Picasso in 1932 at Tate Modern

Picasso has not been one of my favourite artists.  The distorted figures that I saw in pictures of his pictures put me off.  However, I went to the Tate Modern The EY Exhibition Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy with an open mind.  I returned with a much greater appreciation of Picasso’s skill at painting and of his work.

The exhibition continues in the Eyal Ofer Galleries on the third floor of the Boiler Room in Tate Modern (the building nearer the river) until 9 September 2018.  To find out more about it, click here.

The conceit of the exhibition is that it covers one year in Picasso’s life, 1932.  We are told that “1932 was an intensely creative period in the life of the 20th century’s most influential artist.”  The rooms are organised in chronological order for the most part and it is striking just how many paintings and other artworks Picasso created in a year.  He said, “I paint the way some people write an autobiography. The paintings, finished or not, are the pages from my diary.”

The curators “cheat” a little in that they include works from before and after 1932 but that is partly to show the contrast and how Picasso changed through the years.  For example, they tell us that in the 1920s Picasso used black & white and a limited palette and started to use a lot of colour in the 1930s and that he sculpted a lot in 1931 but we can see that he painted in 1932.  The other (good) excuse for cheating is his Retrospective exhibition, which he organised in the Northern hemisphere’s summer months.  This included older work and so the central room of the current exhibition provides examples of his Blue Period and cubism and realistic family portraiture.

Picasso started the year in Paris, painting many different versions of a woman sitting in a chair, indeed almost swallowed by the chair.  In them, he experiments with different styles – cubism and surrealism.  The women in them have dark hair or, increasingly, blond hair.  They are deemed to show his inner turmoil about the two women in his life: his wife, Olga who has dark hair, and his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter who has blond hair.  They are also full of symbolism of sexuality, some more obvious than others.  I saw the symbolism only after it was pointed out to me but I can’t say I read all these meanings into the works without help.

However, I did feel discomfort and maybe even disgust when viewing Le Repos from January 1932 (there’s another later one so don’t confuse it!  This one was sold by Christies in New York in 2006 for US$34m!  See here for a picture.)  Then I felt comforted and affection when looking at Le Rêve, painted in the same month. You can see the latter here and it is the lead image in most of the advertising for the exhibition.

Le Repos (Rest in French) seems ironic since there seems little rest in the picture.  It shows a dark-haired figure sitting in a chair but grotesquely distorted with boobs flying and a screaming mouth.  The background, though roughly painted with thick brush-strokes, is more realistic with a dark patterned floor and walls.  The impression is dehumanised and I can’t imagine Olga was too pleased with the painting, if or when she saw it.  It has lots of energy though, just unpleasant energy.

Le Rêve (The Dream in French) provides a contrast.  The figure of the woman, while not entirely realistic, is much more so.  Cradled in a red chair, her head is laid back in sleep.  The paint is smooth, applied with a palette knife, apparently.  The colours are soft and gentle.  Her hair is blond.  (This whole saga of dark hair and blond hair reminded me of Tosca, jealous when she sees Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene, based on an aristocrat he has seen come to pray.  He tells Tosca he loves only her but, after all his protestations, her last words on exiting the scene are: “Ma falla gli occhi neri!” (But make the eyes black!).  I wondered whether Olga ever asked Pablo to make the hair dark.

Another work on display is Girl before a Mirror, 14 March 1932.  There’s a good image and short description here on the site of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  This is an acknowledged masterpiece.  It reminded me of stained glass windows.  I appreciated the quality of the painting and recognised the voluptuousness of the woman (her hair is blond) but it didn’t speak to me of any of the ideas that are suggested in the guides.

As well as all of the large-scale paintings, there are some enchanting smaller pieces.  Amongst those, I particularly liked the views of Boisgeloup, his Normandy country house.  They are small and they are almost sketched, sometimes with cubist portrayal of the buildings.  The ones painted at the end of March 1932 show rain and in May there is also a rainbow.  They are not quite realistic but they are figurative and I think, all in all, this is my preference still.

In the same room, Room 5, there are some other paintings showing distortion of the human shape again.  They look like octopuses and are quite disturbing.  There is also a film, made in 1928, of octopuses, just to highlight the similarity.  The film disturbed me further, in large part because these octopuses are scurrying over land.  Shiver!

The current exhibition’s recreation of a little of the 1932 Retrospective was good.  It had examples of earlier work and styles, which highlight just how versatile Picasso was.  I really loved Girl in a Chemise ca 1905.  It has very little in the way of background but you can see his ability to paint realistic faces.  I thought this was lovely and peaceful which is slightly different from the general interpretation of melancholy and pain, arising from the choice of blue paint.  See what you think here.

There are a series of family portraits including Olga in an Armchair from 1917 or 1918.  It showed a beautiful form and details of the fabric even though the background is rough and unfinished.  It is a lovely portrait of his first wife around the time he married her.   See it here.

Obviously, there are far more works in the exhibition and I did find some of the more cubist or surreal works were interesting and attractive in different ways.  What I appreciate is that Picasso is almost always figurative.  He may use modern, distorting techniques, rather than realistic portrayals of people and objects, but he is providing more information about the subject matter or about the psychology of the subject matter.  I did not always see what the curators said I should see but I start to enjoy the work more.

The work of the last quarter of 1932 is much darker.  There are a series of works exploring the crucifixion and, indeed, the familiar shape of the crucifix.  Several of the studies are stripped down to be only bones on a cross.  In amongst all these darker pieces was a little collage, using a real leaf and a butterfly captured forever on the little canvass.  That was a quirky, witty piece.

I thought that the audio guide was very good and worth the extra pounds on top of the entrance fee.  It has not only the curators, Achim Borchardt-Hume and Nancy Ireson, talking about the work and its place in Picasso’s life but also paintings conservator Annette King and cultural historian Andrew Hussey.  Annette King speaks about several of the works, pointing out the techniques and materials used.  Andrew Hussey provides the social and political context, e.g. how there was unrest in France and the growing influence of the right across Europe.

The curators claim that through the more than 100 paintings, sculptures and drawings, mixed with family photographs and rare glimpses into his personal life that the exhibition gives, “the myths around Picasso are stripped away to reveal the man and the artist in his full complexity and richness.  You will see him as never before.”

In some ways, this was easy to achieve for me in that I’ve not really seen Picasso much before.  But, certainly, leaving the gallery I knew a lot more about his life, his apartment in Paris and his country house in Normandy and the chauffeur-driven car that shuttled him between the two; his dark-haired wife and his blond-haired mistress; and his habit of painting or sculpting or making art every day, as a response to his life, as a diary.  I think therefore the curatorial claims can be said to be met.


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