On a January morning in 1927 outside the Gallery Lafayette in Paris, 46-year-old Pablo Picasso, the most famous artist in the world, met a blonde and blousy 17-year-old French girl. Her name was Marie-Thérese Walter. Most Picasso biographers, engrossed as they have been with his Guernica muse Dora Maar, have passed over her too quickly. Picasso’s Vollard Suite etchings on copper engraved plates (commissioned between 1930 and 1937 by art dealer Ambroise Vollard), now exhibited at the Instituto Cervantes, Delhi, bring her back.
Affaire d’ Marie is interesting on many counts. Picasso owned hundreds of his own artworks. Over 50 paintings in that collection are about Marie. Marie is the only woman among the eight he had affairs with, whom the Spanish artist painted as Venus. But this was a Venus like no other.
In the black and white drawings of the Vollard Suite’s Sculptor Studio section, Marie is no statuesque goddess. She is only in outlines — of rising or reclining flesh. She is painted as a person with whom the painter has a relationship of sexuality and sexual comfort. Or, as British critic John Berger says in a book on Picasso, “a woman full of precise pleasures”, giving and taking. Picasso looks at her while she is sleeping. As a bearded man, Minotaur
and Faun (mythic totems of Spain Picasso would use to enter as artist and lover in his own portraits), he rests in her arms.
The 46 portraits in the Sculptor’s Studio are the core of the 100-piece Vollard collection. The other themes in the series are: Battle of Love (5), Minotaur (11), Blind Minotaur (4), Rembrandt (4), Miscellaneous (27), Vollard (3). Several of them have Marie, or atleast a woman with her eyes, her nose and lips, her forehead, her breasts, her limbs.
In Minotauromachy (1935), a wide-eyed girl (Marie again) is shown to lead the Minotaur through the night. In one hand she carries a bunch of flowers, and in the other a candle to light the way. In 1936, Faun Uncovering a Woman, the final Vollard, was made. Marie is still in the picture. Marie is on the bed. The painter/faun looking at her is taking off her sheet. But there is a difference — a distancing.
At a café in Paris, around the time Marie-Thérese was giving birth to his daughter Maya, Picasso met Dora Maar. The year was 1935. Autumn. And the trees were shedding old leaves.
The ‘Vollard Suite’ exhibition is on at the Instituto Cervantes, 48 Hanuman Road, Connaught Place, Delhi, till January 10. Contact 011-43681907