Marie-Thérèse Walter and Pablo Picasso.
NEW YORK - As Sotheby’s prepares to offer two masterpieces of Picasso’s muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, I sat down with their granddaughter, art historian and curator Diana Widmaier-Picasso to explore the legendary love affair.
The mesmerising paintings and sculpture Pablo Picasso created during the early 1930s made him the most famous artist in the world. Inspired by his young muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, this body of work is today considered the artist’s greatest achievement.
Picasso and Marie-Thérèse are one of the great love stories. How did they first meet?
It was 8 January 1927, outside Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. Marie-Thérèse had gone there to buy herself a col Claudine – a Peter Pan collar – and matching cuffs. Picasso approached her and said, “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I sense we are going to do great things together. I am Picasso.” He was 46, she was just 17.
I always find it fascinating how Picasso’s art engages with his personal life, often in complex ways. What impact did Marie-Thérèse have?
From their first encounter, what Robert Rosenblum described as the “reign of the blonde muse” had begun. Marie-Thérèse would become a major inspiration and source of renewal for Picasso in both his art and personal life.
Picasso’s art is like a diary. For instance, in Nature morte aux tulipes (overleaf) from 1932, Marie-Thérèse is radiant. We can feel Picasso’s intense desire for her. Whereas the later painting, Femme à la fenêtre (overleaf and page 61) from 1936, includes sharp, angular forms that evoke his aesthetic shorthand for Dora Maar – the lover he had met that year.
In the 1932 painting, we are actually “voyeurs” of the painter’s passionate love for Marie-Thérèse. But in Femme à la fenêtre the spectator becomes the witness. It is as if she is looking at us, tempting us to share her anxiety.
Art historian and curator, Diana Widmaier-Picasso.
Their love affair inspired a profound meditation on love and desire.
Yes, in the history of art, there have been few love affairs so passionate, and few that created such artistic renewal. What we know about Marie-Thérèse today we have learned principally through the art Picasso left us. It is certainly the most prolific documentation of love, and it now belongs to art history.
In 1925, Picasso had a premonition. Somehow, when we look at his drawings from the year before they met, we find portraits of Marie-Thérèse beginning to appear. Picasso the voyeur becomes Picasso the clairvoyant. This helps explain why it was a revelation when two years later he met this beautiful young girl with Swedish roots. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and light skin were in contrast with his Mediterranean features, which triggered a strong attraction.
Why exactly was she so inspiring as a muse?
In 2011, while curating the exhibition Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: l’Amour Fou with John Richardson, I studied unpublished photographs of my grandmother. I realised that she was certainly the woman who most inspired Picasso plastically. She had an arresting face with a strong Grecian profile and was very athletic. Her form was sculptural with lots of volume. Marie-Thérèse had a real passion for sports and frequently hiked and climbed in the mountains, went swimming and rowed – she was always in symbiosis with nature. Her physicality, freshness and youth were all critical in Picasso’s attraction to Marie-Thérèse and their shared approach to life.
Picasso's Femme à la fenêtre from 1936, offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale.
Picasso was a chameleon who needed constant reinvention, but most consider the “reign of the blonde muse” his creative peak. Would you agree?
I sense that, with Marie-Thérèse, Picasso somehow reconnected with his own youth and the extraordinary creativity he had enjoyed then. With such a captivating muse he was able to start again, to reinvent his plastic laboratory and to explore all kind of different media.
With each new muse, Picasso’s art entered new territory. What characterises the imagery of Marie-Thérèse? How does this differ from his pictures of Olga and Dora Maar?
Marie-Thérèse’s iconography excites the senses. It is an explosion of sensuality and joy, with reds, yellows, purples and greens. It’s a real contrast with the classicism of Olga and the rigidity of Dora Maar.
These works are among Picasso’s most erotic, too.
Well, for Picasso, as Leo Steinberg once noted, making art and making love were the same thing. The Marie-Thérèse period is about a voluptuous sensuality. The works were made through sculpting, modeling, incising or using his fingers on the canvas to model charcoal... It is very tactile. One can feel the intimacy of the artist with his work.
Picasso once explained to journalist Hélène Parmelin: “I don’t want to paint nudes as nudes. All I want is to SAY breast, to SAY foot or belly. I don’t want to paint nudes from head to foot. But to get to SAYING… I need to find the way to do nudes AS THEY ARE. You need to give anyone looking at them a way to do the nudes himself with his eyes… There’s a moment… where the breasts put themselves in position, only without you needing to draw them.”
The countless ways Picasso re-imagined Marie-Thérèse as a still life, as a nude and as a portrait are truly extraordinary. Had any muse witnessed quite that level of scrutiny or imagination?
In this period, Picasso was in total communion with the cosmos. All the forms in his work recall the shapes of Marie-Thérèse’s body. For instance, the mountains, the apples or pears seem to become Marie-Thérèse’s breasts. His still-life works from this time, which recall the 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, turn the erogenous zones of her body into various kinds of fruit. But the evocation of the model does not stop there, she also appears anthropomorphically in Picasso’s landscapes from these years.
Pablo Picasso's Nature morte aux tulipes (estimate $35,000,000–50,000,000) from 1932 will be offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale.
Which artists and periods was Picasso thinking most about during the early thirties?
He was in dialogue with the prehistoric and the Renaissance periods. In the sculpture Baigneuse, created at Boisgeloup in 1931, the image of Marie-Thérèse evokes the bulbous forms of the Venus of Lespugue, the famous prehistoric figure. Also, the spindly, fetishlike wood sculptures of around 1930 recall the African and Etruscan art that Picasso had seen in the pages of Cahiers d’Art magazine.
In the portraits of Marie-Thérèse from 1935 and 1936, Picasso engaged in a dynamic dialogue with Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer. He finds another occasion to reinvent the art of portraiture.
Speaking of Boisgeloup, what role did sculpture play during the Marie-Thérèse years?
In order to keep his relationship with Marie-Thérèse secret, Picasso purchased the Château de Boisgeloup, near Gisors, in 1930. Here he installed a sculpture studio and later the printing presses of the engraver Louis Fort. He produced more sculptures during the years 1931-34 than in any other period of his life. Many are monumental heads and busts of Marie-Thérèse, which are metaphors for the sexual union between the artist and his model.
How did the secrecy of their relationship affect the way Marie-Thérèse figured in his art, and how was she revealed?
When Pierre Cabanne interviewed Marie-Thérèse in 1974, the year after Picasso’s death, he asked her “When the name ‘Pablo Picasso’ is said, what first comes into your mind?” There was a silence and then she replied, “The secret, because we were living in secret.” During his marriage to Olga, his relationship with Marie-Thérèse remained secret, so she appears encoded in his work through a monogram “MT.”
Next, in 1928 André Level published a portrait of Marie-Thérèse in the frontispiece of his book Picasso. Still, the public had to wait until his big 1932 retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit, to discover her existence through the series of sensational portraits, many of them nudes. This exhibition would have opened Olga’s eyes to the appearance of the woman who had taken over Picasso’s art and his heart. In 1935, when Maya was born, Olga could no longer deny the union.
Picasso was profoundly affected by the birth of his daughter, Maya. How did this event and Maya's childhood mark his art?
The birth of my mother as a disruption in Picasso's life is represented in the great print La Minotauromachie. He executed an important series of drawings depicting Maya with great tenderness. Strangely, Maya’s portraits tend to look a lot like Picasso himself, as if she somehow personified his own renaissance. At the same time, Marie-Thérèse was transformed into a loving, maternal figure. In paintings like Femme à la fenêtre she has become an object of devotion, a Madonna with Child.
Diana Widmaier-Picasso is an art historian who recently curated "Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: l'Amour Fou" with John Richardson. She is currently preparing a catalogue raisonné of Picasso's sculptures.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]