The picture contains a self-portrait, and the artist was 21 when he painted it, but he seems to imagine himself as a younger boy, reclined on a bed with arms casually behind his head, while a naked woman leans more than a trifle suggestively over his lower regions.
The subject of Erotic Scene was risqué enough for Picasso to deny for many years that he painted it, yet scholars maintain that he did, and it's not such a surprising painting from one who, at a young age, was so sexually experienced, and whose life would have so many loves. Indeed, while the Metropolitan's new exhibition attempts to lure us with promises of a full survey of all his styles, from the Blue Period that shaped the Erotic Scene, through the Cubist years and on into the Neo-Classicism of the 1920s, they might just as well have tempted us with tales of his love-life. It would still have offered us a rich picture of his work, since it has often been noted how a new woman in Picasso's life signaled an observable departure in his work.
One gallery gives viewers what amounts to a tour through Picasso's love life of the 1920s and 1930s, with a sequence of fabulous portraits - a few declared as such, most hidden - that reveal his changing mood. While he was in Rome, making sets for the Ballets Russes, he met former dancer Olga Khokhlova; they married in 1918, and his relationship with her coincided with a turn to Neo-Classicism in his work, and imaginings of a lost Golden Age on the Mediterranean. Together they had a son, Paulo, and Picasso's joy in fatherhood was manifest in compositions celebrating women and maternity such as Woman in White (1924). But the artist soon wearied of fatherhood, and of his wife, and as his feelings soured his contact with the Surrealists led him to produce Head of a Woman (1927), a biting satire of Olga. That same year, at the age of 45, Picasso's attentions were drawn to a 17-year-old girl he met on a Paris street, Marie-Thérèse Walter. His previously cold and dispassionate Surrealist style warmed, to produce sunny, joyfully erotic images of his new love, such as The Dreamer (1932). But again, as his ardency waned, his palette cooled, as in later portraits like Woman Asleep at a Table (1936). And, finally, as was his pattern, Marie-Thérèse was replaced, this time by the fiery and cerebral Surrealist photographer Dora Maar. For a time Picasso depicted Maar seated upon what appear to be thrones, as if he had for once met his match.
Even when Picasso wasn't painting his women, his thoughts of them were shaping his work: one apocryphal tale has it that in Lent of 1930, the young and pious Marie-Thérèse swore off sex, and Picasso became so enraged he painted a Crucifixion. While this tale is subject to scrutiny, there is little mystery behind Man with a Lollipop (1938), the comic figure who appears among his women of the 1920s and 1930s at the Met. The composition mocks those who, late in life, return to childhood in order to find replacements for lost erotic love: here Picasso claims such a fate will not be his.
But which liaison brought the most to his art? The popularity of his portraits of Marie-Thérèse would suggest that it was this unlikely match which brought out the best in him - especially as evidenced in the latest auction price paid for her painting. Or maybe it was the variety of those different experiences which sharpened his art: the Metropolitan's show is sprinkled throughout with depictions of Venus, of nudes, even a series of prints imagining Raphael in embraces with the young woman who appears in his famous La Fornarina (1518-20). But the sorry tale of the Picasso dynasty - stories of suicide, instability, unhappiness - suggests that brief encounters with the master weren't so healthy for his women, nor were they so beneficial for the children to have such as legend as their father. Picasso's art may have flourished, but other lives weren't so lucky.
Article written by Morgan Falconer
Senior Editor of TheArtStory