LONDON — The press release for Tate Modern’s show Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy states that it will reveal “the man and the artist in his full complexity and richness … you will see him as never before”, indicating it will take a solidly biographical drive. Yet what more can be revealed about probably the most researched, written about and analyzed artist in history? Curators Achim Borchardt-Hume and Nancy Ireson inventively select one prodigiously productive year and explore it in the context of it being “pivotal” to Picasso’s career; in 1932 he had turned 50 and was losing relevance and ‘edge’ in the eyes of critics and contemporaries, and needed to step up his output in time for a retrospective that summer. Famously stating that his work may be read as a diary, he dated his pieces and they now form a conveniently ready-made narrative, here arranged chronologically roughly by months.
This rigorously biographical slant on his works is the correct angle to take, for in 1932 Picasso was fabulously wealthy, famous, and seemingly isolated from concerns of sociopolitical context; only passing mention is made in the captions of the rumblings of rising fascism in Europe, and Picasso would continue to remain in Paris during the Second World War (the “Guernica” comes later in 1937 following German bombing during the Spanish Civil War). Instead, what is abundantly apparent as the most significant aspect of his life is the person he is currently loving, as the arrival of mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter demonstrates. Kept in secret while still married to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, her nude body appears again and again, charting an erotic obsession entwined with a renewed artistic vigor. Whether or not you feel that his undisputed genius justifies this monstrous ego and self-interest, it is true that the work — unconstrained by any issues concerning the real world — reaches compelling new heights and discovers a gloriously fluent language in depicting the female nude.
Midway through this exhibition are gathered several pieces from the 1932 retrospective held in June at the Galeries Georges Petit, Paris, which similarly read almost as a family album; Picasso interspersed works from prior periods of his wife and son with new portraits of Walter, declining to provide dates to individual works. Here, a 1918 portrait of “Olga in an Armchair” shows his wife birdlike, composed and still, dolefully gazing out. The tight, controlled brushwork and subdued palette is an exercise in restraint. Contrast this with the innumerable portraits of Walter (always described as ‘Nude’ or ‘Girl’ to maintain secrecy); figures outlined by impossibly voluptuous, almost geometric curves and smooth liquid swirls, peacefully sleeping, head thrown back in abandon, or placidly submissive.
They are all characterized by a distinctive mauve hue, soft pink flesh coloring the undulating outlines, dynamic, fresh and pulsating in sensuality. Where Khokhlova was small boned, Walter was athletic and strong profiled; her high classical forehead and aquiline nose appear twice in “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” (1932), both as reclining nude and as classical bust.
The bust emerges as a revelatory new area, with half a dozen pieces in this exhibition, all exploiting these physiognomic characteristics. In 1930, Picasso bought Boisgeloup, an eighteenth-century château in Normandy which would double as both a studio in which sculpture could be made and rendezvous for clandestine meetings with Walter (reachable, the caption states, by “the chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza limousine the artist now owned”). These plasters, such as “Bust of a Woman” (1931), extend her distinct profile into bulbous, almost phallic jumbles of protruding features that complement their painterly counterparts. What an intensely profitable muse Walter turned out to be.
The trouble with the curatorial use of a ready-made diary is that it arguably invites a keener level of interpretation than in bodies of work that are not so organized. Instead of seeking patterns and trends between works of a certain period, Picasso’s emotions and moods may be tracked quite clearly here in the near daily works that chart his relationships and activities. As such, there is room for the curators to insert some of their own interpretations with varying degrees of credibility, such as that the fluid lines and preoccupation with dreams and sexuality evidence a link back to Surrealism; Ireson argues thus because he was also reading Freud and Jung, and corresponding still with Georges Bataille and André Breton. Elsewhere arguments can be less convincing and even dangerous. It is suggested that such Surrealist-linked paintings from ‘Late March to May’, in which nudes resemble the sprawling limbs of an octopus, “may” have been inspired by the work of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé, and Japanese erotica — ‘shunga’ — such as by Hokusai. A Painlevé film of an octopus plays nearby, as well as a reproduction of Hokusai’s “Dream of the Fisherman’s Woman”, featuring a carnal octopus. In curatorial terms, using “may” to argue a link is speculative and marks a slippery slope towards invention.
There is no denying that the paintings and sculptures here are astoundingly daring, inventive, and important in pushing the disciplines forward within art history. Yet they were created by a man enjoying an existence of extreme comfort primarily to redress an anxiety about his own relevance; his unhappy marriage and affair are fall-out from the artistic produce of this effort. Although the final room’s works express trauma at Walter’s illness following swimming in polluted water, he still ditched her two months after the birth of their child for the next muse, Dora Maar. Directly opposite the Picasso show is Tate Modern’s Modigliani exhibition, where yet more stylized sensual nudes spill over the walls and merchandise; another artist whose subjectification of women served his own dual artistic and virile obsessions. At the risk of sounding too ‘woke’, it feels difficult to reconcile the artistic brilliance of Picasso with the sympathetic biographical line the curators choose to take in this show. The amazing virtuosity of this singular year is matched only by an equally towering ego.
Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London) until September 9.