Picasso’s ‘Year of Wonders’ at Tate Modern

Picasso’s output was so vast and so diverse that exhibitions invariably cover just one aspect of his work. In 2016, for example, the National Portrait Gallery covered his portraits, while more recently ‘Minotaurs and Matadors’ at the Gagosian Gallery dealt with his fascination with bullfighting. Now Tate Modern – in what, astonishingly, is its first solo Picasso show – has gone one better by concentrating on a single year of his artistic production. The result is the best art exhibition that I’ve seen 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: he bought a château in Normandy and went round in a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza. In June there was a retrospective of his work in Paris – rare for living artists in those days – and in September another major show in Zurich. The Zurich exhibition was notable for an excoriating review by C. G. Jung, who concluded that ‘the pictures immediately reveal their alienation from feeling’, suggesting that Picasso might be psychotic.

Picasso’s private life, meanwhile, was as complicated as ever. By now his marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhova was more or less on the rocks, and unbeknownst to Olga he had started an affair with a girl nearly thirty years his junior, Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Pablo Picasso Nude Woman in a Red Armchair [Femme Nue dans un fauteuil rouge] 1932 Oil Pain on Canvas 1299 x 972 mm Tate. Purchased 1953. (c) Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018
 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. In 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, although what Olga thought of it all is anyone’s guess. Olga was a svelte brunette, Marie-Thérèse a buxom blonde; so 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.

Pablo Picasso The Crucifixion [La crucifixion] 1932 Ink on paper 345 x 505 mm Musée National Picasso (c) Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Picasso being Picasso, there was 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.


Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy: until 9 September 2018

Pablo Picasso Girl before a Mirror [Jeune fille devant un miroir] 1932 Oil paint on canvas 1623 x 1302 mm The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Solomon Guggenheim 1937 (c) Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

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