Raphael had La Fornarina and Rembrandt his Saskia, but there’s no more mysterious inspiration than Marie-Thérèse Walter, the enchanting young mistress of Pablo Picasso. A chance encounter between the 17 year old and the 45-year-old artist outside a Paris department store in the late 1920s changed her life and the history of modern art forever.
Celebrating Picasso and Walter’s voluptuous romance, New York’s Gagosian Gallery has just opened Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou, its third show in a trilogy of compelling Picasso exhibitions organized by writer and scholar John Richardson and—with this special exhibition—art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso, the granddaughter of Pablo and Marie-Thérèse.
Gagosian’s 2009 exhibition Picasso: Mosqueteros, which explored the artist’s erotic and expressionistic late work, had New Yorkers lined up around the block to view it, while the gallery’s 2010 The Mediterranean Years, which revealed Picasso’s more pastoral side, kept London audiences equally enchanted, and both shows produced comprehensive catalogues that will be studied for years.
“This show is totally different in scope from the other exhibitions, in that it focuses on the one woman in Picasso’s life who was really his soul mate,” Richardson shared when we walked around the gallery. “There were no fights. Marie-Thérèse behaved impeccably. She was happy to be hidden away, but she has always been a bit of a mystery.”
Picasso and Marie-Thérèse met by chance on the street while she was shopping at Galeries Lafayette in Paris in 1927. As the story goes, Picasso said, “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso.” Supposedly, the young girl knew nothing of the artist, who was married to the Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova at the time; but she agreed to see him again and a romance, which inspired countless works of experimental art, was born. Marie-Thérèse later gave birth to Picasso’s first daughter, and while the couple remained together for more than 10 years, they never married.
L’amour fou offers some 80 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints of Marie-Thérèse—most representing the female figure in distorted ways and multiple viewpoints that had never previously been explored by artists—from the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, Guggenheim Museum, Fondation Beyeler, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pierpont Morgan Library and numerous private collections in the U.S. and Europe, along with family photographs that have rarely been seen.
“There are quite a few exceptional paintings in the show,” said Richardson, “but the masterpiece for me is the Met’s 1929 painting, Figure au bord de la mer. I was always conscious of Picasso’s obsession with gigantism and when you look at this painting you wonder why does this figure look so monumental? Suddenly it dawned on me, it’s Marie-Thérèse as the rock arch at Etretat, which a number of artists have represented, and that’s what gives it such an incredible scale.”
Other highlights include a 1927 realistic charcoal drawing of an innocent-looking Marie-Thérèse in a coat and beret, a unique 1928 bronze of her distorted nude figure, a 1931 painting of her sleeping in a striped chair, a 1936 pastel and charcoal drawing on canvas of Marie-Thérèse seemingly embracing a younger version of herself, and a 1939 painting of her seen from two different angles at once—as though she is being portrayed as two-faced, which may have been a reflection on humanity rather than the sitter.
The Daily Beast sat down with Diana Widmaier Picasso at the gallery to discuss the famous relatives she never knew and the seminal show that she helped create.
How did you become involved in the exhibition?
I’ve wanted to organize an exhibition on Marie-Thérèse for several years. I’ve written several articles dating the moment that they met and the time of creation of many of the works. After seeing the Mosqueteros exhibition that John organized at Gagosian, I suggested to Larry [Gagosian] that we make this exhibition and he said, “Yes, let’s do it.” We started on it less than a year ago, so it’s been a bit of a dance.
What does the title L’amour fou signify?
There’s something light and childish about it. It represents freedom to me—freedom to do what you want.
How do you see this exhibition within the trilogy of exhibitions at Gagosian?
The gallery has been driving attention to periods of Picasso’s work that have been a bit neglected. It’s funny that I say that about something from the ‘30s, but it’s always been perceived as the untroubled period—somewhat happy and erotic—and scholars and Picasso himself might have preferred to do a show about Dora Maar or the earliest Cubist works; but it has a lot of parallels with the Mediterranean Years show, which explored the ‘50s, because it was a very experimental period.
Did you approach the exhibition subjectively or objectively?
That’s a good question because I trained as an art historian and I never met my grandmother or my grandfather, so I’ve only known Picasso as a spiritual grandfather. However, I must confess that it is special to be working on what has to be now one of the greatest love stories in art history. Exploring the theme of the painter and the muse, I had to get into Picasso’s head to understand why he chose her to become the perfect muse. It’s been a fascinating way to explore my ancestors.
Did you learn anything new about Picasso and Marie-Thérèse in the process of organizing the show?
Yes, it’s a matter of understanding what is a portrait and how Picasso renewed the idea of portraiture. I learned how Picasso was able to project himself within someone and bring out something new. He goes in-between his own personality and hers, which took me deeper into his psychology.
Did you come to know them better through your research?
The emergence of the photographs of Marie-Thérèse, which I had never seen, has been crucial. Suddenly you can compare the reality of her appearance with the works of art. Picasso had a love affair with photography from the beginning. He knew that it had completely revolutionized the way the artist sees, but he was convinced that painting could do better. Seeing the photographs makes you realize that she was more than just the eternal sleeping muse.
What was special about her relationship with Picasso?
She was very young. She was a singular beauty, Swedish looking and blond with an unusual profile—a very Grecian profile. She was more interested in the man than the celebrity, whom he was when he met her at 45.
How did Picasso’s work change when he met Marie-Thérèse?
When he met her he was already working on a major commission, the Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire. He was thinking monumentally about something that could last. I think that when he met her he was thinking about prolongation. He wanted a model to be able to produce his metamorphosis, which is why he showed her in so many different ways.
Do you think he distorted her figure because he wanted to conceal her identity?
At the very beginning, yes, but the work is really like a diary. He was hiding her from himself. He was telling his own story. One of the earliest works in the show depicts the monogram MT, for Marie-Thérèse. It’s something he kept. He was projecting his own frustration within the work—and then suddenly she appeared.
Do you see yourself in images of Marie-Thérèse and Maya, your mother?
There are major works from important institutions in the show. How difficult was it to secure the loans?
We had to explain that it was not just another exhibition in a gallery and that it was a major show that had not been done before. Once everyone understood, most were willing to lend.
Did you try to borrow Steve Wynn’s Le Rêve?
No, we wanted to show works that had rarely been seen.
Are there works in the show that only you could have found or secured?
Yes, because of my link to the family, but I think John and I are a good team. We both had strong convictions of what we wanted to have and we don’t give up easily.
How important was it to have a mix of media in the show?
The scholar Pierre Daix once said, “Picasso the painter and Picasso the sculptor are in a fight. They are fighting to find out which one of the two can do a better Marie-Thérèse.”
What can you say now about their chance encounter on the street?
It was providence.