Painted on 22 November 1929, in the midst of a heady moment of creativity, Pablo Picasso’s La fenêtre ouverte is a monumental, surrealist depiction of himself and his new muse and lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Having met Marie-Thérèse two years prior, Picasso was completely enraptured by his passionate new love affair. It was not just his personal life that was filled with new inspiration; so his artistic life was at this time infused with a variety of influences. Closely aware and keenly stimulated by the radical developments of the Surrealists, Picasso was also at this moment engaged in an intense sculptural collaboration with Julio González, creating some of the most important works of his career in this medium. All of these various strands feed into this cryptic, complex painting. As André Breton declared in his book, Nadja, published in 1928, ‘Life needs to be deciphered like a cryptogram,’ so the myriad images, symbols and signs that constitute this powerful work must be unpicked and decoded (Nadja, London, 1999, p. 112).
In many ways, this period of renewal and rejuvenation in Picasso’s life and work culminated in 1932 with his first large scale retrospective held at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris, as well as the second leg of this show, held at the Kunsthaus Zurich, his first major museum exhibition. Closely overseen by the artist, these exhibitions represented a landmark moment for the 50 year-old Picasso. The present work was included in both shows, a testament to the importance with which it was clearly regarded by the artist. Latterly, this work has featured in The Museum of Modern Art, New York’s Dada, Surrealism & Their Heritage in 1968.
Composed with planes of pure, bold colour, La fenêtre ouverte presents a surreal assortment of objects in front of a green-rimmed window that is thrown open. The window opens up onto a vista of Paris, the quintessentially silver Parisian light of a winter’s day casting the view into a veil of white. While the background may be recognisable, in the foreground lies an extraordinary configuration of highly abstracted objects. What appears to be a still life is placed at the front, the objects depicted as if they are slipping off the tipped up table, a device reminiscent of the artist’s cubist still lifes. The coloured orb that balances right at the edge of the window ledge could be interpreted as an apple, a reference perhaps to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a symbolism that fills the canvas with a sense of temptation.
Towering next to this assortment of abstracted objects are two monumental forms: on the right stands a plaster bust depicting a disguised, yet eroticised, image of the artist’s great lover and muse of this time, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Though she was yet to emerge in full recognisable form in the artist’s work, her profile and bobbed hair are instantly identifiable. ‘It’s me alright,’ Marie-Thérèse told Lydia Gasman when she was shown a reproduction of this painting (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, vol. III, p. 389).
The configuration on the left is less immediately identifiable. John Richardson has provided an insightful interpretation of this enigmatic work: ‘In La fenêtre ouverte, Picasso reverses the Pygmalion process and metamorphoses himself and Marie-Thérèse into conceptual sculptures. The artist likens himself to the semblance of the letter E: two huge feet connected by a single vertical leg, pierced by a mammoth arrow. The arrow forms the middle bar of the E and is aimed directly at the humanoid facing him: Marie-Thérèse, who has been no less drastically reduced to a sharp-featured head on a tall armlike neck, clutched by a hand as if it were a beach ball’ (ibid., p. 389).
At the time that Picasso painted the present work, he was living in the rue la Boétie, the home he shared with his wife, Olga. His domestic life however was increasingly strained. At the beginning of 1927 he had met the young, blonde haired Marie-Thérèse, with whom he had begun a passionate love affair. So that their clandestine relationship could take place, Picasso had rented an apartment for the couple on the rue de Liège, not far from the Gare Saint Lazare, the train station from which Marie-Thérèse could travel back to her family home in the suburbs of Paris.
The present work however, as Richardson has explained, in fact depicts another view. Through the open window, the soaring steeples of what has been identified as the church of Sainte-Clotilde, situated on the Left Bank, rise heavenwards. This secret hideaway, which was never mentioned in the artist’s, nor Marie-Thérèse’s, correspondence and makes no appearance in their respective archives, was the site of a number of paintings of the artist’s golden muse, including La femme au jardin (Spies, no. 72), Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (Private collection), and Le Rêve (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 364; Private collection) (see J. Richardson, ibid., p. 372). While the present work likely depicts their secret bolt hole, it is unlikely that Picasso actually painted it in situ. Given its large scale, as well as the studio accoutrements that lie on the table, it is more likely that Picasso worked on this in his own Rue la Boétie studio.
Soon after they met in January 1927, Picasso began to translate Marie-Thérèse’s image into visual form, creating naturalistic drawings as he explored her features and image. Yet, the pairs’ affair had to be kept entirely secret; Picasso was married, and Marie-Thérèse was much younger than the artist. Instead, Picasso first portrayed Marie-Thérèse in his art using a coded language known only to the artist. He painted a series of cryptic still-life scenes, each of which features his new paramour’s initials integrated within a minimal composition of lines and reduced forms.
Picasso took great pleasure in this secrecy, relishing the opportunity to play visual games with his lover’s identity, the meaning of which could only be deciphered by him. It is not surprising therefore that Picasso integrated his beloved muse into the present work in this disguised form. The identity of this plaster bust would have been known only by the artist; the arrow pointing toward her a clear indication of his amorous adoration of her. The bold palette that would come to the fore in depictions of Marie-Thérèse is evident here – the radiant yellows, blues, whites and greens that would become the defining tones of her serve to construct this playful erotic puzzle. Indeed, as the arrow signifies, all roads led to Marie-Thérèse at this time, culminating in the series of rapturous nudes that he painted in the spring of 1932.
At the time that Picasso painted La fenêtre ouverte, the human figure dominated his art. As Picasso’s marriage deteriorated in the late 1920s, so Olga’s presence incited a series of distorted and disquieting figures in Picasso’s art. These fearful portraits were interspersed with the increasingly abstracted depictions of bathers Picasso painted during his summertime sojourns – first in Cannes in 1927, followed by Dinard in 1928 and 1929. There, inspired by the statuesque form and youthful presence of Marie-Thérèse, he painted a series of surreal, biomorphic bathers and figures, whose proportions are enlarged and exaggerated. Many of these figures feature gallivanting or stationary figures, reduced to an assemblage of volumetric forms, together with a spherical beachball-like orb – a motif that reappears in the present work. A cabana is visible in a number of these works. Picasso and Marie-Thérèse used these beach tents as secret hideaways during their stays in Dinard. Perhaps the bright red curtain of the present work is a reminder of this, the blue of the window and table a reflection of the sky and sea of these heady days in Dinard.
Throughout 1929, the human figure had taken on increasingly terrifying appearance. In a number of works, Picasso reduced the head to an abstract construction of pictorial signs as he relentlessly pushed the boundaries of representation. Eyes are rendered as tiny circles, heads as flattened, geometric forms, or rendered as if carved from stone, monumental and sculptural. While depersonalised, these heads and busts are nevertheless filled with an emotive power, often appearing monstrous, with open mouths and pointed teeth, or sexualised, with genitalia disguised as facial features.
Towards the end of this year, at the same time that Picasso painted the present work, Picasso painted two works, La Nageuse (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 419; Musée Picasso, Paris) and L’Acrobate (Centre Pompidou, Paris), in which the human body becomes a weightless, floating, abstracted form. Legs and arms become interchangeable, twisted into configurations impossible for a living person to enact. Just days after completing La fenêtre ouverte, Picasso returned to a sketchbook and depicted more drawings along the same lines as these contortionist-like figures, their interchangeable limbs rotating and head relocated to their torso.
While they depict a fantastical, hallucinatory vision of the human form, these works also demonstrate Picasso’s total mastery of compositional space. The bodies hover amid the picture plane in perfect equilibrium. The same sense of balance permeates La fenêtre ouverte. Recalling Picasso’s Acrobate à la boule of 1904 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 290; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), the foot balances upon a white orb or ball. A piece of fruit hangs precariously on the edge of the window ledge, as if it could tip over into the white abyss beyond, while Marie-Thérèse’s bust is mounted upon a hand that rests atop another circle-like ball. Indeed, this composition is underpinned by these dynamic forces, movement, stasis, and moments of exquisite balance and proportion.
All of Picasso’s explorations into the representation of the human form played into the surreal symbols and stand ins for figures that dominate the present work. Having reduced a head to a composite of overtly sexualised signs – Marie-Thérèse’s mouth and eye appear as slits amid the flattened plane of her head – so here Picasso has taken this a step further, and presented the figure of the painter, or himself, as the extraordinary hieroglyphic construction of feet and an arrow – once again a phallic symbol.
Far from a mimetic, representational depiction of the real world, Picasso’s presentation of these two stand in figures can be regarded as highly surrealist. As John Golding described this work, it appears ‘to show a genuine interest in “the marvellous,” and in the deliberately ambiguous effects that were so much the province of true Surrealism’ (Visions of the Modern, London, 1994, p. 233). The artist’s relationship with Surrealism, was, as has been well documented, complex and complicated. With a keen awareness – and rivalry – with his avant-garde contemporaries, Picasso was extremely cognisant of the rise of this new artistic group in the mid-1920s. André Breton, the self-styled leader, courted Picasso, repeatedly attempting to convince him to sign up and publicly pledge allegiance to his nascent group. Picasso, however, was nothing if not shrewd. He recognised that his talent, and indeed his success, lay in his expectation-defying ability to artistically shapeshift. His autonomy had long set him apart from the various factions and groups that had come to define the early years of the twentieth century. He therefore had no desire to sign away his independence to the Surrealist program.
The birth and rise of Surrealism came at a time when Picasso was seeking a new direction in his art, and he found his ideas to be closely aligned with certain parts of the Surrealist enterprise. While ensuring that his identity was separate from the Surrealists, Picasso’s work of the 1920s reflected their shared concerns. His work gradually shifted from his Neo-Classicism of the early years of the decade, to instead become more biomorphic, abstracted, exaggerated, and often sexualized. Works such as La Danse of 1925 (Zervos, vol. 5, no. 426; Tate Gallery, London), which like the present work, features the figures in front of a window, as well as many of his depictions of the human form discussed above, convey a sense of violence, rage, or disquiet, embodying a disturbing, magic power. While the Surrealists’ automatic techniques did not interest Picasso, he did experiment with some of the other processes and practices that they employed, such as metamorphosing, distorting and eroticizing the human form into his own work throughout the 1930s and beyond.
A reflection of the reciprocity of influence is the Surrealist sources to which Picasso may have turned in the creation of La fenêtre ouverte. In November 1929, the same month that he painted the present work, the radical surrealist poet, writer and philosopher, Georges Bataille published an article, ‘Le gros orteil’ (‘The Big Toe’), in the journal he had begun to edit this same year, Documents. Featuring close up photographs of toes by Jacques-André Boiffard, Bataille’s text called attention to the importance of this body part, despite the commonly held view that ‘man, who has a light head, in other words a head raised to the heavens and heavenly things, sees it as spit, on the pretext that he has this foot in the mud’ (in A. Stoekel, ed., Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minnesota, 1985). Perhaps these concepts, as well as the graphic illustrations, alighted Picasso’s imagination, allowing him to conjure the prominent, disembodied feet in the present work.
Lydia Gasman has also suggested that the visual symbolism rife in the present work was related to another key Surrealist writer, Michel Leiris. In an article of 1929, also published in Documents, ‘Notes sur deux figures microcosmiques des XIVe et XVe siècle,’ Leiris explored the symbolic links between the universe and man’s feet. The left foot he explained corresponded to the planet Saturn, and the right, to Mercury. The right hand was also linked to Venus. Perhaps, Picasso has portrayed Marie-Thérèse, her hand resting on the ball-like plinth, as Venus, and himself, clutching an arrow-like spear, as Mars? Or indeed, as Gasman writes, ‘The arrow is not only an allusion to Picasso’s magic weapon, but also a mythological symbol of “love and death” given to Cupid and Mars’ (L. Gasman, Mystery, Magic and Love in Picasso, 1925-1938, Ann Arbor, 1981, p. 1044). Has Picasso therefore transformed himself into an abstract visual symbol of Eros or Cupid, the winged god of love?
While Picasso’s affiliation with the surrealists would continue in the opening years of the 1930s, what lay at the heart of Picasso’s distance from them was his absolute concern with real life. He did not agree with their deification of dreams and automatist techniques. While he broke down the real world via his cubist pictorial language, or reconstituted the appearance of the human form, this, for Picasso, was a means of attaining a greater level of reality. ‘Resemblance is what I am after,’ he stated, ‘a resemblance deeper and more real than the real, that is what constitutes the sur-real’ (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., 2007, p. 349). He later explained this inherent difference in their artistic outlooks to Roland Penrose, ‘We [cubists] wanted to go deep into things. What was wrong with [the] Surrealists was that they did not go inside, they took the surface effects of the subconscious. They did not understand the inside of the object or themselves’ (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life with Picasso: The Painter of Modern Life, London, 2009, vol. II, p. 285).
John Richardson has stated that the ‘puzzling allegory,’ that is La fenêtre ouverte, can be in part decoded with the realisation that it dates from a period during which Picasso was immersed in a rush of heady creativity in the medium of sculpture (op. cit., 2007, p. 372). At this time, the artist was collaborating with sculptor, Julio González, whose studio on the rue Médéah was midway between Picasso’s rue la Boétie home and studio, and the secret Left Bank hideaway that he used for his meetings with Marie-Thérèse.
In 1928, the year before he painted the present work, Picasso began working with González. The Spanish born González had known Picasso since their early days in Paris in the 1900s. Having grown up in a family of metalsmiths, he had an innate understanding of the art of shaping and joining metal, and, thanks to these skills in metalwork, he was able to construct his works from start to finish, without sending them to a foundry to cast. This technique was rare at this time – sculpting directly in metal was almost impossible for artists without direct experience of these methods.
As a result, Picasso’s work from this time are constructed, multipartite sculptures made from welded metal. González translated Picasso’s visions of the human form into three-dimensional form. Works such as Tête of 1928 (Spies, no. 66) and La femme au jardin of 1929 (Spies, no. 72) have correspondences to the large Atelier scenes of this period – Tête in particular finds a near exact representation in painterly form in Le peintre et son modèle of the same year. Undoubtedly the assemblage-like conceptual construction with which Picasso has depicted himself and Marie-Thérèse in the present painting was in part inspired and informed by his concurrent work in three dimensions.
This present work also prefigures the plaster busts inspired by Marie-Thérèse that Picasso created in 1931. While with González, he had been exploring the concepts of negative space and abstraction in his sculpture – namely in his assemblage works, he now embraced mass as a new form of monumental figurative sculpture emerged. Modeled in plaster, half-a-dozen heads and reliefs constitute Picasso’s protean return to sculpture at this time. Monumental and hieratic, these works are at once classically-inspired busts derived from the physiognomy of Marie-Thérèse – her high cheekbones, wide eyes and prominent nose – while at the same time are exaggerated, highly stylized conceptions of femininity and eroticism; the variously abstracted, amorphous features of the figure’s face morphing into phallic symbols.
By the end of June 1931, Picasso concluded these plaster busts, and yet, the relationship between sculpture and painting, sculptor and painter, remained firmly lodged in his mind. The monumental sculptural language that Picasso invented in these works would go on to serve as the defining aesthetic for depictions of Marie-Thérèse. La fenêtre ouverte in many ways marks the conception of the artistic shorthand Picasso devised for his beloved.
Having remained in the same collection for almost half a century, La fenêtre ouverte has an esteemed exhibition history. In 1932, Picasso included this work in his landmark first retrospective held at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. Including over two hundred works that spanned his oeuvre to this point, the exhibition was an important milestone for the artist, who had just turned fifty. The show was curated by Picasso himself, and he chose to hang works from various time periods and styles not by date, but in an eclectic arrangement of often thematic groupings. La fenêtre ouverte was also included in the second leg of this exhibition, held in the Kunsthaus Zurich, which was to be the artist’s first museum exhibition.
This painting was acquired directly from Picasso in 1932 by his dealer of the time, Paul Rosenberg. Some years later, it entered the collection of the Chicago-born socialite, Mollie Bostwick. Known for sporting oversize white sunglasses, she was pictured in front of La fenêtre ouverte in her Palm Beach home by the legendary photographer, Slim Aarons. It was subsequently acquired by the Galerie Beyeler. It has remained in the same collection since 1974.