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The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932, at Tate Modern
August 12, 2018
Despite how it feels sometimes, this is surprisingly the first solo show at London’s Tate Modern gallery which is dedicated entirely to the legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. And, as any art historian knows, the problem with Picasso (and being the most famous artist of the last 100 years, and possibly ever) is trying to find a new way to talk about his work.
It seems though, that the Tate might have cracked it. This show, which is now in its last few weeks, looks through Picasso’s art through the lens of what is often regarded as his most prolific year; 1932. By honing in on this 12 month period, which would ultimately change the course of modern art forever, Tate cleverly tell a tight, temporal story of the artist’s life through his work.
The show features over 100 works, ranging from full blown, brightly coloured cubist masterpieces, to drawings, sculptures and family photographs to delve in to the sometimes chaotic, and often destructive, mind of the artist.
It was at the end of 1931, when the artist was aged 50 and living in his Parisian apartment with his wife Olga, when he would slump off upstairs to paint pictures of his 22 year old mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter – her heart-shaped face hidden from recognition behind Picasso’s thick, bold, flat brush strokes.
The anecdote sets the scene for the riveting show of work by the artist who said himself his paintings were a visual diary. The curators have reconstructed the timeline of events from that year so precisely, you can see what he painted each week, day, hour, and even before and after making love to Walter – helping set the scene for just how much the artist’s impulses streamed into his art.
Picasso had met Walter five years prior in Paris, when she was just 17 and he was 45, as well as a world famous celebrity artist. He was just about to buy a mansion in Normandy for himself and Olga, the Russian ballet dancer, when he began his affair with Walter. And how she cannot have known, when faced with this output of work depicting naked woman and scorned lovers stabbing each other, that there was another woman on the scene, is anyone’s guess.
Walter remains the predominant theme throughout the show, and Picasso’s 1932. She is recognisable in the various forms for her cropped blonde hair, oval eyes and lilac colour palette, often reclining, stretching and dreaming in post-coital bliss, and nearly always in bed. The title’s however give nothing away, always referring to anonymous woman beneath blue skies or under silver moonlight.
Maybe Olga doesn’t notice because of how fast their life moves – she is left to raise the couple’s son and run a busy social schedule, while Walter is moved into a flat next door, and Picasso sells a work for a record breaking 56,000 francs in February, begins work on his catalogue raisonné in March and buys every canvas he can get hold of ahead of the summer.
He does however continue to paint Olga, whose forms slowly become more disjointed and distorted, as if she is literally fading into Picasso’s memory. Yet each work contains the magical Picasso touch, the strangeness for which he is so well loved – an ability to capture a counter-intuitive beauty. And no where is this more prevalent than in the group of majestic nudes that were painted across six exhausting days in March of that year – here reunited together for the first time since.
The show doesn’t include his entire output from this incredible year, but features a selection which make understanding what he was going through easily digestible. It is also wonderfully indicative of his wider career, as you can see him constantly revaluate and experiment with colour, form and texture. Each work is intense, full of beauty and horror.
By the end of 1932 Fascism starts to take hold in Europe and Walter becomes dangerously ill after swimming in contaminated water. Picasso’s response is of course to paint – this time men trying to rescue drowning woman. Olga would eventually find out about her when she fell pregnant with Picasso’s child in 1935, but ultimately she never leaves Picasso’s side. The year’s following on from this show would be characterised by torment, as the artist became stuck faithlessly between the two women.
Words by Toby Mellors
The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932, at Tate Modern, London, until 8 September 2018