock of
hair on one shoulder … Cubism was born.

Ultimately, Matisse found the work of the Pacific peoples more to his taste.  In 1930, when he was 60, he even traveled on a ship to Polynesia and lived in Tahiti for a couple of months.matisse-tahiti

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, after decades of sometimes bitter competition, Picasso and Matisse’s wary but respectful relationship had grown into an important friendship. Whenever the old rivals met together in the South of France, they discussed what they were working on and from to time exchanged gifts and paintings.  Since Matisse was twelve years older than Picasso, there was an element of the mentor in their interactions — one Picasso resisted.

Matisse's studio at Le Régina, Nice, 1953. New Hebrides mask on chair at right.  (Photograph: Hélène Adant)

Matisse’s studio at Le Régina, Nice, 1953. New Hebrides mask on chair at right.
(Photograph: Hélène Adant)

When Matisse presented Picasso with the New Hebrides idol from his tour of the South Seas, Picasso could only smile and say thank you.  But Francoise Gilot, Picasso’s companion at the time, noticed how Picasso’s jaws tightened as Matisse explained how he had come to own it and how it was used in rituals.  In her 1990 memoir Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art, she describes how she “could tell right away he didn’t like it.”

Picasso left Matisse’s studio without his gift by explaining that there wasn’t room in the car for it. As they drove away, Pablo released his anger. “Matisse thinks I have no taste. He believes I am a barbarian and that for me any piece of third-rate tribal art will do!”

When Gilot suggested they accept the gift, but put it in a room in their home where no visitor would ever see it, Picasso wouldn’t stand for it.  “Certainly not!…I will not accept this awful object…If I accept the hideous gift from my so-called friend, I will have to put it in a place of honor.  If I don’t our relationship is in jeopardy.”

Picasso spent much of the drive home angry and cursing. Obviously frustrated, he fretted, “I am in a bind; what am I to do?”

Gilot and Picasso decided the only thing to do was to come up with excuses whenever they went to Matisse’s home for why it was not the right time to take the idol with them.  This was not so easy.  Every visit they discovered that Matisse had placed the bright red, white, and blue idol in whatever room they were.  Yet somehow Picasso managed to never accept the gift from Matisse.

Ceremonial Headdress, New Hebrides, South Malekula in Musee Picasso, Paris, Tree ferns and pandanus coated in painted clay

Ceremonial Headdress, New Hebrides in Musée Picasso, Paris
Tree ferns and pandanus coated in painted clay

This is why Gilot was shocked to see it thirty years later proudly displayed in the Musée Picasso when she attended its opening in 1985. She later learned from Matisse’s son Pierre that after his father’s death in 1954, Picasso had asked him for the long postponed gift.  By then Gilot had already left Picasso.

Picasso with New Hebrides idol, Cannes,1956. (Photograph: Lucien Clerque)

Picasso with New Hebrides idol, Cannes,1956.
(Photograph: Lucien Clerque)

After considering this surprising news, she realized that several of Picasso’s later pictures had figures reminiscent of the wild-eyed idol.  Somehow, according to Gilot, “Matisse had foreseen his friend’s further evolution” and managed to mentor Picasso — even after his own death — with an unwanted gift.

Insults that named art movements

Detail of Daumier's Critic

detail of Honoré Daumier’s The Influential Critic, 1865

Be careful when you insult an artist.  You may be making art history.

Art criticism is probably as old as art itself and often comes in harsh tones.  Plato was no friend of artists, describing them as tricksters and called for their banishment from his Republic.  Yet more than once a critic’s insult has ended up naming an art movement.

In 1874, Louis Leroy wrote about an exhibition of a group of artists that included Monet, Pissarro, Degas, and Renoir, who called themselves Le Société anonyme. In a mocking tone, Leroy said of Monet’s Impression: Sunrise,

Impression; I was certain of it.  I was just thinking that as I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it.  And what freedom! What ease of handling! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more highly finished than this landscape!

Claude Monet, Impression:Sunrise, 1872

Claude Monet, Impression:Sunrise, 1872

At the end of the review, Leroy pretends he saw a mad admirer dancing around the painting, singing ““Hi-ho! I am impression on the march, the avenging palette knife…”

The article was called “The Exhibition of the Impressionists.” The name stuck.

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The Dove: Picasso and Matisse

 

Picasso, Dove of Peace, 1949

Picasso, Dove of Peace, 1949

One of Picasso’s most famous and popular images is his lithograph of a dove as a symbol of peace.  But the dove was Matisse’s.  Literally.

Matisse and Picasso first met at the salon of the American patroness and writer Gertrude Stein’s in the early 1900s.  At the time they were rivals for both her affections and those of the modern artists of Paris.  Picasso’s followers once plastered the walls of Montmartre with anti-Matisse graffiti like “Matisse drives you mad!” and “Matisse does more harm than war!”  Matisse responded by using the term “Cubism” to mock the art of Picasso and his followers, a label that would, of course, stick.

As they grew older, they grew closer.  By the end of World War II, the old rivals had truly become great friends.  Matisse was now almost eighty, nearly bed-ridden and living in apartments in Vence, a town close to Nice.  His wife, Amelie, had recently divorced him; his children were grown with children of their own. His bedroom and studio were filled with birds and plants to keep him company and inspire him.

Matisse and Doves, Vence, 1944 Henri Cartier-Bresson

Matisse and Doves, Vence, 1944
Henri Cartier-Bresson

Picasso, along with his mistress, Francoise Gilot, was a regular visitor whenever they came south. They often exchanged paintings and even exhibited together.  Matisse kept a Picasso over his bedroom’s mantelpiece and Picasso displayed his Matisses in his studio. Picasso, who was eleven years younger, would bring recent paintings to Matisse for comments.  An engraver who did work for both of them said Picasso thought of Matisse “as an elder brother.”  Matisse thought of his rival as “the kid.” Their arguments continued, but more like sibling rivalry as they sat alone at the pinnacle of the art world.

When Matisse took on his last great commission —  the chapel of Vence — he emptied his living quarters so he could cover the walls with brightly colored cut-papers and not be distracted.  He bid a sad farewell to the plants that one can see in so many of his paintings. His exotic pigeons were sent to Picasso.

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Behind the Most Abstract Matisse

Henri Matisse, French Window at Collioure, 1914

Henri Matisse
French Window at Collioure, 1914

French Window at Collioure is the closest Henri Matisse ever got to painting a totally abstract work. Without the title, the painting is hard to see as more than three simple bands of color framing a large black center. The mood is somber and calm.  But what is behind this picture?

The subject is one that Matisse had already painted many times.  For nearly a decade, when Paris became cold and wet, he had returned to his rented studio in Collioure, a town near the Spanish border in the south of France. Its window looked out on the town’s harbor.

Open Window, 1905
Matisse, Open Window, 1905

The most famous version is perhaps the first — 1905’s Open Window, which became the iconic image of Fauvism. It conveys the visual excitement Matisse felt that summer when he first discovered the town and the light of the South of France. The light triggered a new movement that became known as The Fauves (‘the wild beasts’). He and his colleagues, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, reacted with violent colors that went beyond what even their beloved van Gogh had used in Provence. [Vlaminck said he loved van Gogh more than his father.]  Matisse described the colors they applied unmixed in raw fashion on the canvases as ‘explosives.’ His ‘co-conspirator’ Derain said their paintbrushes were like sticks of dynamite.

After this period of Fauvist fireworks, Matisse’s approach evolved.  He told the Futurist artist Gino Severini that he believed in an art stripped down to its essentials, simplifying an image “like you might prune a tree.”  Still, 1914’s French Window is so different a view from the one of 1905 that it is hard to believe it is the same window.  Why is that and why is it so unique in Matisse’s career?

Window at Collioure

Window of Matisse’s studio in Collioure
c. 1942

The picture’s date is an essential clue.  The window had not changed, but the world had.

France was now at war. The Great World War had begun with great confidence but by the time the picture was painted it was a hard time to be hopeful.   From the start, the French suffered great losses.  News from the front was difficult to find but rumors told of millions of French soldiers killed.  Matisse’s home town in the north of France was one of the first overrun by the German army.  His elderly mother was in ill health and trapped behind enemy lines; his brother a prisoner of war.  Matisse had to leave his own house in the suburbs of Paris after it was commandeered by French officers as a military headquarters.  His fellow Fauvists, Derain and Vlaminck were drafted.  Matisse, though he tried to enlist several times, was rejected because he was already in his mid-forties.

Henri Matisse, c. 1913

Henri Matisse,
c. 1913

In Collioure, Matisse opened his house to refugee artists like the Spanish Cubist, Juan Gris.  The young Gris’s poverty (his dealer could no longer provide his small stipend) reminded Matisse of his own early days as an artist.  Matisse was also without the support of his gallery, so he went to his friend, the American patroness, Gertrude Stein.  Happily, she agreed to help Gris out with some income.  When the funds never arrived and there was no explanation, it was the end of Matisse’s friendship with her.

Rather than a colorful harbor of swaying sailboats, The French Window of 1914 opens onto blackness.  Matisse’s search for “an art of balance, of purity and serenity” is fruitless here.  There is some balance, but it is not firm, only tentative. The sketchy marks of the window shutter at left reflect anxiety, the painful uncertainty of wartime.  His colors are muddied with grays, uncharacteristically subdued.

What is arguably the most radical painting Matisse ever painted never saw the light of day during his lifetime.  When it was finally exhibited in the U.S. in 1966, it was already well after the American Abstract Expressionists had created their even more radical abstract revolution. The art world was well prepared to greet  French Window at Collioure with some surprise perhaps, but mostly admiration.

The painting, however, expands our understanding of one of the great masters of the twentieth century.  Matisse’s reputation is as a painter whose modernist vision resulted in largely comfortable, colorful pictures of bourgeois or exotic interiors, cut off from the concerns of politics and current events.  Yet, the French Window of 1914 is an existential statement by an artist caught in a world blackened by war.  It is Matisse’s Guernica, painted a generation and world war earlier than Picasso’s.