Pablo Picasso’s 1934 painting Deux personnages (La Lecture) depicts two young women reading, sexily.
The figure on the left is the painter’s lover and muse at the time, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he had met when she was 17 and he was 45 and married to somebody else. The other personnage in the picture is one of Marie-Thérèse’s sisters—either Jeanne or Geneviève, depending on whom you ask (Jeanne, for instance, would have told you the green-faced girl was her).
According to a catalog note from when Sotheby’s auctioned the work in 2015, we’re supposed to gather from the canvas’s bold colors and Marie-Thérèse’s air of passive availability that Picasso was horny for her. I’m paraphrasing.
At the time, Picasso put Marie-Thérèse in several paintings where she’s shown sitting with a book on her lap. Sometimes the horniness is pretty blatant, like when her head is thrown back or to the side and you can’t quite tell whether the hands in her lap are holding the book or, as we’d say back in Arkansas, touching her business.
Sotheby’s sold Deux personnages in 2015 for more than £16 million, which comes out to around $20 million.
I’ve had a poster reproduction of the work for more than 20 years. I got it at the Z Gallerie home-décor store at the Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie, Illinois, for maybe $20 (£16).
I was in college and needed something to put on the bare walls of my first off-campus apartment. The poster’s bold colors drew my attention, though I did not pick up on any horniness emanating from them. Maybe that’s because I was 20 years old and therefore too distracted by the horniness emanating from my own lap to focus on art analysis.
Along with the artist’s name, the poster is labeled with the year of the painting’s creation (1934) and its alternate title, La Lecture—French for “the reading.” I don’t speak French, though, so I assumed the title meant “The Lecture,” as in the thing a university professor delivers in class.
Since I also didn’t know a thing about the painting’s backstory, that’s what I thought Picasso was trying to present: an image of a professor delivering a lecture in class.
In my wholly ignorant interpretation, the professor is the green-faced figure—a twinkish young PhD with long eyelashes and auburn hair. On the sensitive side but definitely male. I’m not saying women can’t be professors, of course, but this is 1934.
The girl on the left is a student. Seated at a desk, she’s scribbling notes on whatever he’s talking about. He paces around the classroom while lecturing. We’re not in one of those big, amphitheater-esque halls, but an ordinary classroom with desks lined up in rows.
At the moment captured in the painting, the professor is passing behind the student (he’s kind of short), creating the illusion, helped along by that jumble of lumps and angles in the middle, that the two share the same body. And so the work represents a kind of erotic exchange, sure, because the central characters—teacher and student—enter into each other.
But their union goes beyond the physical. Through the medium of language (his speech, her writing), the pair achieves an even more profound melding of mind, body, and spirit until we’re not even sure where one figure ends and the other begins. Indeed, the hand that appears to hold the student’s notes is the same color as the teacher’s face. Is it her hand? His? Both?
Anyhow, that’s the story I made up over the course of several years during which the poster graced several walls in several apartments. Finally, I looked up the painting’s true origins. Turns out I was way off.
I’m still partial to my analysis, though. It’s certainly more interesting than what the piece is actually about—a middle-aged dude lusting after a young woman. That’s just about the most done-to-death subject in the history of art. At least my version throws a symbiotic twink into the mix.