LOVE, FAME, TRAGEDY
The year is 1932, a leap year. The United States and the United Kingdom are suffering from the Great Depression. Europe is in the grip of economic depression and mass unemployment. National Socialism is on the rise in Germany and political developments in France are adding to the growing tension. Picasso is 50 years old and preparing for his first major retrospective to be held in June at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris. This year could either make him or break him.
Dubbed his “year of wonders”, the Tate Modern has chosen to examine the life and works of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) during 1932. Married to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, although having an affair for the much younger, 22-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso was living the life of a well-to-do bourgeoisie in France, wearing tailored suits and owning a personal chauffeur-driven car. However, political and economic problems throughout the world remained persistently in the background, a constant premonition of tragedies to befall both the artist and the rest of the world.
“The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary.”
Now considered the Father of Modern Art, Picasso came from more humble origins. Born Pablo Ruiz Picasso on 25th October 1881 in Malaga, Spain, he developed his love of art from his father who taught at the Escuela Provincial de Bellas Artes. A young prodigy, Picasso purchased his own studio in Barcelona at the age of 16, however, he spent the majority of his time there in poverty.
Picasso’s move to Paris at the turn of the century was a blessing for both his artwork and his financial situation. His collaboration with the French painter Georges Braque (1882-1963) led to their invention of Cubism, a revolutionary new artistic approach. At the same time, Picasso met Olga Khokhlova (1891-1955) who he married in 1918, and celebrated the birth of their son, Paulo (1921-75), three years later.
As Picasso’s wealth and reputation excelled, his family life suffered. By 1932, his marriage was under considerable strain, not helped by his clandestine affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-77). Despite the situation with his personal relationships, Picasso was determined to compete creatively with his contemporaries, working hard to facilitate his own retrospective.
“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”
The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 opens with one of Picasso’s final paintings of 1931. Woman with Dagger is an example of the style Picasso was known for at this period of time. The Surrealist technique reduces the image to a series of lines and colours, morphing into strange shapes. This painting shows a woman stabbing her sexual rival to death, however, the bodies are so distorted, it is difficult to make out who is who.
Being the first painting of the exhibition, Woman with Dagger gives an inaccurate precedent of the works to come. As visitors will note as they walk through the following rooms, Picasso focused heavily on portraits, particularly of women, often seated in an armchair. Judging from the date and frequency of these paintings, the sitter is likely to be Picasso’s lover, Marie-Thérèse, however, the artist admitted himself that he rarely painted from life, preferring to use his imagination or memories of dreams.
Supposedly, the armchair in Picasso’s paintings symbolises death. Whilst the sitter is young, painted with bright, vibrant colours, the muted, darker background and chair represent the constraints of life. Often, the model and chair amalgamate, suggesting that the woman is tied to the chair, tied to fate, tied to inevitable death.
A typical feature in Picasso’s portraits is the dual profile of the face showing half from the side and half face on. Although many art critics have their own theories, commentators at the Tate have suggested this evokes a form of sexual tension. The face is half woman, the way she sees herself, and half male, or the way a lover or sexual predator may view her. Glancing at a Picasso, it is easy to miss these sexual references, however, those who opt for an audio guide at the beginning of the exhibition, soon get all the details pointed out to them.
Despite always working in a surrealist-like manner by distorting the female body, Picasso occasionally experimented with the way he treated the painting. In Woman in a Red Armchair, Picasso converts his flat, colourful shapes into three-dimensional abstract forms, comparable to a sculpture. As well as painting, Picasso turned his hand to sculpting, however, if this painting were to be produced in clay, cement or such like, it would immediately fall apart.
Prior to 1932, Picasso experimented with unorthodox methods of sculpting whilst at his 18th-century château in Normandy. During this time he produced a number of busts of a woman – again, likely to be Marie-Thérèse – in a similar fashion to his painted versions. The bulging, distended shape of the face has been replicated in cement, creating a dual profile that changes its overall appearance depending on what angle it is viewed from. Seen from the side, the bust looks like a typical face (despite the oversized nose), however, from the front, the facial features are terribly out of proportion. A series of photographs of a selection of Picasso’s sculptures are on display taken by the French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï (1899-1984).
Throughout the first half of 1932, Picasso continued to focus on his portraits of women, often depicting them in the nude. The surreal, abstract quality of his work prevents the paintings from becoming overly provocative, just as the original reclining nudes of the Renaissance-era were not unduly sexualised. By taking a traditional subject and reproducing it in a contemporary style, Picasso was endeavouring to prove that figurative painting could be modern.
Midway through the exhibition, a room is devoted to Picasso’s retrospective held at the Galerie Georges Petit. Apart from a few exceptions, it was rare for living artists to have retrospectives. They tended to be a summary of the life of the artist, therefore, Picasso included a range of his works from different times of his life. In order to obscure his artistic development, Picasso did not hang works in a chronological order, interspersing recent paintings with those produced many years before. Nonetheless, critics could group some together due to the regular appearance of Marie-Thérèse Walter and portraits of his young son were easily dated to when he was a child.
The paintings of Picasso’s family: Olga, Paulo and himself, may surprise many viewers on account of their “normality”. Before Picasso developed Cubism and dabbled with Surrealism, he produced many realistic paintings. Although the portraits do not look finished, they show the broad talent of Picasso in terms of painting. Being able to produce realistic likenesses but choosing not to says a lot about what Picasso wanted to achieve through his artwork. He wanted his work to be looked at and thought about, concealing subliminal messages within the twists and turns of the abstract body parts.
“I feel like I am witnessing a retrospective vision of myself ten years after my death.”
Despite the lengths Picasso went to facilitate his own retrospective, declining offers of help from prestigious organisations such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Picasso refused to attend the actual show – allegedly, he went to the cinema instead! Nevertheless, he achieved what he set out to do and was satisfied, unlike the gallery, which due to economic and political turmoil, closed its doors for good the following year.
Once Picasso’s exhibition was out of the way, the artist felt less pressure to produce masterpieces. His canvases got smaller and the treatment of his paintbrushes more fluid and less careful. One example is Nude Woman in a Red Armchair painted in July 1932, where the model – Marie-Thérèse Walter – is a soft, rotund figure, without the harsh outlines of older paintings. The blues and purples give the woman a dream-like quality, suggesting Picasso had strong feelings of love towards her, which stands in stark contrast to the dark background tones.
Throughout 1932, Picasso also produced a number of charcoal drawings. Although they look like unfinished studies, they are intended to be finished works in their own right. The subject matter, for instance, a sleeping woman, is typical of Picasso, however, he concentrated on line-drawing rather than colour.
These charcoal drawings on canvas, despite being finished pieces, are not dissimilar to what can be found in Picasso’s sketchbooks. Picasso rarely created preparatory studies, however, he liked to practice his drawing skills by making a rapid succession of sketches. These give some indication of the starting points of a painting, how the shapes were built up to resemble people and other elements. For actual artworks, Picasso would draw onto the canvas before filling in the resulting shapes with colour.
With the summer over, Picasso’s subject matter changed drastically. Motivated by classical themes, religious and secular, he began to paint different scenes, particularly focusing on the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Picasso produced a large number of black and white studies, experimenting with shapes, both two- and three-dimensional, and line work to create a representation of Christ on the Cross. He was particularly inspired by the Isenheim Altarpiece produced in c1521 by Matthias Grünewald. This influence is evident in Picasso’s versions, the figures being situated in the same places, despite the abstract nature of the studies.
During these experimental months, Picasso also experimented with forms of collages. These involved the use of found objects, both natural and manmade, which were layered together to create a picture. Composition with Butterfly contains a dried leaf, the remains of a real butterfly, and string, manipulated to produce the shape of a human being.
As 1932 drew to a close, Picasso’s subject matter got significantly darker. The theme of being rescued from death-by-drowning became Picasso’s focus. The Rescue, the final painting of the year, shows a woman being saved either by another woman or by a bird. The meaning is not entirely clear, which leaves viewers guessing and coming up with their own theories.
The colours are not as bright as works from the beginning of the year and the paint is applied in a rushed, distressed manner, which may suggest more about the artist’s frame of mind rather than the intention of the painting. From September onwards, Picasso rapidly changed styles and subject matter, giving the impression he was restless and possibly suffering from some kind of anguish.
As the strapline for the exhibition states, Picasso’s year consisted of three major themes: love, fame and tragedy. The first half of the year, Picasso was enjoying his clandestine affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, which led on to his retrospective exhibition. Achieving fame and recognition, Picasso was at the height of his career, successful and wealthy. Unfortunately, the final quarter of 1932 found Picasso in a different state of mind, although it is impossible without knowing the man to pinpoint the exact reason for this. It did, however, present a forbidding premonition of events to come.
By 1932, Picasso’s marriage to Olga was already under strain, however, the illegitimate birth of his daughter Maya with Marie-Thérèse ended things for good. Olga moved to the south of France, taking son Paulo with her; an event that Picasso described as the worst period of his life.
At the same time, the world was not fairing any better. In January 1933, Hitler became German Chancellor, Italy was under fascist dictatorship and Picasso’s home country Spain was submerged in a civil war. Six years later, the entire world was at war and Picasso’s successful year, his “year of wonders”, was a distant memory.
Picasso 1932 is an exhibition suitable for all. Although the subject matter of many paintings may not seem appropriate for youngsters, the abstract forms hide the sexual meanings from innocent minds. The exhibition is popular with school parties who come to look at the shapes and colours of Picasso’s works, whereas adult visitors can study the paintings in more detail with the aid of an optional audioguide (£4.50) and a pocket-sized booklet.
The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 organised by Tate Modern in collaboration with Musée national Picasso-Paris costs £22 entry per person or free for those in possession of a membership card. Under 18s can visit for £5 and younger children under the age of 12 may enter for free. This exhibition will remain open to the public until 9th September 2018.