Following the close on 11 July 1927 of his drawings exhibition at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg in Paris, Picasso, his wife Olga and son Paulo headed south to the Côte d'Azur for their annual extended seaside summer holiday. Staying first at a hotel in Cannes, they found nearby a comfortable villa, the Châlet Madrid, the top floor of which the artist could use as his temporary studio. Picasso installed his family, then quickly made a brief trip back to Paris to furtively tryst with his new girlfriend, the seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he had picked out of the crowd in front of the Galeries Lafayette department store at the beginning of the year. He had quickly become obsessed with this sweet, shapely young blond, his amour fou, and relished this first opportunity to see her while Olga was far away.
Back in Cannes, Picasso imagined Marie-Thérèse frolicking on the beach in a magisterial sequence of bather drawings, rendered in shaded, sculptural volumes using ink or pencil, which came to comprise most of two carnets dated 17 July/11 September 1927 (Zervos, vol. 7, nos. 84-88, 90-109; Picasso Project 27/31-34, 36-45, 52, 55-58; Musée Picasso, Paris). John Richardson has described these works, often referred to as Picasso's Métamorphoses, as "one of the most astonishing of all his graphic feats: a series of highly finished biomorphic drawings of Marie-Thérèse's pumped-up body in the guise of his own engorged penis--hybrids composed of erectile tissue. Picasso visualizes the ithyphallic figure of his mistress alone on a sandy beach sunning her rubbery limbs, ballooning breasts, and glans penis of a head... Besides permitting Picasso to indulge in the fantasy that his penis and his girl had become one, these magnificent drawings constitute the first ideas for a monument to [the poet] Apollinaire... He also contemplated shaking up the city fathers of Cannes with the outrageous notion of setting up a row of giant femmes-phallus on the Croisette overlooking the Mediterranean" (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, pp. 339 and 340).
The Andy Williams picture may well be the first Picasso painted on canvas in which he employs the bather subject rendered in the radically inventive surrealist figuration of the Métamorphoses drawings, rife throughout with ingenious and oddly sensual bodily distortions, dislocations and visual double-entendres. In stark, sun-bleached tones Picasso contrasts the bather's bulging features against the flattened stage of the simply outlined monolith of the cabana, the distant and vacant horizon, an empty sky--he liked to employ this kind of desolate, seemingly infinite and timeless expanse as the perfect backdrop to his most daringly adventurous deconstructed visualizations of the human form.
As in a dozen of the drawings, an additional sexual metaphor, miniscule in scale but potent in its meaning, is present here: the bather extends a tiny key to unlock and open the cabana. Investigating the "Cabana Text" Picasso authored in 1935 in conjunction with poetry he was writing during that time, Lydia Gasman has discussed at length the key and cabana as significant motifs in Picasso's work during this period (see Mystery, Magic and Love in Picasso, 1925-1938, doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1981, chapters I-V). Wood cabanas were actually rare on the Côte d'Azur during the 1920s, gaily striped canvas tents having replaced them long before. Picasso was conjuring up childhood memories of the casetas, the little bathers' houses lining the beach at Corunna where his family lived during the early 1890s. Seconding Gasman, Richardson has noted that Picasso's cabana obsession related to his "first glimpse of a woman's pubic hair just outside a bathing hut on a Corunna beach. This revelation would forever make him associate beach cabanas with the mystery of sex" (op. cit., p. 342). The cabana represented for Picasso his unconscious, the unfulfilled desires tucked away in a previously hidden self, to which, as if by a fortuitous twist of fate in 1927, Marie-Thérèse offered him the necessary key.