Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Picasso painted the present watercolor in Cannes, where he arrived in early July 1933 with his wife Olga and son Paulo for their customary seaside summer holiday. The previous year, Olga and Paulo had vacationed without Picasso at Juan-les-Pins; after expending enormous time and energy preparing for his first major retrospective at Galeries Georges Petit in June, Picasso wanted to get back to work in his sculpture studio at Boisgeloup as quickly as possible. With Olga safely distant, he could also revel freely in the company of his young mistress/muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, with whom he had begun a passionate, clandestine affair five years earlier. For several summers before that, from 1928 through 1931, Picasso had secretly installed Marie-Thérèse in a pension de jeunes filles nearby while he vacationed with his family, first at Dinard and then at Juan-les-Pins (fig. 1).
Now in July 1933, likely because of complications in logistics, it was Marie-Thérèse's turn to remain behind in Paris while Picasso traveled south. No oil paintings date from that summer in Cannes; instead, Picasso executed a remarkable sequence of works on paper, about thirty in all, some in gouache, others in watercolor and black ink, all on sheets of paper measuring around 15½ x 20 in. (40 x 50 cm.). Despite her physical absence, Marie-Thérèse nonetheless made herself felt in the artist's fertile imaginings, appearing in the form of a sculpted bust mounted on a plinth or, as here, as a nubile nude model sunbathing at the water's edge. "It is a set of works that would constitute good terrain for a psychoanalyst," Josep Palau i Fabre has written. "Picasso poured into it everything that came out of him as spontaneously and unconsciously as he could. Perhaps not even he realized that Marie-Thérèse's presence was a decisive element in the depth of the subject" (op. cit., p. 158).
Ever since Picasso had taken up with Marie-Thérèse, the beach had provided the setting for some of his most highly charged and sexually allusive depictions of his athletic young lover, her body radically re-formulated as an assemblage of bulbous, pneumatic forms or weathered fragments of driftwood and bone. In one group of drawings from Cannes, among the most surrealist of his career, Picasso pursued this vision of the beach as a site of animalistic passions, imagining wild confrontations between Olga and Marie-Thérèse, each of them configured as a flailing, jerry-built construction of odds and ends. In other drawings, by contrast, the timeless Mediterranean setting inspired Picasso to indulge the classical side of his creative personality, tingeing his personal mythos with the aura of antiquity. "Beach scenes served Picasso as an exemplary laboratory for both form and style," Markus Müller has written. "[They] represent, as it were, the definitive coming-out of Picasso's artistic imagination" (Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter: Between Classicism and Surrealism, exh. cat., Graphikmuseum Pablo Picasso, Münster, 2004, pp. 12-13).
The Cannes drawings have as their antecedents various works done earlier in 1933 and in previous years. In late February and March, Marie-Thérèse had been the subject of a sequence of thirty sketches, each designated une anatomie, which depict her as fabrications of bizarre carpentry; these were published later the same year in the surrealist journal Minotaure. The classical subjects from Cannes follow in the spirit of the etchings in the "Sculptor's Studio" series that Picasso executed between mid-March and early May 1933, which were later collected in the Suite Vollard. In Composition: Nu sur la plage, Picasso has mingled these two approaches on the same sheet in a virtuoso display of stylistic and creative pluralism. "In the eye of the artist," Ina Conzen has written, "stillness and motion, the classicistic and surrealistic, the classical and primordial are not opposites but a single, present unity" (Picasso Bathers, exh. cat., Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 2005, p. 105).
The figure of Marie-Thérèse is the most purely classicizing element of the present composition, her reclining pose providing a horizontal weight that anchors and stabilizes the image. The profile, with its pronounced nasal contour, represents an artistic self-quotation referring back to the monumental busts of Marie-Thérèse that Picasso had sculpted at Boisgeloup in 1931-1932 (Spies, nos. 128-133; figs. 2-3), while the languorously reclining nude form--rendered with a softly flowing, organic line--evokes a long sequence of esteemed precedents in the history of western art, from Manet's Olympia, Goya's Maja desnuda, and the Venuses of the Renaissance all the way back to the sleeping Ariadnes of classical antiquity. Marie-Thérèse is like an ancient Siren here, singing to the wandering Odysseus from the timeless Mediterranean shore; Picasso has answered her enchanting call, producing a colorful Arcadian variation on the theme of the artist and model, the studio in this case being the beach. "For me there is neither past nor future in art," Picasso explained. "The art of the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the great painters who lived at other times is not an art of the past; it is perhaps more alive today than ever" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2004, p. 9).
The remainder of the composition, in contrast, displays a playful whimsicality and a sense of dream-like incongruity that is fundamentally surrealist in nature. A crumbling stone archway, evoking the long-faded glories of the classical past, is paired with what appears to be a cut-off telephone pole. Tied to both of these supports and fluttering wildly in the ocean breeze are brightly colored scraps of fabric, sheets of newspaper, sticks, and balloons--the detritus of a parade or party, perhaps, or the makings of a cubist collage. Picasso has drawn these disparate elements with a swift, effervescent line, lending them a soaring, weightless quality that contrasts with the gravity and heft of the recumbent figure. "The stroke of the pen is ethereal, winged," Palau i Fabre has written (op. cit., p. 160). Surrealist automatism fostered speed and spontaneity in drawing, associating those qualities with unleashed desire, and the buoyant, brightly colored scraps here look as if they were drawn without a moment's hesitation. In a closely related drawing that Picasso made on the same day (fig. 4), Marie-Thérèse has fallen asleep on the sand, her head resting on her hands; the weightless elements of the composition now seem to have come out her head, like disparate and unexpected fragments from a dream.
Although Picasso, who disliked any doctrinal constriction of his artistic production, always retained a certain distance from Surrealism per se, he readily admitted that he found the surrealist poets and painters to be the most stimulating circle among the many creative personalities at work in Paris during the years between the two World Wars. "The Surrealists were as cosmopolitan, liberating, and challenging as any group of artists and intellectuals Picasso had known since settling in Paris, and they provided the kind of electrically charged environment in which invention and self-renewal thrived," Elizabeth Cowling has explained (Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, pp. 454-455). It is this surrealist propensity for risk-taking and catharsis that forms the ideological backdrop for Picasso's brilliant superimpositions and syntheses of disparate modes of expression in the drawings from Cannes. "From these stylistic membra disiecta," Müller has written, "he recruited the creative potential for a virtuoso combinatorial procedure that may be called the 'Picasso style'" (op. cit., p. 16).
Indeed, the Surrealist poet André Breton, who persistently wooed Picasso to his cause in the latter half of the 1920s, ultimately came to find this dissolution of categorical style boundaries a chief attraction of Picasso's work--a guarantee that he was driven to create by ungovernable desires and visions, not by the aesthetic calculations of more style-bound artists. In 1933, under the spell of the seemingly inexhaustible range of new works that he had just seen in Picasso's studio, Breton proclaimed, "It seems to me that the most important aspect of his work is its unique ability to suggest the power man has within himself to bring his own influence to bear on the world in order to refashion it in his own image, an entirely revolutionary approach which, in his case, expresses itself in the ceaseless temptation to confront everything that exists with everything that might exist, to conjure up from the unknown everything that could urge the familiar to display itself less unthinkingly" (quoted in E. Cowling, op. cit., p. 458).
Picasso himself put it even more pithily: "It is my misfortune--and probably my delight--to use things as my passions tell me. I put all the things I like into my pictures. The things--so much the worse for them; they just have to put up with it" (quoted in ibid., p. 459).
Marie-Thérèse on the beach at Dinard, 1928. BARCODE: 28862253
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme (Marie-Thérèse), 1932. Photograph by Brassaï. BARCODE: 28862246
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Nudes, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2010, lot 6. BARCODE: 28862239
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Composition: Nu sur la plage, 1933. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. BARCODE: 28862260