By January 1932, Picasso’s fame was already well-established, but he was also an artist at a crossroads. 1931 had seen the great man turn fifty, but it had also seen increasing whispers about whether he was more an artist of the past rather than one to set the standard for the future. His Blue, Rose and Cubist periods had all been and gone, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – a painting widely heralded to be the start of ‘modern art’ – was already twenty-five years old.
Add to that, his personal life was also in a bit of a state with the man trying to balance family life with his wife, Olga, and their son, with his passionate affair with his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It all seemed as if it was very likely that Picasso’s best days were behind him.
However, what happened in 1932 was transformative, both for Picasso and for art. The year was so pivotal that it has become known as his ‘year of wonders,’ his paintings reaching new levels of sensuality and inventiveness – blending surrealism with erotic, intimate, sensual nudes – and his output at an extraordinary level.
But it was also a year that saw the start of serious political shifts in Europe, with the Great Depression, mass unemployment and the rise of fascism signalling that darker days lay ahead. And this shift also impacted Picasso, his work tilting to more traumatic themes, to darker thoughts, as the year ended, laying the groundwork for masterpieces that were yet to come.
And so it is 1932, this year of shifts and this year of discovery, that is the framework of thismighty exhibition. More than 100 remarkable paintings, sculptures and works on paper fill the Tate’s galleries, almost all from this single year, and the result is a wondrous exhibition that demonstrates not just the man’s skill and mastery of colour, but his almost insatiable thirst for innovation and willingness to challenge himself.
The year begins with love. The artworks are displayed in the order they were made and it’s the bright palettes and sensual nudes that draw you through the first few galleries.
There’s such a potent sexuality to the firm, curved outlines of Picasso’s naked women – all of whom are like to be based on Marie-Thérèse. Picasso’s marks and lines are so firm, so deliberate, and the flesh within them so smooth. And there is intimacy too. These are paintings from a hot-blooded heterosexual male, yes, but they are also paintings from a man infatuated by his muse.
An intriguing development comes through Picasso’s fascination with Hokusai and Japanese erotica – shunga – and, in particular, Hokusai’s woodblock print, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which was a deeply erotic artwork where a Japanese woman is being lasciviously devoured by an octopus, its tentacles grappling all over her, its suction fixed deep into her private parts.
Picasso takes this theme of the octopus and brings it into his nudes. Only here, the woman is the octopus. Picasso shapes her limbs into tentacles, raised suction cups can be made out on the edges of some of these limbs… It’s an interesting twist, suggesting the woman is either capable of satiating herself, or that it is she that can draw in and devour her lover, rather than the other way around. But whichever it is, these are powerful female nudes, more confident than submissive (and make an interesting counterpoint to the hard lines and fierce gaze of the more sharp-angled Modigliani nudes in the exhibition next door).
Yet as the year progresses, and as you pass through the galleries, the colour seems to drain away and darker subject matter emerges…
In September of 1932, Picasso started on a series of drawings based on Grunewald’s Crucifixion, or the Isenheim Altarpiece, that he saw in situ in Alsace that month. It was an artwork that had interested and influenced him throughout his life, but here the drawings are not just stripped of colour, unlike Picasso’s previous works on this subject (as well as his works from earlier in the year), but their tone is also far darker.
These drawings flow like a series, with the original scene of Christ’s body as a collection of bright white bones nailed to the cross being slowly transformed into a scene of almost complete darkness, only the bare outlines of the cross and a body emerging from a sea of black.
The sense of trauma and gathering clouds continued after that too.
Picasso’s wife had had enough of playing second fiddle to her husband’s mistress and duly moved out, taking their son with them. Add to that, Marie-Therese had a swimming incident that saw her contract a serious viral infection after swimming in a sewage-contaminated river. The effect on her was so severe that she lost almost all of the blonde in her hair for it never to return.
Biographers have argued that Picasso’s emotional attachment to women was always affected by the death of his childhood sister from diphtheria, that he felt condemned to always cause women pain.
Such intense feelings, kicked off again by the accident that befell his lover and the difficulties with Olga, may account for the anguish in the final collection of works in 1932, those centred around the rescue of a drowning woman. In these beautiful paintings, all the strong curved lines remain, as do their thick black outlines, yet the scenes are grave and distressed, the skin now not pale and luminous, but deathly pale.
This immense exhibition ends with Picasso’s first painting of 1933. It remains the distressed scene of a lover rescuing his drowned women, only here all sense of tactile softness has been removed. The figures are now hard and angular, almost all traces of them as human now removed, Instead, they seem to be contorted figures of iron or metal, rising from the murky, dirty sea into a grey sky, jagged and tortured.
These figures of pain are a full 180 degrees from the lovers’ idyll of January 1932, but it marks yet another development in the man’s style and exploration of form and emotion, and set him on the next stage of his output, one that would result in (yet another) one of the greatest of paintings.
It is remarkable that Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy is the Tate Modern’s first ever solo exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s works, but they have marked this grand occasion with one of their most ambitious shows in its history. We are so familiar with the man’s works – his style (whichever one it is that day) is instantly recognisable – that it seems that there is no show that can shed new light on to the man’s many talents, yet this exhibition achieves just that. Revealing, insightful and one mightily impressive show.
Tate Modern, London, to 9 September, 2018
Admission: £22 without donation (concessions available).
1 The Dream, 1932, Private Collection.
2 Nude in a Black Armchair, 1932, Private Collection, USA
3 Reclining Nude, 1932. Private Collection.
4 The Crucifixion, 1932. Musée national Picasso-Paris.
5 The Rescue, 1932. Fondation Beyeler. Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Bayeler.