An amalgam of mythological allusion and personal metaphor, this rhapsodic watercolor comes from a distinctive and momentous period in Picasso’s career. The early 1930s saw the output of the artist’s manifold creations across mediums, from his elegant bronze and wood sculptures, to the vibrant lyrical paintings and works on paper dominated by mythic personae and redolent women. The year 1932 in particular witnessed a revived and invigorated Picasso, who having already realized great fame and wealth felt challenged to prove his continued status as a radical and groundbreaking creator. At just over fifty years of age, the artist felt increasingly restless in both his marriage and his career and channeled his unrest into his ardent and secret affair with the much younger Marie-Thérèse Walter. His obsession with the young woman projected itself onto his canvases, resulting in myriad sensuous nudes with Marie-Thérèse’s recognizably rounded features. Such rich and lyrical compositions, recently the feature of the Tate’s triumphant 1932: Love Fame Tragedy exhibition, evolved in 1933 to the complex and slightly darker narrative of woman as victim.
A dreamlike vision of life and legend, Homme enlevant une femme embodies the inventive qualities for which the master is renowned and presents a scene at once elegant and robust. The work’s protagonist has historically been identified as Picasso’s preferred alter-ego of the part-man, part-bull Minotaur, in keeping with similarly swirling yet more aggressive ink drawings in months prior to the present work. But while Homme enlevant une femme retains the vigor of the fabled figure, the violence of the Minotaur is replaced in the present scene by the heroism of a godlike figure. This bearded personage would continue to oscillate between hero and villain throughout the decade, most shockingly in Le Viol (see fig. 1).
A related watercolor from the same period, Silenus in the Company of Dancers, is found in Berlin’s Museum Berggruen and shares the aquatic backdrop and soft blues and peaches of the present work. There, the older, notoriously inebriated Greek god of wine-making and dance is propped up at center, surrounded by a retinue of nymphs and joined at right presumably by his adopted son and constant companion, Dionysus (see fig. 2). The bearded, dark-haired Dionysian man in Silenus in the Company of Dancers bears a striking resemblance to the figure in the present work who is glimpsed carrying off a woman. In this context, the translated French title “Man Abducting a Woman” would suggest a drunken, libertine act by the god of wine, pleasure and frenzy as the narrative of this composition. However, Picasso’s penchant for conflating myth and symbolism with his own stories of love and trauma pervades his entire oeuvre, and when seen in the framework of other paintings from this period, the present composition instead posits a more heroic account.
Ever inspired by muse and mistress Marie-Thérèse, Picasso’s chromatic and exuberant painting Le Sauvetage dramatizes a significant episode from the artist’s life. Painted in the blue and purple-dominant palette associated with his lover, the 1932 masterpiece portrays a rescue scene based on the real-life near-drowning of Marie-Thérèse in the river Marne (see fig. 3). Though she survived the incident, a water-borne illness plagued Marie-Thérèse afterward and caused dramatic weight and hair loss which only intensified Picasso’s ardor and compassion for his mistress. For months, his convalescing muse filled his canvases in the form of nymph and bather, often depicted while swimming, drowning or being rescued. Executed a year after the accident and Le Sauvetage, Homme enlevant une femme may indeed present a graceful tableau with a Dionysian stand-in for the artist as the hero, recasting true events with Picasso as the indulgent yet godlike savior of one of his most beloved companions.
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