In 1929 the publisher Albert Skira commissioned an illustrated book from Picasso. “The difficulty was to find a text suitable to [his] style,” Skira later recalled.1 They decided on Ovid’s Metamorphoses after Picasso recounted a dream of his, about women turning into fish. One of those women may very well have been his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, who, it seems, was always in the water-an avid swimmer and a keen rower, as family photographs attest. From their earliest days together, Picasso spent time watching her swimming and boating on the Marne, and secretly installed her at a nearby beach during summers he spent with his wife Olga at Dinard and Cannes. Though Picasso had spent his childhood playing on the beaches of Malaga and La Coruña, searching for sea urchins in tidal pools and chasing crabs across the sand, he had never learned to swim. “I swim very well up to my knees,” he confessed years later.2
Marie-Thérèse’s muscular build was the antithesis of skinny Olga’s dancer’s physique. In portraits, Picasso would stretch his mistress’s figure, as if the robust, athletic youth could physically withstand more aggressive distortion. He depicted her made of rock, of sticks and balls, of amorphous tissue, of nothing but bones and ligaments. But in typical Picassian fashion, in several portrayals he got right to the surreal, metamorphic truth by giving her fishy, crustaceous forms to match her aquatic nature. Besides memories, dreams and Marie-Thérèse’s swimming prowess, there was another possible source of inspiration for these fishy flourishes: the early documentaries of marine life by the filmmaker Jean Painlevé, which were then becoming the rage among the film-going avant-garde in Paris, and which provide a visual corollary to Picasso’s development in portraiture into the 1930s.
Painlevé’s films were unlike any seen before. They revealed a universe of creatures often too small to be seen with the naked eye, or too remote to have been encountered on a seaside holiday. It was a world familiar only to marine biologists until Painlevé and his collaborators invented from scratch the mechanisms to capture it for the public to see. Revealing a shocking, balletic, combative world of drama and sex, Painlevé was dedicated to “popularizing” this specialized knowledge. By 1930 ten of his short documentaries were playing in theaters across Paris, captivating the Surrealists and the press alike.3
Painlevé, son of French prime minister Paul Painlevé, had achieved early academic success studying zoology at the Sorbonne, earning the distinction of becoming the youngest researcher ever to present a paper to the Académie des Sciences.” My future was all mapped out,” Painlevé said. “Just to irritate everyone, I decided to become a film actor instead.”4 His acting career was short-lived, but on set he met the cameraman André Raymond, whose collaboration and technical innovations in slow-motion photography allowed Painlevé to make his first scientific documentary, L’oeufs d’épinoche (The Stickleback’s Eggs), in 1925. A strictly scientific film exploring the division of cells in microscopic detail, it was summarily rejected by the Académie as fundamentally unserious, the cinema being deemed an inappropriate medium for scientific research.5
At the end of the 1920s, documentary filmmaking was gaining an enthusiastic following in the avant-garde cinemas of Paris, and Painlevé saw the opportunity to give his research films a wider audience and a chance to prove his belief in the educational power of cinema. He made his 10-minute silent short La Pieuvre (The Octopus) in 1928, “To convey my passion for the octopus. It was a dream I’d had ever since meeting one during a childhood vacation in 1911.”6 The film demonstrates how an octopus moves, breathes, fights and dies a natural death. It also depicts a harvesting-a fisherman plucking one from a tidal pool, wrenching the creature’s head inside out, and slicing off a sticky, quivering tentacle. It’s a shocking sight, but one well known to Picasso, who grew up on Mediterranean beaches, where the capture and killing of octopuses was not only a commercial practice but a common childhood rite of passage.
The scholar Charles Stuckey first brought to light the possible connections between Painlevé’s La Pieuvre and Picasso’s paintings, though the octopus analogy had been made before to describe the permutations to which Picasso subjected his lover’s likeness.7 “A woman seated in a chair could resemble the convulsed tentacles of an octopus,”8 Roland Penrose wrote in his biography of Picasso, here referring not to Marie-Thérèse but to a 1929 portrait of Olga in an armchair, her thin, ropy limbs draped about her in repose. It is Marie-Thérèse, however, in a series of portrayals beginning in 1931, who loses her human hair, acquires the muscular, pointed appendages of a starfish or squid, and is transformed into something squishy and carnal.9 The ultimate example is Reclining Nude (1932), in which her limbs radiate from a central, bulbous abdomen and her breasts double as eyes. In one passage in La Pieuvre, Painlevé’s octopus slithers over and around a human skull as if exploring a long-dead shipwrecked soul. In Picasso’s painting, Marie-Thérèse’s head appears as a skull-like object held in her tentacles’ grasp.
In his 1970 essay “Picasso and the Anatomy of Eroticism,” the art historian Robert Rosenblum describes Marie-Thérèse, in Bather with Beach Ball (1932), as a “humanoid creature seen in pursuit of her prey.” He continues: “In an inspired pun, [Picasso] goes on still further to confound human anatomy with the gummy substance of another object familiar to the seashore, a squid. As the human head is transformed into an inflatable bulb and the wind-blown hair turns into jet-propelled tentacles, the vertical mouth becomes simultaneously a squid’s air vent and vulva, so that, finally, the whole figure is metamorphosed before our eyes into a submarine creature obeying a primal urge.”10
The octopuses in Painlevé’s La Pieuvre, which are constantly moving to and fro, make an easy parallel to Marie-Thérèse moving with athletic grace in the water. The backward motion of her rowing on the Marne also correlates to how the octopuses swim, their tentacles swooshing like the motion of oars to propel them backward. Of course, Picasso knew what the animal looked like and how it moved, but in paintings like Bather with Beach Ball, and Woman with Arabesques (Woman Kneeling), 1931, where he renders his lover’s flesh in a dark gray, might the octopus’ pleasure response, demonstrated in Painlevé’s film, have been in the back of his mind? “I would bring an egg to this octopus at 11:00 every morning,” Painlevé recounted. “Whenever she saw me she turned black; the three layers of her skin-blue, red, and green-would swell with pleasure . . . . But then one day, out of perversity, I brought her a rotten egg. She turned totally white. In extreme fury, an octopus’ cells contract and the white of the underlying dermis appears.”11
Rosenblum’s comments on other drawings by Picasso appear to point more clearly to Painlevé’s influence. He describes the subject of the Nov. 19, 1933, drawing Two Figures as “another copulating couple who now pertain far more to submarine species of crustaceans or mollusks than to the human race. Their male and female hair flowing like antennae in aquatic currents, they lock shells in an armored sexual embrace.”12 On Apr. 21, 1933, Picasso had conceived a series of drawings that seem to mimic almost directly a sequence from Painlevé’s Hyas et sténorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus) of 1929; in them, Rosenblum writes, “the phallic shaft of the male neck blossoms into a kind of sea anemone, its antennae alertly extended.”13 Again, Picasso would have been familiar with the basic anatomy of these marine creatures, but the sequential progression and apparent animation in these drawings are a departure from his earlier works in which static, statuesque bathers appear to be constructed of solid rock or piles of bones.
Several of Picasso’s paintings of bathers from 1927-29 play with the idea of the monumental, the figures taking on the form of a colossus, or the silhouette of cliffs by the sea. Later bathers continue on this scale, but seem to float as they toss balls to each other or cavort on the beach. The crustaceous bodies, their animalistic limbs radiating from a central thorax, appear to mimic those of Painlevé’s creatures at play. Picasso depicts the bathers as if in extreme close-up, their bodies reaching to the edges of the canvas. It is precisely the extreme close-ups of Painlevé’s films that were revolutionary, allowing him to reveal an unseen world where the tiniest crabs, shrimps and sea fleas became truly monstrous under the microscope of his camera, and doubly so when projected in a theater onto a 9-foot screen.
The writer Maurice Raynal, a friend of Picasso, reported that the artist “fancied the circus and the cinema.”14 John Richardson writes that the circus was Picasso’s favorite form of entertainment, after the bullring, and that his habit continued well after frequenting the Cirque Médrano during the Saltimbanques period of 1905.15 When she and Picasso first met Marie-Thérèse was only 17, young enough to be his daughter, and he would delight in taking her to the circus, often with his young son Paulo, as if on a family outing. Circus performers again showed up in his work in a 1933-34 series, in which acrobats with tentaclelike limbs appear to float or swim in the space above the ring. The creatures in Painlevé’s films are often caught performing their own acrobatic ballet, center stage and spotlit, with shimmering particles in the water swirling around them. Perhaps the Le cirque paintings not only record an evening’s entertainment with Marie-Thérèse but are a nod to Painlevé as well.
Painlevé’s early films are clinical and scientific, but they are also stylish, stage-lit spectacles. He employed glass-bottomed boats for some, but most of the early works, including La Pieuvre, were made in the studio. (The first film he shot underwater was L’hippocampe [The Seahorse], in 1933.) Not only was the footage for La Pieuvre shot in a tank but Painlevé enlisted an assistant to hold the octopus so as to force its eye open for the camera.16 The acknowledged artifice of his “nature” films made the scientific community nervous: Painlevé was redefining the role of the scientific researcher, not only by making his subjects and observations available to a wider public but by making them beautiful and entertaining to watch. Cinema proved to be the perfect medium for the meeting of science and art.
Initially, Painlevé knew Paris’s avant-garde artists socially, having been introduced to them by the photographer Jacques-André Boiffard, who was his fellow student at the Sorbonne. He quickly immersed himself, playing poker with the Surrealists and piano for Kiki at the Montparnasse nightclub Le Jockey.17 At a time when the Surrealists were redefining the role of the artist as something closer to that of a scientist-with the founding of the Bureau of Surrealist Research and Georges Bataille’s ethnographic journal Documents-Painlevé’s work held an evident appeal. In 1924 he collaborated with the playwright Ivan Goll on the sole issue of Goll’s factious journal Surréalisme, contributing the automatic “Neo-Zoological Drama,” under the introduction “Mr. Jean Painlevé, who yesterday was honored by the Académie des Sciences for a very realistic body of work, reveals himself to be Surrealist as well.”18
Though Painlevé created a short film for a production of Goll’s play Methuselah in 1927, he never officially joined Goll’s group and had a personal dislike for André Breton.19 “Breton couldn’t stand that I had worked with Ivan Goll . . . I collaborated with Goll because his little play seemed like fun-not because I was against the others. But for the Surrealists, there were clear divisions.”20 He did, however, publish photographs in Documents and, due to his father being a minister of state, was able to obtain blotting pads from a ministers’ meeting that were then scandalously reproduced with commentary by Louis Aragon in the Mar. 1, 1926, issue of La révolution surrealiste.21 Rumor had it that his father’s position also allowed Painlevé to get the Surrealists released whenever they were arrested for bad behavior. “There are lots of myths,” Painlevé told an interviewer toward the end of his life. “They weren’t carted off to jail all that often.”22
The Surrealists took to the films of Painlevé not just for their esthetic beauty but also for the creatures’ frightening sensuality, the sometimes torrid mating rituals and the often comical anthropomorphism conveyed in Painlevé’s voiceovers and inter-titles. In Hyas et sténorinques, crabs dress themselves in ball gowns of seaweed and go out for an evening stroll. “Like all crustaceans, they are arm-wrestling enthusiasts,” Painlevé comments; an “invitation to a waltz conceals sinister motives.” Mating rituals look like pitched battles or contorted torture-his seahorses grapple with each other awkwardly, resulting in the cruel biological trick of the male having to carry their young to term and endure a painful, revolting labor and explosive birth. The curator Ralph Rugoff writes, “If there remains something amusing, if not slightly scandalous, in the sight of a mollusk ménage à trois, it is only because this spectacle still serves as a screen for our own dreams of seduction and metamorphosis.”23 The Surrealist filmmakers worked to devise ways of getting around the strict decency laws then in place-Man Ray, for example, in L’étoile de mer (The Starfish, 1928), filmed a naked Kiki through a grease-covered lens to blur the image just enough to pass the censorship boards-but the lurid, often violent sexual encounters between Painlevé’s creatures were beyond reproach.
Sexy sea life, mermaids and the erotic octopus are themes that recur throughout history. Rosenblum notes, in relation to Picasso’s mollusklike imagining of his lover, the precedent of an Edo period print by the Japanese artist Hokusai, depicting a woman’s sexual interlude with a pair of octopuses.24 Picasso’s encounters with japonisme were well documented in a 2009 exhibition at the Museu Picasso Barcelona. In the catalogue accompanying that exhibition, Ricard Bru writes that although Picasso’s El Quatre Gats colleagues Ramón Casas and Miguel Utrillo were caught up in japonisme at the turn of the century, “the artist himself was the first to deny any interest in such a widely popular trend.”25 Japanese prints had been the penchant of an earlier generation, and thus a precedent to be overturned. Even collectors were using Japanese prints as currency to support the younger generation. Gertrude Stein reported, of herself and her brother Leo, “We are selling Jap prints to buy a Cézanne.”26 But of course, as is often the case with Picasso, his denial may have been a ruse. Bru suggests that Picasso’s dirty, funny drawings done for friends in Barcelona in 1903-one depicting a rather aggressive pulpo-may have been inspired by erotic Japanese woodblocks, and Diana Widmaier Picasso documents Picasso’s personal collection of 61 Japanese prints, identifying one that hung on the studio wall as early as 1911, though most of his collection was acquired after 1934.27 (None of the prints owned by Picasso were by Hokusai, but Hokusai’s prints had long been considered masterpieces and were no doubt well known to him.) It’s tempting to take Picasso at his word, but for an artist who was such a consummate consumer and synthesizer of every kind of visual language, Brassaï’s recollection seems closest to the mark: “His initial dislike for them turned to recognition and appreciation.”28
Picasso had always been and always would be an avid filmgoer. In his Montmartre days, he made a habit of seeing the latest releases with friends each Friday. “I was interested in it [cinema] even before the war in 1914. I used to go often with Guillaume Apollinaire, without thinking of anything in particular, just as we would drop into a café,” he told the Surrealist film critic and historian Georges Sadoul.29 In the mid-1920s, going to the cinema quickly became an artistic imperative, with an explosion of avant-garde filmmaking by artists like Man Ray, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau and Marcel Duchamp, who made films “without a subject.”30 The cinema captured the imaginations of the Dada and Surrealist artists and writers, historian David Grossvogel writes, because “the cinema’s devices appeared able to extend visions already theirs.”31 The camera allowed apparent dream states to unfold in slow motion, and jump-cut editing could assemble cadavre exquis-like non sequiturs. For the L’étoile de mer, Man Ray borrowed starfish footage from Painlevé, as well as specimens in jars, including pickled human hands, for props. After viewing Luis Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929), Painlevé invited Buñuel to watch a research film of an actual eye surgery, to Buñuel’s disgust.32
These artists pioneered this new cinema, and also, along with film theorists and experimental directors, formed a new audience, starting cine-clubs and film societies to organize screenings and trade barbs about one another’s work. One of the earliest and most influential of the cine-clubs was founded by Picasso’s longtime friend Ricciotto Canudo, the avant-garde Italian critic who famously coined the term “seventh art” to describe the cinema. The film historian Jennifer Wild writes of discovering a 1921 note in which Canudo reproaches Picasso for missing a meeting to discuss “la peinture au cinéma.”33 Cocteau and Léger often attended Canudo’s screenings, and, like them, Picasso continued to keep up with the latest cinematic developments.
Painlevé was an active participant in the cine-club circuit, the popularity of which led to the opening of several theaters devoted to screening new experimental and documentary cinema. His silent shorts were shown before the feature at theaters such as Studio des Ursulines and Studio Diamant.34 A 1930 article in the New York Times notes, “His study of the respiration and expiration of an octopus was shown at the Studio Diamant. It was more exciting than the Brigitte Helm feature to which it was a filler.”35 Painlevé’s Caprelles et pantopodes (Caprella and Pantopoda, 1930), a study of shrimps and sea spiders, was shown at the opening of the theater Les Miracles in December 1930. A newspaper report of the evening noted the reactions of artists present at the screening, including Léger, who described it as “the most beautiful ballet he had ever seen.” The same report confirms that Picasso was also at the opening, though his comments were reserved for another film in the evening’s program.36
Picasso’s and Painlevé’s processes share a sympathetic symmetry that shouldn’t be overlooked. Both worked on the fringes of Surrealism without subscribing to any faction. Steeped in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Picasso was out to transform his subjects, reimagining not only their form but their very nature, to attain a reality that is “more real than real.” Painlevé had a scientist’s dedication to illuminating reality but granted his animals the ability to waltz and to love, anthropomorphizing them so we can see them more clearly. As Sadoul wrote of Painlevé: “He dwelt in astonishment on the splendours to be found in a pool or a drop of water, on the likeness of these geometric patternings to those in the water paintings of Kandinsky or Picasso.”37
1 John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. 3, The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 384, quoting an interview with Skira in the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 4, 1931.
2 Quoted in Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. 1, The Prodigy, 1881-1906 (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 42.
3 Roxanne Hamery, Jean Painlevé: Le cinéma au coeur de la vie (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008), pp. 66-67.
4 Hélène Hazéra and Dominique Leglu, “Jean Painlevé Reveals the Invisible” (interview, 1986), trans. Jeanine Herman, in Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé, eds. Andy Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougal (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2000), p. 174.
5 Brigitte Berg, “Contradictory Forces: Jean Painlevé, 1902-1989,” in Science Is Fiction, p. 17.
6 Ibid., p. 174.
7 In conversation with the author, September 2010.
8 Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981),
9 At the time that Picasso began his aquatic variations of Marie-Thérèse (1931), Painlevé released revised versions of four of his early silent films, Hyas et stenorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus), Le Bernard-l’ermite (Hermit Crab), Crabes (Crabs), and Crevettes (Shrimps), that included the new technology of synchronized soundtracks. The original inter-titles were left in place, but the addition of Painlevé’s voiceover and specially composed musical scores enhanced the anthropomorphism of the films’ subjects and renewed their popularity.
10 Robert Rosenblum, “Picasso and the Anatomy of Eroticism,” in Studies in Erotic Art, eds. Theodore Robert Bowie and Cornelia V. Christenson (New York: Basic Books, 1970), pp. 341-42.
11 Hazéra and Leglu, “Jean Painlevé Reveals the Invisible,” p. 174.
12 Rosenblum, “Picasso and the Anatomy of Eroticism,” p. 345
14 Arthur I. Miller, Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 98, quoting Jean-Paul Crespelle, La vie quotidienne à Montmartre au temps de Picasso 1900-1910 (Paris: Hachette, 1979).
15 Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. 1, p. 369.
16 Jean Painlevé Through His Films, dirs. Dennis Derrien and Hélène Hazéra,
eight-part television series, coproduced by La Sept, GMT, and Les Documents Cinématographiques, 1989.
17 Hazéra and Leglu, “Jean Painlevé Reveals the Invisible,” p. 178.
18 Jean Painlevé, “Neo-Zoological Drama,” trans. Jeanine Herman, in Science Is Fiction, p. 117.
19 Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema (New York: Berg, 2006), p. 84.
20 Hazéra and Leglu, “Jean Painlevé Reveals the Invisible,” p. 175.
21 Ian Walker, City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 132.
22 Hazéra and Leglu, “Jean Painlevé Reveals the Invisible,” p. 175.
23 Ralph Rugoff, “Fluid Mechanics,” in Science Is Fiction, p. 55.
24 Rosenblum, “Picasso and the Anatomy of Eroticism,” p. 342, n. 15.
25 Ricard Bru, “Tentacles of Love and Death: From Hokusai to Picasso,” in Imágenes secretas: Picasso y la estampa erótica japonesa (Barcelona: Museu Picasso, 2009), pp. 182-83.
26 Gertrude Stein, quoted in Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. 1, p. 396.
27 Bru, “Tentacles of Love and Death,” p. 197; Diana Widmaier Picasso, “The Provenance of Picasso’s Collection of Erotic Japanese Prints,” in Imágenes secretas, p. 204.
28 Widmaier Picasso, “The Provenance of Picasso’s Collection of Erotic Japanese Prints,” p. 204.
29 Georges Sadoul, “Picasso as a Film-Director,” in A Picasso Anthology, ed. Marilyn McCully (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 262.
30 Georges Sadoul, French Film (London: Falcon Press, 1953), p. 35
31 David Grossvogel, “The Play of Light and Shadow: A Directional Error,” Yale French Studies, no. 17 (1956), p. 79.
32 Marina McDougal, “Introduction: Hybrid Roots,” in Science Is Fiction, p. xvi.
33 Jennifer Wild, “The Cinematographic Geographies of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque,” in Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism (New York: PaceWildenstein, 2007), p. 166, n. 53. The note is in the archives of the Musée Picasso, Paris.
34 Berg, “Contradictory Forces,” p. 19.
35 “Jean Painlevé’s Film,” New York Times, June 29, 1930.
36 Berg, “Contradictory Forces,” p. 19.
37 Sadoul, French Film, p. 44.
MICHAEL CARY is a New York-based writer who works with John Richardson and Gagosian Gallery, most recently on the exhibition “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: l’Amour Fou,” at Gagosian Gallery Chelsea, Apr. 14-July 15.