Tate Modern, London
If you have any interest in twentieth century art at all you will already have seen several reviews of this show, which will almost universally rave about its brilliance. You might have found yourself thinking that the reviewers were getting a bit carried away, that it couldn’t be as good as all that. You would have been wrong.
The Tate has gathered together 9 rooms of works from a single crucial year of Picasso’s life, a point when he in danger of becoming yesterday’s man in the art world and becoming regarded as bourgeois. Symptomatic of this comfortable position in the establishment, along with his chauffeur and his apartment on the Champs-Élysées, is that 1932 was also the year of his first retrospective (a rarity for a living artist then). This has allowed for the inclusion of a 10th room of works from before 1932 which were part of that exhibition. His reputation, at least based on his earlier output, may have been secure, but inside he was raging.
It is a truism that we should not allow the life of the artist to cloud our opinions of the art, a trope which has been discussed here more than a few times. Picasso though regarded his art as his autobiography, and his life as part of his art. He collected every scrap of his life, receipts, tickets for the bull fight and so on, in the apparent belief that nothing which he did was irrelevant to his genius. And an explicitly biographical line is the approach taken here. The rooms run from the start to the end of the year and if, like me, you always go back to the start of an exhibition for another look at favourites the contrast and development through 1932 is startling.
The first painting on show is a small work depicting a furious female figure flowing through a room and stabbing another, wraith-like female form with a dagger. The first is assumed to be Olga, Picasso’s wife, the second his muse and lover Marie-Thérèse Walter. By the start of 1932 it had been 5 years since Picasso, already 45, had approached the teenage Marie-Thérèse and proclaimed ‘I am Picasso, and together we shall do great things’. She utterly dominates this show, and is the subject of some of the most ravishing images ever painted.
We see Marie-Thérèse on beds, sleeping on chairs, even conjured into a form which can be read as a reclining nude or an octopus cradling a skull. She is in paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings. The pale lilac which Picasso chose as her signature colour dances with wallpaper, fabrics, and the colours of the French and Spanish flags. Follow the sumptuous line of the curves which make up her form and you never know quite where they will take you. Is that her face, or her face in profile with the figure of a lover behind her? It is both of course, and in The Dream, the image chosen to advertise this exhibition, she slumbers in a chair with her gown slipping off a breast and her fingers intertwined in her lap. The exhibition guide suggests that the shaded portion of her face is a phallus, the influence of Freud and surrealism leaving Picasso in doubt what Marie-Thérèse is dreaming about.
Often, in the summer months, she is on the beach under a blazing sun, though then she may be reduced to lines and near-abstract shapes. Picasso was no swimmer, and even though he rarely painted from life, seemed to receive a weaker and more distorted signal from his muse when she is distant. Some smaller works in this series were even rejected by Picasso’s dealer on grounds of vulgarity (‘I refuse to have any arse-holes in my gallery’) and, yes, there are a couple of paintings here which look like they were knocked up in a hurry to fill the gap for display. The masterpieces, whether huge public statements or intimate sketches, more than make up for them.
By the end of the year Picasso’s world had become a darker place. Olga left him when Marie-Thérèse fell pregnant and Marie-Thérèse herself became dangerously ill after swimming in a polluted river. The last room is almost entirely taken up with two themes. The first is a series of works all called The Rescue, in which a lifeless or near lifeless female form is dragged from water to dry land. The other is a set of studies based on Grünewald’s Crucifixion, becoming increasingly agonised as Picasso’s view of the political future in Europe became more and more bleak.
When you have been in the presence of these pictures you will want to go back through the year and revel in the bright colours of the summer paintings and the gorgeous, languorous depictions of Marie-Thérèse all over again. You’ll probably find it impossible not to before you tear yourself away from this staggering display.
All sorts – tourists, locals, art lovers of all stripes. It was noticeable that the few kids we saw seemed to be happy to be there. Perhaps the bright colours and clear lines kept them entertained.
It made me think..
I am so lucky to be in easy reach of London without the hassle and expense of actually living there. This is a show worth travelling for, and I was able to do it in a day trip with a gig actually underneath the hull of the Cutty Sark too.