Tung Recommends: Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame and Tragedy at Tate Modern

Image: Pablo Picasso - Woman on the Beach (Nu sur la plage), 1932, Oil paint on canvas 330 x 400 mm, The Penrose Collection/Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2017

As I set off for the Tate Modern to see Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy, I asked myself a question: am I even a Picasso fan? Maybe not, I conclude. At least not in the cubism-til-I-die, owns-prints-of-all-the-drawings type of way. But still, I’m a human being who appreciates that Picasso is to art what Hovis is to the bread industry — an inescapable presence — and therefore, sophisticated carbohydrates aside, a Picasso retrospective is automatically a ‘must see.’ What’s interesting about this particular show is that it isn’t really a retrospective at all; it’s far from being a collection of greatest hits. Instead, it’s a snapshot of a moment in time and as a result it gives an unusual insight into Picasso’s specific brand of strangeness and self-involvement.

In 1932, at the age of 50, Picasso was in an unhappy marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and had begun an affair with a woman much younger than himself, Marie-Thérèse Walter. She is the overwhelming subject of Picasso’s work, the ‘Love’ referred to in the exhibition’s title. Clearly, the affair was kept secret from his wife for as long as possible. the titles of the works are vague, never mentioning Walter by name, and her face is made unidentifiable in pieces like Woman In A Red Armchair in which she’s rendered with a heart for a head, and in some of the more unrefined monumental sculptures. 

It’s clear, however, that almost all of these works are of the same woman. They all have the same straight Roman nose, the accompanying Tate blurb makes much of its distinctive size and shape. We read and hear much about her facial features, her sporty form, her voluptuous curves, and very little else. I detected a little shade on the recording which describes Walter as not having moved in the same ‘intellectual circles’ as Picasso. 

What glimmer of biographical insight we do get in the final galleries is quickly undermined. A great number of paintings of the rescue of a drowning woman are most probably, says the Tate, a reaction to Walter’s having become dangerously ill after swimming in contaminated water. But even here the emphasis is on Picasso’s fear of water rather than Walter’s love of it. A sense pervades that Walter is little more than a cipher for Picasso’s deepest desires and fears. Picasso’s paintings feature her, but they don’t seem really to be about her. Instead, it’s all about him. 

As far as relationships go, the key one in this exhibition seems not to be that between Picasso and Walter but between Picasso and his own fame. By 1932, he had been exhibited and collected all over the world and was by now extremely wealthy. The rise of cubism was a double-edged sword; it had catapulted Picasso to celebrity status, and with it came immense pressure to continually create exciting and radical work, often in direct competition with his contemporaries. Picasso became acutely aware that without Walter there was no art and without the art, Picasso could no longer secure his future success. 

With an impending retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris due to take place in June 1932; the fear of being left in the wake of his rivals consumed him. It is this vulnerability that makes this exhibition so compelling. I have to praise the Tate for capturing such grounding realism, showing Picasso’s human side, a side that we mere mortals can actually relate to. As Will Gompertz points out in his review of the exhibition for the BBC, “one of the best things about Tate Modern's Picasso exhibition is it contains some terrible art.” He’s not wrong, and it’s fun to revel in the rubbish.

But Picasso was aware it wasn’t all brilliant. In room three, an exploration of his chateau Boisgeloup, lie a number of his more experimental sculptures accompanied by a series of photographs by French Hungarian photographer Brassaï. Taken at the end of 1932 these photos are of unfinished works, hidden in a converted stable, works that Picasso had no intention of displaying. An entire room is dedicated to displays of ripped pages from his sketchbooks. It’s hard for us to comprehend the intimacy and sanctity of an artist’s studio, but it’s interesting to consider whether Picasso would have actually enjoyed the airing of this kind of dirty laundry. It’s well documented that although Picasso was keen to be a public figure, the press and intrusion of fame left a nasty taste in his mouth.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the studies of the crucifixion inspired by Matthias Grünewald’s Insenheim Alterpiece or the charcoal drawings on canvas, but I appreciate their inclusion in terms of showing us what a dense period of activity and experimentation this was for Picasso. I was quickly reminded of the Sigmar Polke retrospective from a couple of years ago —  a conveyer belt of zany ideas, Polke explored every medium possible, no stone was unturned and the result was a comprehensive and extensive exploration of Polke’s mind. So too is this Picasso exhibition; Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame and Tragedy gives a detailed, abundant and at points overwhelming insight into one very specific point in Pablo Picasso’s life. This exhibition is a preliminary sketch to a later work, a first draft of a screenplay to a later Picasso movie; it's a movie that could be titled Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter), 1937.

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