"Everything in Picasso's art is explained by love," is Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's simple dictum, delivered during a lecture to mark the opening of the 1957 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While the present work, executed in April 1934, belongs to a period of considerable personal stress for Picasso as the demands of his flourishing international career expanded and the deterioration of his marriage to Olga Khoklova accelerated, what shines through Deux personnages (Marie-Thérèse et sa soeur lisant), a virtuoso performance of stylistic harmony, with its open window and rhapsodic, Springtime atmosphere, is the youthful enthusiasm and passion that the relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter brought the artist. It is also a fertile sourcebook for the styles that Marie-Thérèse helped inspire or rejuvenate. Evident is not only the lyrical mode of serpentine line and highly-keyed color most often associated with the sitter in the early 1930s, but also the biomorphic elements of Picasso's Surrealist idiom and the sculptural weight of his best works in-the-round. However, perhaps also present in the adamantine modeling and the taught facial expressions are hints that the seven-year history of the love affair would soon take another course, with the birth of Maya the following year and, soon after, the appearance of Dora Maar in Picasso's life.
The twenty-four-year-old Marie-Thérèse is depicted in the present work in front of an open window at Picasso's hideaway at Boisgeloup in Normandy. The house at Boisgeloup, an impressive provincial château, had been acquired by Picasso in 1930 as a country retreat, half-way between Paris and the fashionable resorts of the Normandy coast. Here, in the company of Olga, he could entertain the Parisian beau-monde one week, the next he could install Marie-Thérèse away from judgmental eyes. Beside Marie-Thérèse in the present work is one of her elder sisters and both girls read from the same book. It has been suggested by Pierre Daix (loc. cit.) that the sister in question is Jeanne, the eldest of Marie-Thérèse's siblings. There is another possibility that it could be Geneviève, the middle sister with whom Marie-Thérèse enjoyed a long and close relationship and who, according to John Richardson in his wonderful biography, had also caught Picasso's eye (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 326).
Deux personnages (Marie-Thérèse et sa soeur lisant) is the culminating work in a series of six paintings (Zervos, vol. 8, nos. 190-194, 197) begun on March 27, 1934. Over the course of two weeks, the theme of the reading, intertwined sisters underwent a metamorphosis. At first the line was strong, curved and voluminous (Zervos, vol. 8, no. 191), the two sitters subsumed in the gyre of the composition. In the following three works (Zervos, vol. 8, nos. 190, 192-193), finished within two days of each other on March 28 and 29, the line takes on a more angular, jagged character while the painted surface becomes more impasted and clotted, the pigments increasingly saturated. The penultimate painting (Zervos, vol. 8, no. 194; fig.___) shows the colors still strong but now the line has softened again. Throughout the series the sitters downcast eyes suggest not only immersion in the text but also an aura of repose, recalling the dream-like mood that informed many of Picasso's portraits of Marie-Thérèse in 1932. In each of the 1934 series of sister-readers, Marie-Thérèse is identifiable with her straw-blonde hair and strong profile seated at the left, sometimes her chin resting on her hand. Her older sister, dark-haired and taller, sits to the right and in some cases puts an affectionate and protective arm around her companion. By the time the motif reached the present work, completed on Tuesday 10 April, it had undergone a radical transformation.
Since their meeting on a Parisian street at the beginning of 1927, Marie-Thérèse, the unspoilt ingenue who knew nothing of the art-world and its celebrities, had occupied a totemic role in Picasso's art. She offered pliant beauty and youth, a vital and secret life far away from the stifling atmosphere of marriage to Olga and its bourgeois aspirations. If the so-called "Epoque des Duchesses" of the 1920s had been good to Picasso's reputation and finances, it had done nothing to assuage the painful advance of years and his terrible fear of mortality. But the appearance of the teenaged Marie-Thérèse seemed to halt the onset of time. For Picasso, needless to say, such a momentous--if necessarily covert--event had to be chronicled with paint brushes, pencils and sculptor's tools and take its place in the greatest artistic autobiography of the twentieth-century. At first she appeared in works in secret, biomorphic shapes and codes only to be unlocked by the artist himself (Zervos, vol. 7, nos. 54-56, 58-59, 115). Soon, however, Marie-Thérèse's generous, womanly curves, distinctively bobbed hair or Roman profile become recognizable, either within a domestic interior (Zervos, vol. 7, nos. 77, 79) or as part of the sequence of beach pictures executed during summer excursions to the coast (Zervos, vol. 7, nos. 138, 252).
The distinctive visual language of these late 1920s beach pictures--a cool palette, a low horizon, a monumental motif--is often described as Picasso's "Bone" period because of the smooth, disjointed elements recall the constituent parts of a human skeleton assembled in a radically modified form. This phase reaches its apogée in the great work in the Museum of Modern Art, dating from the beginning of 1930 (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 306; fig.___), where the ambiguous seated figure combines the antique grandeur of the Neo-classical bathers of the early 1920s with a starker, more terrifying intent. Picasso had been fascinated by the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius from early in his career, using plates from his De humani corporis fabrica of 1543 as inspiration for compositions in his Montmartre days. In the late twenties, as he switched his attentions between wife and lover, this interest in the inner-workings of the anatomy was re-awoken. Speaking to Brassaï in 1943, Picasso explained, "I have an absolute fascination for bones. I have lots of others at Boisgeloup: skeletons of birds, heads of dogs and sheep I even have a skull of a rhinocerous. Did you see them, out in the barn? Have you ever noticed that bones are always modeled, not just chipped out? One always has the impression that they have just been taken from a mold, after having been originally modeled in clay On any piece of bone at all, I always find the fingerprints of the god who amused himself with shaping it. And have you noticed how the concave and convex forms of bones fit into each other-how artfully the vertebrae are 'adjusted' to each other" (quoted in ibid., p. 391).
The urge to model was strong throughout Picasso's career. After a long gap, the later 1920s had seen an increase in the role of sculpting. One reason for this was the ongoing debate of over the projected monument to Apollinaire, another his renewed friendship with Julió González. In truth, sculpture and painting, so seamlessly intertwined in the present work, had always been practically united in Picasso's visual memory. The close relationship between work in two and three dimensions had been evident from early in his career as drawings, paintings and bronzes all carried equal weight in tackling similar motifs. His delight in physical process of modeling found an ideal motif in youthful contours of Marie-Thérèse, whose features were rendered in a momentous series of bust-length portraits in the early 1930s. Some examples from the series are composed from an assembly of inter-locking, bulbous elements (fig.___) that recall the contemporary work of Alberto Giacometti (fig.___). Moreover, the rounded, lunar physiognomy of her face, which acts as an index for Marie-Thérése's figure in total, is loaded with a latent eroticism that presages the following paintings. There is also a suggestion of the "collage" sculpture of disassociated found-objects that was to come to mark Picasso's most ambitious three-dimensional output.
The sculptural impulse of smoothly modeled, biomorphic forms informed a series of painted portraits of Marie-Thérèse that occupied Picasso over the first eight months of 1932. The most severe and challenging is the picture in the Musée Picasso (fig.___) where the palette is at its most restricted, the forms abstruse. The component parts recall the pre-historic standing stones at Carnac in Brittany which Picasso had visited. Three months later, in April (fig.___), the separate forms remain but strident color has re-entered the frame--lilac and yellow, Marie-Thérèse's calling-card--and she holds aloft a leaf, like the palm frond attribute of a modern day saint. However the mischievious, pinched facial features, dancing across her crescent shaped face, suggest an altogether more worldly character. The culminating work in this series is the ebullient New York picture, painted in August 1932 (fig.___). A super-abundance of curves fill the picture plane to bursting point, while the color signature of lilac and yellow that forms her bathing costume stands out against an otherwise more muted coastal background. Marie-Thérèse here brings to mind a highly sexualized, wonderfully abstracted version of the colossal Neo-classical bathers of the early 1920s. She also strikingly anticipates the Marie-Thérèse of the present work.
From the Renaissance onward, the reader subject had offered artists an opportunity to explore the dual themes of the intellectual and the sensual. A reader could signify either a cool Apollonian detachment, a paragon in search of elevating knowledge, or a Dionysian sensualist, lost in reverie or indulgent torpor. Corot, whose figure pictures had inspired Picasso and Georges Braque as they set out on their Cubist adventure, often painted contemplative readers. Renoir, too, singled out the subject as a vehicle for his color harmonies and Impressionist vision of bourgeois leisure (fig.___). Matisse also cherished the theme and several of the works he exhibited at Galerie Georges Petit in 1931 treated it. Picasso in turn drew endless inspiration from the act of reading. From the Cubist epoch onward, following his encounter with Corot at the Salon d'Automne of 1910, it was a central motif in his output. Of course, the literary milieu he moved among before the First World War and his experiments with collage, both real and fictive, also stimulated precedent for the role of text within the picture field. Moreover, Picasso was wont to call the act of painting itself a form of writing, its symbols a type of visual language. According to Kahnweiler, Picasso had written to him in 1912, "I love Eva [Gouel]. I'm going to write it in my pictures." With the magnificent sequence of five portraits of Marie-Thérèse reading alone from 1932 (Zervos VII, nos. 358, 363, 405 & 406; Zervos VIII, no. 70) a simple contingency was also at play: Marie-Thérèse was an avid reader and she often occupied herself during sittings with a book. It is therfore no surprise that Picasso, for whom even the most quotidian subject was worthy of investigation, undertook the 1934 series of his lover and her sister reading. What is of special note, however, is the symphonic scope of Deux personnages (Marie-Thérèse et sa soeur lisant)--a tour-de-force of line and color, of atmosphere and weight.
(fig. 1) Photograph of Picasso, 1932, by Man Ray. BARCODE 24408936
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Baigneuse assie au bord de la mer, 1930, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 24408998
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Figure, 1931, Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 24408967
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Femme a la fleur, 1932, Private collection. BARCODE 24408929
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Baigneuse au bord de la mer, 1933, Private collection. BARCODE 24409001
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, La Lecture, 1934, Private collection. BARCODE 24408991
(fig. 7) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les deux soeurs, circa 1889, Private collection. BARCODE 24408974
(fig. 8) Pablo Picasso, Tête de Femme, 1931, Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 24408943
(fig. 9) Alberto Giacometti, Bola en suspensión, 1930-31, Private collection. BARCODE 24408950