Sunday, 18 March 2018

Picasso 1932: a fascinating insight into the artist's mind

The Dream
For Pablo Picasso, 1932 was a tumultuous year. Famous and wealthy he might have been, but at 50, with his marriage to Olga Khokhlova on the rocks and already in a secret relationship with 22-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, he was also restless.

Playing with surrealism at the same time as trying to best Henri Matisse in the colour stakes, it’s little wonder that his critics were questioning his ability to develop new work.

“The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary,” Picasso was quoted in L’Intransigeant as saying, that June, when his first major retrospective opened.

Tate’s new exhibition, Picasso 1932, takes on this one year in the artist’s life as a way of exploring his evolution as an artist at such a crucial stage of his career.

We begin on Christmas Day 1931. Having spent the day with family and friends at his home in Paris, Picasso completed a small painting – a surrealistic take on Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793), with a woman killing her rival.

Woman with a Dagger
It’s difficult to see Woman with Dagger as one of Picasso’s great works, but like so much that follows it, it offers a fascinating insight into the state of his mind.

Such is the nature of the artist’s work rate that this exhibition cannot hope to include every work from that period, but there is still so much – and of such variety – as to make you wonder at the sheer ferocity of productivity.

It was a year that saw Picasso produce a series of works based on Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion from his Isenheim altarpiece (1510-15), at the same time as he was creating a series of Dionysian paintings of beach scenes. An intriguing juxtaposition of themes.

Nude in a Black Armchair
There are prints here, works using charcoal and works using ink; a piece made with objects stuck into the paint on a canvas – a leaf, a butterfly – together with sculpture and paintings.

The curators have also used one room to partially recreate that first Picasso retrospective, including a 1901 Blue Period self portrait, Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1918) and Les Trois Danseuses (1925).

But at the heart of the exhibition – as so clearly at the heart of that year in Picasso’s life – is Marie-Thérèse. Initially painted anonymously, his muse becomes less hidden as the days lengthened and warmed.

The Dream may have an oft-remarked phallic side of her head, suggesting she had sex on the brain, but it is a far more tender work than that might suggest. And a series of large canvases painted that spring effectively re-invented the nude.

Marie-Thérèse is seen with pale, lilac skin and blonde hair, arranged in ways that are sensuous and voluptuous, erotic and tender, with a wonderful simplicity of line: Nude in a Black Armchair is a perfect example.

Reclining Nude
Some of these are also interesting for illustrating the influence of Matisse in the use of decoration in the backgrounds.

It’s just one of the one of the points made in Jack Flam’s excellent Matisse and Picasso: The story of their rivalry and friendship, which is very much worth hunting down.

After the success of the June retrospective, Picasso left for the Normandy coast and continued painting his nudes, with some of them appearing to have flippers rather than limbs, as though they were morphing into sea creatures – possibly a reference to the prowess of Marie-Thérèse as a swimmer.

The Rescue
But that prowess nearly produced a tragedy late in the year, when Marie-Thérèse contracted a serious viral infection after swimming in the Marne. 

And so the artist embarked on a new series of works, picturing bathers drowning and bather being rescued. Marie-Thérèse is identifiable in both of these roles.

This was not art for patrons or dealers, but art for the artist. Art as autobiography; as Picasso himself said in the early summer of that year, as a diary.

Sometimes it can feel particularly difficult to get to grips with Picasso, so vast and wide a range of work did he produce over such a long life, that while this is clearly Tate Moderns 2018 blockbuster, it offers a welcome opportunity to focus tighter and understand more clearly.

1932 is known as Picasso’s ‘year of wonders’. And Picasso 1932 is enough to leave a deep and lasting impression on visitors and will certainly merit a return visit.

Picasso 1932 is on at Tate Modern until 9 September. 

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