Monday, April 18, 2011

Gagosian's "Picasso and Marie-Therese: L'amour fou": An Olympian Takes a Tumble, Shows the Fool

Sometimes when the gods come down from Olympus and meddle in human affairs, they come across as fools.

Consider that Picasso was 45 when, in 1927, he landed the 17-year-old Marie-Therese Walter, the subject of this show, as his mistress.  It's already ridiculous.

So maybe it won't surprise that there's some silliness at Gagosian's "Picasso and Marie-Therese: L'amour fou" (which translates as "wild love").

Try reading Picasso's mash note, enlarged as a wall text exhibit, with a straight face: "I love you more than the taste of your mouth, more than your look, more than your hands, more than your whole body, more and more and more and more."  He also writes his and his lover's initials on a simple paper cutout of a dove, like a schoolboy carving initials on a tree.

As a record of Picasso's decade of intoxication with his blond mistress,  "L'amour fou" is telling."*  As art, alas, not so much, even though with 81 works and 13 photos it's larger than some museum shows.

There are portraits galore, in fact too many -- Marie-Therese wearing a red beret (several of these), wearing a hat (likewise), with a garland in her hair (at least two), with a fur collar, with colorful buttons.  Many are repetitive (compare the two above), and show a man obsessed with . . . well, it's hard to tell what he's obsessed with because Marie-Therese is usually a blank.

A few exceptions are here, of course (it's Picasso!).  A 1935 portrait (top) with a lilac and green ground and bold black outlines, where the only thing that seems anatomically correct are the lips, is beautiful and meaty with great physical presence.

And in two portraits of their daughter -- born shortly before he took up with Dora Maar -- Picasso, painting in a childlike style, is again the rebellious innovator (above left).

Aside from the portraits, erotic imagery is abundant:  a strong, large plaster bust where the nose is a phallus (left); small, 16-inch-high bronzes that are nothing but a small head and large breasts on a stick.

And then there are the voyeuristic paintings: the naked Marie-Therese as mounds of breasts and hips, on her back, in an armchair (below), embraced by another woman, or simply sprawled across the diagonal of the canvas; and the clothed, submissive Marie-Therese reading or sleeping or sketching with her sister.

These fantasies are easy to understand and easy on the eyes.

They have none of the iconographic or pictorial richness of, say, MoMA's great Marie-Therese painting, "Girl Before a Mirror," with its themes of Vanitas, sexual transformation, and psychological complexity.  Nor do they have the aggressive sexual power and compositional virtuosity of the Marie -Therese painting recently installed at the Tate.

But Picasso is never without some genius, and on display here is a voracious inquisitiveness.  The sheer variety of styles unleashed in a variety of media -- oil, ink, pencil, pastel, cut paper, crayon, etching, bronze -- is in itself stunning.  There's even a plaster relief of his lover's profile that would make a fitting grotto decoration.

The best work here, though, is one where Marie-Therese does not appear as herself at all, but as a figure holding a candle before a fumbling, helpless man-bull in one of the greatest prints of the 20th century, the "Minotauromachy" (below).

Gagosian set the bar high in 2009 when the gallery reexamined works from Picasso's last decade, a show that made people gasp with the pleasure of discovering a Picasso in his 80s staring down death.  The Times called it "one of the best shows to be seen in New York since the turn of the century," and I don't know anyone who disagreed.

By contrast, the Picasso of Marie-Therese is fairly well known, including most of the better works on display (some were shown by Acquavella Galleries in 2008, some have been lent by New York museums).

So we don't see much new in style or subject matter, we just see more, and a lot of that is second-rate.

*Picasso biographer and co-curator of "L'amour fou" John Richardson has described the circus that was Picasso's private life at this time.

According to him, Picasso, married, kept Marie-Therese a secret, and in 1936, shortly after the birth of their child, he took up with Dora Maar.  The story goes, although who knows whether this isn't Picasso spinning his own legend, that the two women met at his studio unexpectedly -- while he was painting "Guernica," no less -- and demanded that he choose between them.  Picasso, happy with the status quo, told them to fight it out between themselves.  Thereupon, a catfight -- or was that just wishful thinking?

Picasso described the brawl to a subsequent mistress as "one of his choicest memories."

The artist continued to be involved with both women until Marie-Therese dropped out of the picture around 1940.  She committed suicide in 1977.  (Dora Maar, for her part, had what used to be called a nervous breakdown.)

Their granddaughter, an art historian, convinced family members to lend to "L'amour fou" and is one of its curators.

"Picasso and Marie-Therese: L'amour fou,"  Gagosian Gallery, 522 West 21st Street, through June 25.

Photos:  Top and plaster bust, from Gagosian website; the others were pulled off the internet.  All images Copyright Artists Rights Society.