It’s hard not to fall for Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, at the Tate Modern – but you’ll never tumble quite as hard as the man himself did for Marie-Therese Walter. Her face and body are everywhere, in sculpture, drawings, oils and sketches. And if it’s not her, then it’s Picasso’s own willy, waving everywhere in priapic joy at being woken out of a middle-aged slump. As a friend pointed out, even the painting selected as the exhibition poster features it, coyly curving over Marie-Therese’s face like a creepy phallic hat.
Marie-Therese was 17 when she met Picasso; he was 45, and married to the ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. The lovers actually met sometime before the fateful year 1932, but the canvases he produced during these months seem to point to a growing obsession.
Nowadays we might well cry #MeToo over the obvious imbalance of a relationship between a teenager and a wealthy, famous older man who could have been her grandfather. And there is something disturbing, as well as joyful, about the images in the exhibition. One of the saddest is that of Olga, in a family group, all angles and blank bitterness, in total contrast to the pillowy softness of Marie-Therese and her ever-present pneumatic breasts.
Although I found the exhibition fascinating, it reminded me of that old line, ‘a mistress is something that comes between a mister and a mattress.’ And I found the contrast between the photos of Marie-Therese – tall, strong, blonde, athletic – and the portraits – a blonde marshmallow – revealing. Maybe Picasso wasn’t just fooling Olga, but himself.
Picasso did leave Olga, when Marie-Therese became pregnant with his child. Then he left Marie-Therese for his next mistress.
Was Picasso’s romantic questing a price worth paying, for the blissful canvases we see at the Tate? It’s hard to deny that the passion and verve on the walls is uplifting and inspiring. I don’t know the answer. But I do hate that willy on Marie-Therese’s head.