Malaga, Museo Picasso, Pablo Picasso: Álbum de Familia, 2013, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
The formal experimentation and emotional intensity that characterise his most celebrated portraits of women are embodied in Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter). The artist’s lover is shown in profile but with her features presented frontally in the style that he had pioneered in his earlier portraits of Marie-Thérèse. He employs a bold, primary palette and an emphatic handling of paint that mark this work out from the depictions of the early 1930s and chart Picasso’s evolving relationship with his muse. Indeed, whilst the figure in Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter) is unmistakably that of Marie-Thérèse, elements of the portrait are suggestive of the increasingly dominant presence of Picasso’s new lover Dora Maar. Picasso had first met Maar at the Café des Deux Magots early in 1936. Over the following months he was seduced by her striking looks, quick intelligence and sense of independence and she became his principal mistress later that year. Her presence in his life further complicated an already complex situation and Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter) belongs to a series of works which Picasso appears to have used as a means for exploring his feelings for the two women.
These personal disruptions were mirrored by the wider political unrest in the artist’s native Spain. As Neil Cox observed: ‘For Picasso the question of “modernity” was acute in the 1930s and 1940s, since modernity in this period meant a personal life, a nation, a Europe and indeed a world in crisis. This period in Picasso’s art is marked by a succession of shattering events in his personal life that no doubt appeared to him mirrored by the disasters in the world at large […]. Personal events include the death of his mother in 1939; the slow breakdown of his marriage to Olga Khokhlova (they eventually separated in 1935); his ongoing secret affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter (from 1927) leading to the birth of his daughter Maya, in 1935; and new relationships with the artist and photographer Dora Maar (from 1936) and then the painter Françoise Gilot (from 1943)’ (N. Cox in Picasso, Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery, London, 2009, p. 88).
Picasso’s response to this turmoil was to work, painting both the great masterpiece of his career, Guernica (fig. 7), and a series of female portraits that are among his most complex and adventurous. At the beginning of 1937 he embarked on his great work for the Spanish Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale; over the following months he worked on ideas for the composition, but it was not until the bombing of the small town of Guernica in Basque Spain that his fully-formed concept for the work was consolidated. It was at this point that the figure of a woman mourning her child began to appear in the preparatory sketches. This figure would inspire one of Picasso’s most renowned series of female portraits; his work on the weeping women continued long after Guernica had been completed and was one of the major achievements of that year.
The Weeping Women have habitually been linked with Maar; they incorporate many of her features and – as the woman who documented the creation of Guernica – she is naturally associated with the series of female portraits that were born out of that seminal work. However, Palau i Fabre suggests that weeping women were actually the continuation of a pre-existing subject; that Picasso ‘had devoted almost all of his activity as a painter to woman, her troubles, her sadness, her loneliness. And, in the course of the past ten years, life had led him to depict two women crying. People speak of Dora Maar but too often forget that Marie-Thérèse has also been seen very often, and earlier, as a weeping woman’ (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., p. 328). He also argues the case for the present work belonging to a smaller group of Marie-Thérèse portraits in which she is ‘entirely reduced to inner tears’, showing ‘A resigned sadness, and nonetheless suffused with love’ (ibid., p. 349).
The link between the weeping women and concurrent portraits of Marie-Thérèse is particularly apparent in Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter). There is a remarkable congruence between the weeping woman he painted on the 26th October of that year (fig. 8) and the small group of portraits that he painted on the 4th December that include the present work. It is almost possible to track the slow transition from Maar to Marie-Thérèse in these works. In the October painting the woman has the long dark hair, the angularity and the thick eyelashes of Maar. In one of the December paintings (fig. 4) she retains the long hair of Maar but in the other two she has shifted to embody the younger woman. The choice of beret in these latter two is a significant indicator – it was the hat Picasso associated with Marie-Thérèse from his earliest depictions of her. Yet the three women all wear the same fur-trimmed jacket and Picasso uses similar lattice patterns and a tonally cohesive palette to create a dialogue between the paintings. The three December works also show Picasso experimenting with the device of presenting the main subject of the painting with a silhouetted ‘other’ emerging from behind.
Picasso had used a shadowy-half-silhouette as way of indicating a doubleness or conflict previously in the 1929 painting Buste de femme et autoportrait in which he depicted his then wife Olga against the unmistakeable outline of his own features. This was some two years after he had first met Marie-Thérèse and his relationship with Olga was disintegrating rapidly; the distorted features, teeth and vicious tongue of the female figure are symptomatic of the frustration and growing antipathy Picasso felt towards his wife but the inclusion of his own adumbral profile also hints at a continuing interdependence, or even a pervasive dominance on his part. In a similar way, the shadowy profile that indicates Maar in the present work and others from this period suggests her omnipresence in his life at this stage and perhaps for Marie-Thérèse had similarly ominous implications. After all, as Picasso told John Richardson: ‘It must be painful for a girl to see in a painting that she is on the way out’ (J. Richardson, ‘Picasso and L’Amour Fou’, in New York Review of Books, no. 20, 19th December 1985, p. 68).
There is certainly a contrast with the Marie-Thérèse paintings of the early 1930s (figs. 1 & 2); embodiments of new love, these works have a nascent sensuality that has all but vanished by the end of the decade. Where Marie-Thérèse was once characterised by voluptuous curves and a sleepy suggestiveness, by 1937 she has matured. Still imbued with an innocence and freshness – particularly in comparison to the more vulpine sexuality of Maar – she is also now a woman where before she was a girl; she is mother to his child, and with that domesticity and responsibility there is a discernible difference in Picasso’s treatment of her as artistic subject. As Judi Freeman observes: ‘By 1936 Picasso’s depictions of Walter had shifted from being dual explorations of her personality and sensuality to straightforward recordings of her character’ (J. Freeman, Picasso and the Weeping Women (exhibition catalogue), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1994, p. 166).
However, as this suggests – and as we see in the present work – Marie-Thérèse continued to be of central importance to Picasso. Although Maar might have been foremost in his affections, this was partly because she represented a change; as an educated, established artist in her own right, she provided an irresistible contrast to Marie-Thérèse and by 1937 she must have had the additional attraction that her political engagement paralleled Picasso’s own concerns and involvement with wider political causes. Yet Marie-Thérèse was still the mother of Picasso’s child and the artist continued to see and paint her regularly.
The relationship between the two women was understandably fraught. According to Françoise Gilot, Picasso later recalled an occasion when he working on Guernica with Maar and Marie-Thérèse arrived unexpectedly at the studio, challenging Maar: ‘I kept on painting and they kept on arguing. Finally Marie-Thérèse turned to me and said, ‘Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?’ It was a hard decision to make. I liked them both, for different reasons: Marie-Thérèse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent. I decided I had no interest in making a decision. I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they’d have to fight it out for themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories’ (quoted in ibid., p. 177). Yet whilst this particular anecdote casts Marie-Thérèse as the jealous ‘wife’ to Maar’s more sophisticated mistress, the rivalry ran both ways. Maar later recalled travelling to the house at Tremblay where Picasso had installed Marie-Thérèse and Maya and waiting outside, torturing herself by imagining them together as a family. It was a complex ménage and Picasso’s own feelings were evidently unresolved. He often referred to his work as acting as a diary of sorts and that was evidently one of the motivations in painting Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter). A vividly realised portrait, it combines his two central muses during this critical period, and achieves the remarkable in encompassing the complexities of real life and revealing simultaneously the artist’s contrary emotions.
In doing this, Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter) also reveals the centrality of the woman-muse in Picasso’s art. Over history artists have often turned to the women in their life as subjects, but these women have not always been muses. To be a muse is to be essential to the creative and intellectual processes of the artist. Picasso’s engagement with the women in his life facilitated his exploration of the world and his pursuit of the formal innovations for which he is so acclaimed. In using his muses in this way from the very beginning, he established a pattern. The same interdependence can be found in contemporaries as diverse as Amedeo Modigliani and Salvador Dalí, but also in a subsequent generation, perhaps most notably in Andy Warhol’s appropriation of Marilyn (fig. 10) or Jackie Kennedy to explore ideas of celebrity. It is a specifically modern treatment of the muse and as such might be considered among Picasso’s most significant contributions to twentieth century art.
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