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The rip heard 'round the world

ART / CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Picasso's 'Le Reve' survived a shocking mishap, but let's focus on the virile artistry of the masterwork.

October 12, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

Twice IN 10 years, Pablo Picasso's celebrated 1932 painting of his sleeping mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, made international headlines. Alas, the artist's breathtaking painterly skill and candid insight into human nature were not the cause.

First, on a chilly November night in Manhattan, "Le Reve" -- "The Dream" -- became the most expensive work at a glamorous 1997 auction, which broke all records for a single-owner sale. Then, early on a hot Las Vegas evening in September 2006, a new owner poked a hole in the picture with an errant elbow, while showing the prize to unexpectedly shocked friends.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Picasso credit: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books section about Pablo Picasso's "Le Reve" returning to public view after it had been damaged included a photograph that was incorrectly credited. The image was not from Bloomberg News. The credit should have read: Copyright 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries, New York.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 19, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Picasso credit: A photograph of Pablo Picasso's "Le Reve," accompanying an article last Sunday about the painting returning to public view after being damaged, was credited to Bloomberg News. The credit should have read: Copyright 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries, New York.

Now, for the first time since the elbow episode, "Le Reve" is returning to public view. On Wednesday, New York's Acquavella Galleries presents "Picasso's Marie-Therese," a survey of works inspired by the middle-aged artist's nine-year affair with the pretty, young blond. Loans are coming from private collections and major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate.

The puncture left a several-inch tear across Marie-Therese's voluptuous left forearm. What happened in Vegas didn't stay there, as the calamity was reported in a New York Post gossip column, complete with factual errors, 10 days later. Soon, variations on the horrible tale appeared on the Internet, in print and on global TV and radio.

The ballooning art market was the headline. In 1997, the painting had fetched $48.8 million at a landmark sale. In 2006, the damage occurred a day after its owner, casino and resort mogul Steve Wynn, had arranged to sell the painting privately -- an abruptly canceled $139-million deal, perhaps the most money ever for a painting.

No cynicism is needed to assume that one goal of the exhibition is to publicly demonstrate that repairs to "Le Reve" have not had serious effect on its market value. William Acquavella has brokered many of Wynn's art acquisitions over the years, perhaps including this one. (Wynn bought the Picasso privately in 2001.) The Upper Eastside gallery is housed in the old Astor mansion on 79th Street, a stone's throw from the Metropolitan Museum. There, many Old Masters paintings would reveal, if they could be taken down off brocade walls and examined from the back, any number of damage-repairs made over centuries. Not all masterpieces are pristine.

Yet, like torn canvas and buckled brush strokes, reputations can also need fixing. The celebrated multivolume Picasso biography by John Richardson is not kind to the current state of "Le Reve." Volume 3, published last fall, ends in 1932, the year when the author's friend painted his erotic vision of Marie-Therese.

In a penultimate chapter titled "Annus Mirabilis" -- year of miracles -- Richardson caustically writes, " 'The Dream' has become one of Picasso's most popular images; sadly, the record prices it fetched in 1997 and 2006 and its renown as a tourist attraction at a Las Vegas casino have left this painting so sullied that it is difficult to judge it on its merits."

Poppycock. Surely Wednesday's gilded uptown exhibition (through Nov. 29) is meant to begin the public process of un-sullying it. But the claim is sheerest nonsense, exposed by the silly snobbishness of the Vegas crack.

What makes the painting so exceptional is its exalted place in a hallowed tradition that includes Titian's "Venus of Urbino," Caravaggio's "Triumphant Cupid," Courbet's "Origin of the World" and many more. "Le Reve" is an exquisite Modern sex painting.

On the fourth Sunday of 1932, Picasso painted Marie-Therese snoozing in a red-hot upholstered armchair. Her blouse is askew and her left breast exposed, while her head tilts to one side. Her hands rest suggestively in her lap.

Here is Richardson's description: "Picasso's transformation of the dreamer's thumbs and forefingers into a vaginal image, and her forehead into a penile one, confirms that sex is on her mind as well as between her legs."

Well, almost but not quite. Picasso was 50, Marie was 22 -- think Woody Allen and Scarlett Johansson. The painting depicts his dream, not just hers.

Richardson is correct about the double images, though, where her hands and head mimic sex organs. Picasso was no fan of Salvador Dali, his Catalonian countryman, but the Surrealist clown's scandalously successful first Parisian show had featured exactly such fusions of ordinary objects with sexual imagery. Dali's meticulously painted mirages, like fata morganas glimpsed in desert heat, did not escape Picasso's eagle eye. He shifted their coolly cerebral technique to the bodily heat of erotic passion.

Picasso's most imaginative device in "Le Reve" is this fusion of a sexual fata morgana with the radical pictorial device of Cubism, the innovation that had made him Modern art's first giant. Cubism shows an object from multiple sides simultaneously. In "Le Reve," Marie-Therese has two faces -- one frontal, one in profile. It's as if she's animated, lolling her head.

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