Picasso’s Passionate Painting
Inspired by a personal and obsessive love story “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” hints at the affair between the then 45 year old artist and his seventeen year old mistress.
The painting is remarkably unlike Picasso’s Cubist works from the earlier part of the twentieth century that made him famous. The overall impression of “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” is that is an overtly sensual image of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter with whom he had an affair with whilst he was still married to the Russian ballerina Olga Khoklova.
Nude, Green Leaves and Bust depicts the naked young Marie-Thérèse lying asleep beneath a classical bust which is assumed to be of her face shown in profile. Her arms are placed up and behind her head, which is thrown back as though in a moment of pleasure.
Above her sleeping figure is a winding philodendron plant which echoes the curves of the woman’s figure in its meandering tendrils. The scene is set against a backdrop of a blue curtain which provides some privacy and shelter for the woman. A profile can be made out in the folds of the curtain which seem to be characteristic of Picasso’s own facial features and so appears as though he is watching over her. The inclusion of Picasso’s own profile in the painting highlights the surreptitious liaison between them, and the apples in the foreground by her elbow, a time-honoured symbol of sexual enticement, depicts Picasso’s longing for his young mistress and the temptation she posed to him.
A dark shadow over Marie-Thérèse’s body runs from her waist and up and around the watchful bust. The shadow seems to form the shape of the letter ‘P’. A second shadow stems from around her neck and around her head and raised arms to form a second yet inverted ‘P.’ The inclusion of these shadows represent Picasso’s initials and the way in which they are placed over and envelope Marie-Thérèse could represent a desire to possess and claim ownership over his illicit lover.
This work forms part of a series of paintings in which Picasso turned away from his Cubist period in favour of a more restrained form of classicism, although they do not fully conform to academic conventions in terms of accurate representation of the human form and perspective. The anatomy of her body is inaccurate as her arms bend unnaturally backwards and do not conform to academic figuration and her skin is an abnormal tint of lavender.
This painting was part of a series featuring Marie-Thérèse Walter where she is often displayed in this passive manner which could be a reflection of Picasso’s obsession with her body. His later painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter in “The Dream” has striking similarities to “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” as it deploys the same stylistic tendencies, created with blocks of flat colour in fluid brushstrokes that are defined by bold outlines of black and provide the painting with a smooth finish. Like “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” it depicts the image of an extraterrestrial lilac skin toned woman that is outlined with flowing black lines.
Picasso’s view on academic training in painting was that it did not constitute art; he believed that “art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we do not start by measuring her limbs. We love with our desires.” Picasso was essentially saying that academic convention could not compare with painting from personal feelings and desire. This is evident in “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” through the fluidity of the brushstrokes and is an expression of his feelings for Marie-Thérèse Walter.
However, there is a lack of sentiment in the painting. The submissive representation of Picasso’s mistress demonstrates a desire rather than a profound love for the young woman, and offers her on a platform to the viewer as a vessel of objectivity who is submitted to a consuming male gaze by the viewer.
Nude, Green Leaves and Bust is currently on long term loan at Tate Modern, London.