“Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’Amour fou,” the rapturous, vagino- maniacal show of more than 80 Pablo Picasso works at Gagosian, is a love story. It tells a tale of a devouring monster, a goddess and doormat, frenzied sex, and abject cruelty. The woman of the show’s title is Marie-Thérèse Walter, called “the greatest sexual passion of Picasso’s life,” “endlessly submissive and willing,” the sumptuous voluptuary who surrendered to his sadomasochistic demands. He himself once called her “a slice of melon,” and she said of herself, “I always cried with Picasso. I bowed my head in front of him.” L’Amour fou” was curated by John Richardson and Diana Widmaier Picasso, granddaughter of the artist and Marie-Thérèse. Widmaier Picasso once told a British paper that her grandmother talked of their “secrets,” some of which have been widely reported. Richardson (in his acclaimed three-part Picasso biography) says that Picasso enjoyed “the perverse pleasure of denying [Walter] the release of orgasm.” Yet Walter herself rhapsodized, many years later, that sex with Picasso was “completely fulfilling,” describing him as “very virile.”
For decades, no one knew of Walter or that she was Picasso’s mistress from 1927 until around 1937. Not only was she his submissive sexual conquest, artistic muse, psychic victim, and mother of his daughter; she’s the fleshy subject of some of his juiciest paintings. Picasso said she saved his life. And it’s true that from the moment she appears in his work, in early 1927, his art gets plusher and more immediate, catapulting him out of Cubism, paving the way for all his subsequent efforts. Marie-Thérèse is the fertile inspiration that made Picasso Picasso after Cubism.
They met on January 8, 1927, when she emerged from the Paris Métro to shop for a blouse with a Peter Pan collar. (You can see that collar represented in a number of the paintings here.) Picasso “accosted me,” she said. Then he hit her with the pickup line, “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together.” He was 45. She was 17 and had never heard of him. Yet days later, she went to his studio, and they began their mad love.
At Gagosian, Walter is recognizable by her shock of blonde hair, her classical Grecian profile, shaved pudenda, blouse falling off rounded shoulders, lavender skin, ample breasts, and curving form. In some works, she holds a key to a cabana; in others, a beach ball. Often we see her asleep, head thrown back in postcoital stupor, cheeks flush, body supple, blissed out. Sometimes this sleeping Venus looks like an extraterrestrial squid, legs and arms splayed, hair standing like antennae. The Marie-Thérèse paintings show Picasso creating a topography of desire. (In one work that’s not on view here, she pulls a flower from her anus.) Strip away the feminine mystique and macho narrative, however, and you see Picasso reinvigorating his work, reaching within himself, and turning, once again, to do battle with his friend Matisse.