A sleeping beauty arcs across the bottom of the vast canvas, breasts akimbo, the curve of her gorgeous thighs echoing the arms that are flung in surrender above her head. The colours are curiously cool for a painting with such heat: a dark, dark blue, deep green and, for the body in ecstasy, a curious, marble-like mauve. Pablo Picasso never chose the easy route. “I would love to paint like a blind man who pictures an arse by the way it feels,” he said in the spring of 1932. And so he did. He completed “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” (pictured above, in a photograph by Cecil Beaton) in his Paris studio in a single day that March. It is among his most erotic works.
This picture is not just mysterious, but baffling. Blue fabric is draped across the back, held up by four orange buttons. At first glance it looks like a stage backdrop; it could also be a curtain, shutting out the world. The woman seems to be sunk in a dream of post-coital pleasure. Behind her an elevated plaster bust looks on – not down at the naked figure as you might expect – but past an array of rounded, long-stemmed green leaves out to a point beyond the edge of the painting. Look closer: to the left of the bust, embedded in the curtain’s blue folds, is a second profile with lips parted. This face is definitely looking down. Suddenly we are unsure whether the two faces represent the act of looking or of imagining. Is the woman being watched by another or dreaming of herself? The uncertainty is part of the allure.
By the early 1930s Picasso was painting erotic pictures with increasing frequency – never from live models, only from memory and imagination. “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” is the first of four similar, giant works Picasso painted in the space of just six days. They represent a turning point for painting.
Cubism, which had been launched with such promise by Picasso and Georges Braque in the first decade of the 20th century, largely fizzled out as painting shifted after the first world war. Picasso’s decision to abandon the movement angered many, including his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. But he was not to be dissuaded. In 1917 he travelled to Italy for the first time, immersing himself in classical sculpture in the Vatican and the archaeological museum in Naples. Soon his work would be filled with gigantic, sculptural women, running barefoot and free. The wildness of his imaginings only became more pronounced in his painting, beginning with “The Three Dancers” of 1925, a work both beautiful and macabre.
By 1932 Picasso had a new dealer, Pierre Rosenberg, who had found him the studio in Rue La Boétie and a gleaming apartment on the floor below, where the artist lived with his wife Olga and their son Paulo, then 11. Yet the first person Picasso invited to see his new, erotic paintings was Kahnweiler who, after enthusiastically representing him, had said nothing about the artist for over a decade. Normally cerebral and reserved, Kahnweiler afterwards wrote a breathless letter to the Surrealist writer Michel Leiris, who was his business partner: “Painting is only being kept alive by Picasso… Two days ago, at his place, we saw two nudes that are perhaps the greatest, most moving things he has produced…It’s not cubist, not naturalistic. It’s without any painterly artifice...Picasso has done nothing comparable for many years.”
Art historians are divided about the meaning of “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”. Virginie Perdrisot- Cassan of the Picasso Museum in Paris thinks the bust is Selene, the moon goddess, looking down on the eternal sleeper Endymion. T.J. Clark, a British art historian who has written at length about Picasso’s wish to be omnipotent and all-seeing, believes the artist felt he could juggle multiple viewpoints at once, both as a man looking at a beautiful woman, and as a woman imagining herself.
Other explanations are simpler. In 1932 Picasso had recently turned 50. As he painted alone in his studio, his wife ran a busy, fashionable household downstairs. Out in society the artist wore spats and drove a Hispano-Suiza. When one of his works sold for a record price at auction in February 1932, the art world took it as a sign that the Great Depression was over. The opening of the retrospective he was preparing for that summer would be attended by 2,000 well-known Parisians, all in evening dress. Yet, despite fame and good fortune, Picasso hankered after the freedom he’d enjoyed as a young artist. For several months his voluptuous young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, had been filling his paintings. Pictured at a window, by a mirror or resting her head on a red cushion, asleep or awake, she enlivened his dreams and inspired his work.
The day after he painted “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”, Picasso picked up his brushes again to create “Nude in a Black Armchair” (above). The same reclining figure is again flung across the bottom of the picture but gone is the previous day’s ambivalence. Here, the body is shorter, wider, fuller, richer. The green leaves have a scrotal quality; one stem is thrust right through the wooden stake that supports it.
The brush marks on the body are long and confident, the paint worked around the hips and between her breasts. Like the earlier image, the palette is limited, with the same green, red and blue, along with the strange choice of deathly mauve for the body itself. And as Clark points out, once you focus on her hair you cannot turn away from it. The centre is blonde, the outer hanks chestnut. Curving this way and that, it finds an echo in the movement of her arm, the roundness of her breast and, ultimately, in the plain grey lines that mark her pubis, meeting at the single point of her pleasure.
A year later, Cecil Beaton went to Rue La Boétie to shoot Picasso’s famous portrait. “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” is on the wall behind the artist, less the backdrop than the main subject. Beaton understood this and positioned Picasso so that his head exactly covers the belly of the nude, between her pubis and her breasts. If it was true that painting was dead, as Kahnweiler concluded after seeing these two nudes in the spring of 1932, then here was proof that only Picasso was bringing it back to life.
These works have been in private American collections for decades. They are rarely shown in public and have not been seen together – the way Kahnweiler saw them – since the year they were painted. Now they form the centrepiece of a new exhibition at Tate Modern in London and their characteristics will be the subject of fierce debate. To look at them side by side today is to marvel, yet again, at the power of painting and the ability it has to hold up a mirror to the painter – and to art.
Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy Tate Modern, London, until Sep 9th