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The Evolution of Desire

A new exhibit reveals Picasso at a rare moment of symmetry and stability.

Among the many mysteries of Picasso’s distorted anatomies is how often they strike us as anything but distorted. When Picasso takes one of his great flights of physiognomical fantasy, the face can become an enchanted erotic arabesque, as inevitable as it is unpredictable. I am thinking particularly of a 1937 portrait of Picasso’s lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, crowned with a wreath of flowers, one of the treasures in “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’Amour Fou,” the exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street until June 25. The show has much of New York transfixed. And why not? Here is Picasso, by some accounts the most important artist of the twentieth century, diving into the most passionate sexual experience of his life, and with a girl who was seventeen when he met her at the age of forty-five in 1927. Although the biographical titillation may be what first draws people to the exhibition, if you linger for a while in Gagosian’s big, well-proportioned rooms, the narrative begins to fade; the life is trumped by the art. The deep fascination of this exhibition is less in the cloisonné eroticism of the paintings of the early 1930s—that aspect of the Marie-Thérèse story was actually better told in an exhibition at the Acquavella Galleries in 2008—than in Picasso’s studies of the slightly more mature Marie-Thérèse, the twenty-something who is the mother of his daughter, Maya, born in 1935.

Can it be that Picasso was capable of a certain quietism? This is surely not what we come to a Picasso show expecting, especially not an exhibition dedicated to André Breton’s l’amour fou, the wild, obsessive passions the Surrealists pursued. And yet when you find yourself in the second half of the exhibition at the Gagosian, in a gallery that contains a number of Picasso’s portraits of Marie-Thérèse from the later 1930s, it is evident that the erotic heat has cooled and Picasso is reaching for a sense of symmetry and stability—a shimmer or whisper of passion, rather than a shout or howl of passion. I am thinking in particular of a group of bust-length portraits in which Marie-Thérèse, now clothed and often wearing an elegant little hat, turns out to be a woman whose voluptuousness is at times not incompatible with a certain austerity. Gone is Marie-Thérèse as an exotic orchid discovered in the same hothouse where Ingres and Delacroix cultivated their odalisques. Gone, too, is Marie-Thérèse the athletic Greek goddess, her profile as eloquent and incisive as a statue of Aphrodite. The master of transformation—those ceaseless transformations that Meyer Schapiro believed were, paradoxically, the key to the unity of Picasso’s art—has reimagined Marie-Thérèse again, this time as a maiden from a medieval tapestry. The love object has become hieratic, and never more so than in the delicious painting where the blonde beauty is crowned with flowers, the delectable pinks of her flesh like marzipan displayed in the most elegant, dark plush candy box.

Yes, of course, there is delirium in these portraits of Marie-Thérèse, with their scrambling of profile and frontal views, the right eye now appearing on the left side of the face, the left eye nearly set in the cheekbone, the beloved seen from many angles simultaneously. Here, so we imagine, is the disorderly overload of experience. And so it is. Except that as I look from one of these portraits of Marie-Thérèse to another, I begin to notice something else, something rather surprising, namely that the disorder is frequently presented in precisely the same order, with scrambled eyes and cheekbone set in an apparently definitive relationship. So what we discover here, amid the wild love of this man for this woman, is another side of Picasso, a capacity for stability and stillness that grounds his ceaseless transformations. Picasso has arrived at a deep structure that he feels is right for Marie-Thérèse. And he abides by it. He remains loyal to a certain physiognomical model, much as the artists of ancient Egypt remained loyal to certain principles of human geometry and proportion. These later portraits of Marie-Thérèse, with the curious concatenation of frontal and profile views, become a personal academic standard, a style dedicated to a woman who becomes a style. One can almost imagine that Picasso, the archetypal rule breaker, has embraced a set of rules to guide his understanding of the human figure. The great merry-go-round of the lover’s imagination stands still, at least for a time. The distortions become definitive, defining—a new norm.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.

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