The country house, the shape of the nudes, and their light, airy movements are all direct reflections of the developments in Picasso’s work since his first meeting with Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927. Spying her in the streets of Paris, the artist approached her. “I knew nothing—either of life or of Picasso... I had gone to do some shopping at the Galeries Lafayette, and Picasso saw me leaving the Metro. He simply took me by the arm and said, ‘I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together’” (quoted in Picasso and the Weeping Women (exhibition catalogue), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, p. 143). Although their relationship remained a secret for many years, her presence permeates his work from almost their first meeting onward. Captivated by her youthful, unpredictable spirit as well as by her voluptuous physique, Picasso's renderings of Marie-Thérèse are erotically charged, often showing her in the state of sleep or carefree abandon.
The beach had always been a source of inspiration for Picasso, an environment equally conducive to erotic exploration or evocations of the ancient world, and his time at the beach in his first years of involvement with Marie-Thérèse would become especially important in the genesis of his work. “A native of Andalusia who was imbued with the Mediterranean spirit and who spent almost every summer at the seaside from 1918 onward, Picasso found the bathing motif the stimuli he needed for his most revolutionary innovations and deformations of form” Christian von Holst relates (Picasso Bathers (exhibition catalogue), Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 2005, p. 11).
The summer of that year, following his meeting with Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927, and the following one, spent respectively at Cannes and Dinard, were particularly productive as the clandestine presence of the young Marie-Thérèse in Picasso’s life added an erotic frisson to seaside activities and a counterpoint to his deteriorating relationship with his wife Olga. John Richardson has described how, at Dinard in July 1928: “Whenever possible, Picasso would escape from his wife’s sulks and the stifling atmosphere of their ugly rented house (the Villa des Roches in the Saint-Enogat quarter of Dinard) and make for the Plage de l’Ecluse in another part of the town. Marie-Thérèse would be playing ball with some of the children from her holiday home–a scene Picasso would repeatedly portray on the spot over the next few weeks, and from memory laced with fantasy over the next few years” (J. Richardson in Through the Eye of Picasso 1928-1934 (exhibition catalogue), William Beadleston Gallery, New York, 1985, n.p.).
It was during the summer of 1928 in Dinard, that Picasso would break down human form to its barest essentials, an amalgamation of shapes which echoed the curves and bones of the human body. “The female figures that populate these drawings and oil paintings are depicted in a kind of shorthand, particular emphasis being given to the erogenous parts of the body. We see them engaged in typical beach activities—playing ball, opening a bathing hut or just sprawling on a towel. The background is frequently defined by no more than a few rocky formations or horizontal lines, against which these monstrous creatures become increasingly expansive and libertine [see fig. 1]. Picasso’s exceptionally flat, almost silhouettelike treatment of the figures and objects in these pictures is especially remarkable and seems to anticipate his folded sculptures—or rather his paintings of his folded sculptures-of the fifties and early sixties… The dissociation and deformation of moving bodies these pictures depict is more expressive, more violent, and above all, more ‘significant’ than the classicistic beach paintings, even though in principle they, they are derived from the same observed motif” (ibid., pp. 73-74).
Paintings and drawings were not the only media which Picasso seized in these crucial years. Marie-Thérèse’s physicality, combined with the monumentality which Picasso had discovered through his great, static neoclassical figures, led Picasso to painted highly sculptural figures before crossing over direct three dimensional experimentation. “Marie-Thérèse’s athletic body—she liked to row, bicycle, and skate, as well as swim—was also the inspiration for most of Picasso’s major sculptures, starting with the all-important Metamorphose II… a maquette for a monument to the greatest friend he ever had, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had died in 1918 [see fig. 2]. This breakthrough piece, based on a medical diagram in Gray’s Anatomy, did not appeal to the reactionary members in charge of the poet’s memorial and was never executed life-size. Large-scale sculpture was arduous and time-consuming, and required assistants and all manner of amenities. In their absence, he took to doing sculpture in paint. Marie-Therese’s body turned out to be the perfect vehicle for his obsessive giantism. The magnificent Figure au bord de la mer… is a case in point [see fig. 3]. To enhance the figure’s monumentality, Picasso fashioned the legs after the famous rock arch in Etretat, which he had recently visited” (J. Richardson in L’Amour fou, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, p. 19).
While entranced with his young mistress, Picasso was still a married man (he would not divorce his wife Olga and did not remarry until decades later to Jacqueline Roque after Olga’s death), attending social events with his wife and taking his young son Paulo to the circus. The circus had always held a fascination for Picasso and its figures had filled his artworks since his earliest years as a working artist. In 1930 a man, seemingly without a torso, fills the canvas of the 1930 work L’Acrobate (see fig. 4) while the year before Nus was painted several haunting, ambiguous scenes of seemingly-floating circus performers danced through a variety of abstracted states (Zervos, vol. VIII, nos. 86-89). In these years Picasso liked to play with orientation and perspective in his compositions. L’Acrobate, for example, could be hung either way, as Picasso’s positioning of the figure in the work seems arbitrary. Picasso told Françoise Gilot that the viewer "must learn to see the familiar from an unfamiliar point of view." According to Richardson, "he also liked the idea of manipulating viewers into twisting their heads this way and that, and wondering whether they are dealing with a lie that tells the truth or a truth that appears to lie. Even when there is not doubt as to which way up a painting should be hung, Picasso took pleasure in giving different answers to anyone rash enough to question him" (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2009, p. 391).
While Métamorphose had been rejected by Apollinaire’s memorial committee, Picasso had neither given up on proposing ideas for the memorial nor on continuing his foray into sculpted works. The next proposed form to act as a monument to Apollinaire was his 1929-30 painted and welded iron composition Femme dans le jardin (see fig. 5). Based on his numerous depictions of Marie-Thérèse playing with a ball at the seashore, this form (marrying rigidity with curvilinear elements) also allowed the artist to formally respond to a sculpture that had been in his thoughts for over a decade. “Picasso was especially drawn,” John Richardson relates, “to the second poem of the first book [of Ovid’s Metamorphoses], the story of Apollo’s first love, the mountain nymph Daphne, who was priestess of Mother Earth. This provided him with the subject for the most complex of his welded sculptures, the Woman in the Garden. The desire to do a sculpture of Daphne in the throes of metamorphosis dated back to Picasso’s visit to Rome in 1917. Picasso had been fascinated by Bernini’s Ovid-inspired sculpture of Daphne turning into a tree, when he saw it in the Villa Borghese [see fig. 6]. And, indeed, so striking are the parallels with Bernini, one is tempted to see Picasso’s sculpture as a reprise of the baroque as well as a radical rethinking of classicism” (ibid., p. 382). The torsion of the figures in Bernini’s masterpieces and, by nature of the myth, the inevitable biomorphic elements, lend not just to comparison with Picasso’s Femme dans le jardin but also with the twisting, dancing figures in the landscape at Boisgeloup.
It was, of course, in the heat of summer that Picasso and his family—and Marie-Thérèse at a discreet distance—would spend their time at the seashore. Many of his most erotically charged and dynamic bather scenes, however, were often executed in the depths of winter from the passionately embracing couple of Figures au bord de la mer, painted in January of 1931 (see fig. 7) to Les Baigneuses painted in December of 1932 (see fig. 8). Others were painted at the height of summer, as in the leaping monumental figure of Marie-Thérèse catching a ball painted in the last days of August in 1932 (see fig. 9). Here her voluptuous torso pushes entirely in front of her legs and arm, echoing the leftmost figure in Nus.
In the early spring of 1934, Picasso focused on a more domestic scene in a beautiful series of paintings of Marie-Thérèse and one of her sisters, most likely Geneviève, reading together at a table (see fig. 10 & Zervos vol. VIII, nos. 190-194). These works were, like Nus, executed at Boisgeloup, where Picasso could often spend time with Marie-Thérèse during the week away from his familial responsibilities in Paris, while during the weekend Olga and his son would move to the country and Marie-Thérèse would make herself scarce. It was around the time that Nus was painted that Picasso’s marriage entered a true crisis and a formal separation was put into place. After celebrating Olga’s refined, classical beauty in the late teens and early twenties, Picasso had spent the intervening period breaking down his wife’s features and making them close to monstrous. Such artistic blood-letting is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his July 1934 drawing of Le Meutre (Mort de Marat), where Marat’s corpse is replaced with Marie-Thérèse’s graceful swan neck and Grecian profile, while Olga bears the knife of the murderer Charlotte Corday (see fig. 11). As the two dominant women physically came into contact in this allegorical rendering, Picasso’s family life was changing irrevocably. In a little over a year he would be a father again, but this time would have a daughter with Marie-Thérèse.
These years of the late 1920s and early 1930s were moments of rapid change in Picasso’s ever evolving style. Firmly in mid-life, he reinvented himself once again, changing his daily life, his studio setting and his family. Nus is both a perfect example of this defining period, and also an outlier in the artist’s production. The figures are related to his lover Marie-Thérèse but are also embodiments of acrobats and myths. When exhibited in 1978 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the curators described Nus evocatively: "This orgy of octupus-like [sic], amphibious nudes evolved from Picasso's series of bathers begun in 1927. The vegetal tumescence of these forms has supplanted the sculptural concretions of the 1927 Cannes group, the dolmen-like 1928 Dinard series and the skeletal angularity of some of the 1930 bathers. As in many of Picasso's bathers there is an ambiguity about the gender of these creatures who have breasts, but whose heads and tentacular appendages seem phallic as they turn in upon themselves. John Golding... rightly describes these figures as 'predatory marine forms,' and in this respect the painting has much in common with Picasso's sexually threatening bathers" (The Evelyn Sharp Collection, op. cit., p. 78). Whatever the true nature of the figures, Nus captures Picasso at the height of his powers in the 1930s and creates a dazzling allegory of these tumultuous and productive years.
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