New York

Pablo Picasso

“Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse” is a dream show, and not only because its key work is The Dream, an iconic portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter. The sitter, depicted in what is widely overinterpreted as a masturbatory reverie, enjoys a prominent place in Picasso’s long succession of muses. Even if not every i has been dotted and not every t crossed regarding that fateful meeting on January 8, 1927, between the forty-five-year-old cruising titan and the seventeen-year-old girl he picked up in front of the Galeries Lafayette, we do know that, on crossing paths with Picasso, she had no idea of his sensational fame.

But what is not in doubt is that this chance meeting—how very Dada of them—inaugurated one of the great philanderer’s supreme thematic suites, running from 1927 through 1939, by which time Marie-Thérèse had been fully sup- planted by the intellectual photographer Dora Maar. But the Marie-Thérèse years were marked by stupendous achievements in painting, sculpture, and graphics (not to mention the birth of a daughter, Maya, in 1935). From that long (pro)creative run, the Acquavella exhibition pulled a dozen paintings, of which at least four can be counted among the painter’s greatest works; two drawings; and a great sculpture, the plaster Bust of a Woman of 1931.

In the catalogue, Picasso scholar Michael Fitzgerald thrillingly elucidates the sequence and meaning of the Marie-Thérèse paintings, while also clarifying their role in the complex, lifelong Picasso-Matisse rivalry. He shows how these paintings became foils to marginalize Matisse’s midcareer academic portrayals of Ingriste themes, particularly that of the odalisque.

In June and July of 1931, Matisse was accorded a major overview at the Galeries Georges Petit, a survey that included too much of the egregiously weak Nice material of the 1920s and too few significant Fauve paintings, let alone his even more consequential works revealing his struggle with Cubism between 1912 and 1917. By contrast, Picasso, showing at Georges Petit in 1932, arranged for a comprehensive survey, and daringly hung it not chronologically but according to a sense of dialogue between works of various periods; the new Marie-Thérèse paintings as well as epochal masterpieces such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, were included. You would have thought that, at that juncture, Picasso had beaten Matisse hands down. But the press savaged his survey, not least for the truly radical images of his new inamorata.

Still, at a remove of some seventy-five years, perhaps too much is now made of the pliant, pneumatic beauty of Marie-Thérèse when she is contrasted, as she invariably is, with the shockingly neurotic and unhappy Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s wife, a drearily conventional person despite her being a second-tier dancer in the Diaghilev ballet (actually, not bad) by whom Picasso, after the first embraces and the birth of his son Paulo, was horrified—as much by her snobbishness as, before long, her very physical being, whose features he came to heartlessly caricature just as he lovingly exaggerated those of Marie-Thérèse.

Although the contrasts drawn between the soft curves of Marie-Thérèse and the angry, angular Olga allow for gripping interpretive distortions, many images of Marie-Thérèse do suggest parallels with her horrible counterpart. For example, the turbulent, anything-but-restful Repose of 1932 speaks far more of Olga, with its piranha teeth and black mouche of an anus—hardly the pink rosebud of the marzipan Marie-Thérèse.

So, with Ovidian ease, Picasso metamorphosed these figures one into the other. His sly, defensive genius allowed him to both distance himself from and intimately belong to Surrealism—the period’s most critical style—and, through his coy ambivalence, become the movement’s greatest exponent à rebours.

And, while we are at it, perhaps it is time to stop pretending that Marie-Thérèse’s left cheek and eye in The Dream represent Picasso’s erection. Even Fitzgerald persists in this dubious interpretation, an over-determined projection that simply will no longer stand up to scrutiny.

Robert Pincus-Witten