INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL FOR GERMANIC LINGUISTICS & SEMIOTIC ANALYSIS
ENRIQUE MALLEN. 2005, La Sintaxis de la Carne: Pablo Picasso y Marie-Thérèse Walter. Santiago de Chile: Red Internacional del Libro Editores. 2005. +498 pp
Reviewed: Dr. José Cardona-López. Texas A&M International University.
Enrique Mallén, a professor of Linguistics and Art History at Sam Houston State University, has written numerous publications on poetic and pictorial languages. He is the founder and director of the On-Line Picasso Project (OPP), an electronic catalogue raisonné sponsored by his university. The main goal of this project is to showcase all of Pablo Picasso’s artistic production.
Additionally, the OPP contains a detailed biographic explanation directly linked to each work and a wide bibliographic list. Through different data bases, the user can see a Picasso work on the screen while having the opportunity to read relevant information about it. The user can make a virtual visit to the museums and galleries that own the works as well. This project has received international recognition and has been referenced by prestigious museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art of Philadelphia.
La sintaxis de la carne. Pablo Picasso y Marie-Thérèse Walter and the On-Line Picasso Project complement each other. Due to the nature and content of the book, the reader is able to have an intellectual journey through Picasso’s life and artistic production during the 1930’s, including a virtual visit to each work mentioned in the book.
The book has three main content areas: aspects of Picasso’s life during the late 1920’s and 30’s, psychological and philosophical reflections with respect to Picasso’s being and production, and an abundant and analytical description of each work cited. All focus on the exploration of the intense relationship between Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter.
Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter on February 8, 1927, in front of the Galleries Lafayette in Paris. Immediately she impacted the painter’s life, which deepened the conjugal crisis of Picasso and Olga Koklova. Walter was his secret mistress, and as it used to happen in Picasso’s life, she had a great presence in his work. During the late twenties and thirties, the majority of Picasso’s paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures were directed by the inspiration on his new love and muse. Many works exposed Marie-Thérèse Walter’s features. She was also present in the Suite Vollard, a graphic collection of one hundred prints. This suite became one of the most important graphic productions of the 20th Century.
Mallen’s book is a deep exploration and analysis into the presence of Walter in Picasso’s life and work, specifically his prints and sculptures. Her presence fluctuated between being explicit to just allusionary in the theme or the motif. According to Mallen, Walter is for Picasso the antithesis of death, the plenitude of life, the passionate young love, the feme-enfant, and the incarnation of his pictorial ideal.
Before discussing in detail the most representative works of that Picassian period, Mallen dedicates the prologue and the first two chapters of his book to talk about three crucial themes present in Picasso’s life and art: death in psychological life; the Picassian art as a form of magic, and fate’s lines.
In the Prologue Mallen points out that during the late 1920’s Picasso was middle aged. At that moment of his life, Death was a great preoccupation as an existential theme, seemingly in order to escape from it. With that consideration Mallen forms a wide discussion about the human anguish in front of Fate’s instability and imminence of Death. Mallen explores myths, man’s fate, and sacrifice as a way to communicate with divinity. In this sense it is underlined that after Picasso met Walter, sacrifice emerges as a motif in his work. It is represented by a Crucifixion in which Christ has feminine forms. In this cubist work Picasso’s new love and sacrifice are shown with sexual features.
In chapter one Mallen explores the presence of magic in Picasso’s work. This aspect corresponds to the artist’s tendency to conceive an external reality that parallels his inner desires and fantasies. Picasso believed that his work was full of magic agents that could intervene in his own life. This view of artistic work and life will coincide with the surrealist analogical conception of world conceived by André Breton. Thus, Picasso thought that what he did with each image he created was transferred to the reality that it represented.
From 1925 to 1938 Picasso received a big surrealist influence. This influence was present in three different groups of works: The Cabin Series, The Magic Series, and The Minotaur Series. During those years, his work was conceptually abstract and it seemed that he was rejecting reality. Without abandoning the cubist’s principle that states the need to express the most with the minimum resources, some of those works had a reference to the historical and political climates that Spain and Europe were experiencing.
In Chapter two, Mallen talks about the important presence of the painter’s atelier in his work during the late 1920’s. For Picasso his atelier was not only a place for working but also for socialization. For him this was a way to avoid artist’s isolation. At his atelier, Picasso talked to collectors, negotiated with merchants, conversed with critics, seduced his muses and lovers, and meditated about art and his life’s experiences. The latter will be present when Picasso included different aspects of life in several drawings of his atelier. In many of them, and even in paintings, Mallen finds an allusion of fate’s lines and Picasso’s desperate desire to be free of them. Based on Georges Bataille’s philosophy, Mallen also discusses sacrifice and eternity, sexuality and Death, and a pact with Evil or Death, as topics present in Picasso’s life and work. Mallen also points out and discusses the presence of André Breton and Georges Bataille as two forms of thinking very active during Picasso’s life, work and writing of those years. Breton represents freedom, rupture, and the avant garde. Bataille is the erotic liberation, nothingness, and ecstasy.
In the next two Chapters, Mallen exposes the process of Walter’s metamorphosis in Picasso’s work, and the myth of Minotaur as a representation of his inner conflicts. Using oil, pen, crayon and India ink, in 1927 Picasso made several works in which the women’s bodies are distorted, as if they had suffered a metamorphosis. At the psychological level, the appearance of these ‘monsters’ correspond to Picasso’s agitated life. On one hand he was rejecting Olga Koklova’s bourgeois behavior and restrictions, on the other he had just met Marie-Thérèse Walter. According to the surrealistic notions about sexuality and love, his fortuitous encounter with Walter is the finding of an amor fou, for which its object and subject is the eternal femme-enfant.
In oil on canvas, drawings, collages and etchings, the motif of Walter as his new love was present. She appears in The Crucifixion Series, The Cabin Series, and in the plates of The Unknown Master Piece. Using the surrealistic automatic writing, Picasso wrote a text to accompany The Cabin Series. The theme of this text is his way to face fate in his art work.
It is important to point out the symbolism of the lettering Picasso employed in his works during this time. Despite his inner preoccupations about fate, his secret relationship with Walter was the beginning of happiness in Picasso’s life. This state of mind and heart will leave their marks with the initials ‘MT’ (Marie-Thérèse) or ‘MTP’ (Marie-Thérèse and Picasso). He will use those letters in several works. In regard with the meaning of the letters, Mallen says that Picasso was taking notions about them and Divinity expressed by St. John of the Cross, Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. For those poets, the letters symbolized some form of Divinity’s power. Picasso also inscribed the primitive belief about the mysterious interconnection between the name of the thing and the named thing.
Two years after Picasso met Walter, the Minotaur appears in one of his pen drawings. While for the surrealists this mythical being represented their aesthetical and vital convictions, for Picasso it had a profound human side. However, for all of them the myth of this monster meant the conflict between conscious and unconscious: the former was Theseus, the latter the Minotaur.
In Chapter four, Mallen discusses the presence of the Minotaur in Picasso’s next works, but the monster has had a metamorphosis. This metamorphosis also takes place in the human’s anatomy as well. This kind of procedure with the human forms had been present during several years of Picasso’s work. In the early 1930’s it leads to a less classic representation of the woman’s body. His bathers of those years, says Mallen, were the clear descendents of the gigantism of Minotaur’s legs. This new way to paint is also due in part to the influence of archaic art. The new lines and forms he gave to the human anatomy continued appearing in works of which the main theme is the artist and his model. Picasso also made sculptures and in them Walter’s body and head are distorted.
In the next chapters, Mallen continues exploring and explaining Picasso’s works and how they were shadowed by his intense love of Walter, and the conjugal crisis between himself and Koklova. Now, Mallen puts emphasis on the symbolism found in The Cabin Series as well as in the presence of the tauromachy, the unconscious, and the surrealism in The Minotaur Series. In regard with the latter, they are generally identified like works that have a multivalent narrative construction in which there is a kind of revelation of Picasso’s preoccupations about mythical and archetype symbols.
Mallen says that the scheme of The Suite Vollard is based on the Minotaur and the sculptor as the main figures. With the relationship that Picasso created between these two figures, he tried to solve the artist’s problem in front of reality. To do this, he was influenced by Nietzsche’s theory about the Apollonian and Dionysian conditions present in art. In this way, the sculptor is the Apollonian artist and the Minotaur the Dionysian. In The Suite Vollard the Minotaur is represented by its violent sensuality, its expiatory death and its final regeneration. In these prints, the animal instincts of the monster are stronger than its human side. It is a clear representation and allusion to Picasso’s personal conflicts due to his secret and adulterous relationship with Walter. Therefore, little by little the Minotaur is present in the theme of the painter and his model, and the painter becomes the Minotaur. In Minotaure violant une femme the mythical monster is hugging a naked Walter. In this painting she seems to be living a moment either of ecstasy or terror, or a mix of both.
In 1935 Picasso separated definitely from Olga and Marie- Thérèse was pregnant. Walter thought that Picasso would marry her as he had promised her. However this marriage was not possible because if Picasso had a legal divorce, Olga would have to receive half of his properties and part of his work. In that same year Maya was born, and now Walter is not a sensual and sexual presence in Picasso’s work. Instead, she is a representation of maternity. In some paintings of 1936 and 1937 the Minotaur is not sexually possessing Walter. Now Picasso has a new mistress, Dora Maar. Marie-Thérèse, Mallen says, has finished her role as femme-enfant, victim and executioner. She has finished her essential role in Picasso’s conjugal conflict and his confrontation with Death. For these reasons she would not be in the foreground of Picasso’s works any more.
While Picasso was suffering from his devastating separation of Koklova, the birth of Maya was a consolation for him. However she was a new load on his life. In the two paintings entitled Minotaure tirant une charrete Picasso appears as a Minotaur pulling a wagon carrying a mare. The mare’s abdomen is open and there is a visible little filly in it. The Minotaur, Mallen says, is not a lover but a pater familias. The humanized Minotaur now has only two small horns, suggesting that its former vital personality has considerably decreased. Mallen finished his book stating that the amor fou of The Minotaur Series for Picasso represented a means to sublimate Death and get Life’s domain. To obtain this goal, Picasso needed Marie-Thérèse Walter as an innocent victim. Once he got it, she was subjugated to the background of his life.
Mallen’s book is a necessary well prepared contribution to the study of one of the most important and crucial of Picasso’s periods. His discussion of history, artistic movements, and philosophical and mythical ideas that surround Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter is unsurpassed. The reading of this book, accompanied by a visit to the On-line Picasso Project, becomes an intellectual and aesthetical pleasure.