Picasso’s Teenage Lover Inspired Phallic Noses, ’Terrible’ Sex

John Richardson
British art historian John Richardson, an expert on the works of Pablo Picasso. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg News

The elevator to the Manhattan apartment of Picasso biographer John Richardson opens on life-size photocopies of two paintings.

Inside the sprawling flat, the Spaniard’s intense eyes gaze from black-and-white photographs and book covers displayed amid vases of white lilies. Drawings, paintings and lithographs line the walls.

Picasso has been part of Richardson’s life for almost 60 years. With three door-stop volumes of the biography in print, Richardson is working on a fourth.

We met last week to discuss “Picasso and Marie-Therese: L’amour Fou,” an exhibition Richardson, 87, curated for Gagosian gallery in New York.

“Except for Jacqueline, his second wife, this was the longest, most-enduring love of his life,” said the patrician Richardson in a tweed jacket.

The artist was 45 and unhappily married in January 1927 when he spotted the voluptuous 17-year-old Marie-Therese Walter on a Paris street.

The creative deluge that followed is the subject of “L’amour Fou.” Its almost 90 paintings, drawings and sculptures explore love, lust and desire through Surrealism, Cubism, deft academic drawings, scenes of rapture, bulbous eyes, phallic noses and stick figures that predate Giacometti.

“Some are very tender, some are rough sex,” said Richardson, who organized the exhibition with the couple’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso.

What was Walter’s appeal?

‘No Fool’

“She was exceedingly submissive, infinitely sustaining and no fool,” said Richardson. “She understood his need for affairs on the side and she forgave that because she knew that fundamentally he belonged to her.”

Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova, a former Russian ballerina, was less tolerant. He had to disguise Walter as peaches and fruit bowls in still lifes. In portraits, he mixed her Grecian nose and blond hair with the features of other women. Two canvases in the show depict Walter as a cross between a woman and an octopus or a squid.

In his 1928 beach scenes, Walter is a compilation of odd, curvilinear shapes positioned near sharp-edged cabanas. That summer Picasso rented a house for his wife, son and nanny at the Breton resort of Dinard -- while placing Walter in a local summer camp for girls.

“Every day he would pick her up at the camp, take her to the beach, and then retire to the cabana, which would come to stand for sex in much of his work in the 1930s,” Richardson said.


In 1972, Walter told an interviewer that Picasso’s lovemaking was “at times intimidating and terrible,” Richardson wrote in “A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932.”

She loved him all the same, gave birth to Picasso’s first daughter, Maya, and remained in his life long after they stopped cohabiting. Picasso supported Maya and visited whenever he was in Paris through the early 1950s. Walter committed suicide four years after Picasso’s death in 1973.

Richardson said that at Picasso’s request, a statue of Walter was placed over his grave.

Perhaps because their relationship never soured, the artist’s depiction of Walter retained tenderness even after Dora Maar entered the picture and eventually became his main lover. The 1938 portraits are permeated with melancholy, but there’s no glimpse of cruelty.

“In the later paintings of Dora, during the war, he is twisting her and wrenching her and cutting her and chopping her,” said Richardson. “They were having a horrible time together. But with Marie-Therese, even in the end, there is always a wonderful kind of harmony and sweetness.”

(“Picasso and Marie-Therese: L’Amour-Fou” is at the Gagosian Gallery, 522 W. 21st St., through June 25.)

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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