Picasso’s output was so vast and so diverse that exhibition organizers tend to focus on just one aspect of his work. His portraits, for example, were covered in a show at the NPG in 2016 and last year’s ‘Minotaurs and Matadors’ at Gagosian was about his fascination with bullfighting. Now Tate Modern – in what, astonishingly, is its first stand-alone Picasso show – has gone one better by focussing on just a single year of his artistic production. The result is the best exhibition that I’ve seen anywhere in London since the same gallery’s ‘Henri Matisse: the Cutouts’ four years ago.
There are good reasons for choosing 1932 as Picasso’s ‘year of wonders’. Just turned fifty and approaching the summit of his career, success had brought him fame and riches, including a château in Normandy and a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza. The highlight of the year was a Paris retrospective – rare for living artists in those days – and in September there was another major show in Zurich. The Zurich exhibition was notable for an excoriating review by C. G. Jung, who wrote that ‘the pictures immediately reveal their alienation from feeling’ and even suggested that Picasso might be psychotic.
Meanwhile, Picasso’s private life was as complicated as ever. His fourteen-year marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhova was more or less on the rocks. Unbeknownst to Olga he had started an affair with a girl nearly thirty years his junior, Marie-Thérèse Walter.
As always with Picasso art mirrored life, and the recurring theme of the show, organised over ten rooms, is the artist’s infatuation with his young mistress. Picasso’s libido was matched only by his phenomenal work rate: after putting in a full day, followed by a leisurely dinner, he would often go back to the studio for another four or five hours. Over the first six months of the year he painted some of the most erotically-charged paintings in the history of art: ‘Sleep’, ‘The Dream’ and the iconic ‘Girl before a Mirror’ from the Met in New York.
Picasso’s inspiration was clear enough, though what Olga thought of it all is anyone’s guess. Olga was a svelte brunette, Marie-Thérèse a buxom blonde; on the evidence of the paintings alone, how could Olga not have suspected that something was going on? Yet she only found out in 1935, when Marie-Thérèse became pregnant.
Picasso being Picasso, though, there’s a flip side to this coin, and as the exhibition goes on it gets darker and darker. In September and October he suddenly changed tack and produced a series of tortuous drawings inspired by the crucifixion scene in Matthias Grünewald’s mighty Isenheim Altarpiece at Colmar. And what is one to make of the canvases and etchings that Picasso produced at the very end of the year, showing women either succumbing to sexual violence or drowning while out bathing? It’s been suggested that the drowning motif may have been triggered when Marie-Thérèse contracted a serious viral infection while swimming in the polluted river Marne. In any case, as the exhibition points out, some of the paintings in the last room, such as ‘The Rescue’ from early 1933, foreshadow the angst-ridden themes of ‘Guernica’ four years later. Or maybe Jung was on to something.