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Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, by Rozemin Keshvani

24/02/2019

Tate’s last exhibition on Picasso was well worth the visit, but it did raise difficult questions about the artist’s relationships with the women he professed to love…

Can there be anything left to say about 20th century giant Pablo Picasso that hasn’t already been said?

If we are to judge by Tate Modern’s latest exhibition Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, the answer is ‘absolutely’. Bringing together works and ephemera from across the globe, including major paintings, drawings, sculpture, sketch books, film and personal documentation with the richly textured in-studio photography of French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï, this exhibition traces Picasso’s development during a particularly prolific and critical moment in his life, the year 1932.

Picasso’s life during this fateful year unfolds, month by month, at times, day by day, as each room convincingly progresses a new theme, posing questions whose answers though by no means definitive offer greater insight into the mind, passions and motivations of this formidable and seemingly unrelenting 20th century giant.

The exhibition explores how conflict and passion influenced the artist against the backdrop of the increasingly ominous polity of Europe as it headed toward World War II.

Picasso, having just turned 50, felt compelled to rediscover, perhaps even defend, his creativity and to permanently entrench his position in 20th century art. 1932 it seems was pivotal to the artist, unleashing a sensuality and breadth of colour previously unexplored.

Although married to Olga Khoklova, he had begun a secret love affair with Marie-Thérèse Walters, a 17 year old woman whom he met on the streets of Paris in 1927. Bursting with a rediscovered passion yet unable to broadcast his love publicly, in 1932 we witness Picasso channelling this intensity of emotion into a rediscovery of Surrealism that found him engaging with a voluptuously expressive style and energetic palette that would rival that of Henri Matisse and directly confront head the radical grammar of his friend and fellow countryman Joan Miro. Picasso’s steadfast refusal to cow to the disturbing tendency toward fascism in Europe was evident in this flourishing and vibrant new palette. ‘I will never fit in with the followers of the prophets of Nietzsche’s superman’, Picasso declared later that year. And although no one knows for certain, it appears that the artist must have been completing a painting nearly every day, working as if in the grip of mad fever that he feared might at any moment end.

Europe was meanwhile experiencing a growing political disquiet that would eventually lead Picasso to execute his masterpiece Guernica in 1937 and would forsake the world into a devastating war two years later. While focusing on truth in art and detesting Fascism’s regulation of artistic freedom, truth in Picasso’s own personal life was becoming ever more problematic.

Pervading this exhibition are darker questions concerning Picasso’s love affair with Marie-Thérèse whose subject repeatedly appears throughout the exhibition and who is the acknowledged source of Picasso’s extraordinary creative surge.

The young Marie-Thérèse was deeply in love with Picasso, while the artist’s work and passion were tightly entangled within his secret lover’s arms. Yet, Picasso would not forsake the security of his family life nor consider divorce and his wife Olga remained secure in her role as wife and hostess, even organising their family Christmas at their Lascauxs’ home with twenty-eight guests (a number that perhaps not coincidentally was equal to the age gap between Picasso and Marie-Thérèse). Meanwhile, Marie-Thérèse was in recovery, having contracted a potentially life-threatening and protracted illness after swimming in the polluted river Marne. Tormented by Marie-Thérèse’s uncertain convalescence, Picasso’s work assumes a deepened quality, his language at times foreboding. His works lose their vivacity and instead take suffering, violence, and even rape as their subjects, while the artist begins a series in ink depicting the Crucifixion with a simplified yet unsettling brutality reminiscent in Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War series executed some hundred years previous.

Strangely absent from this story is the fate of Marie-Thérèse. What happened to this woman whose passion aroused in Picasso a superlative creativity throughout 1932? Does it matter? Despite giving birth to their daughter Maya in 1935, Picasso would never marry Marie-Thérèse. Indeed, he would later begin a short but passionate affair with the artist and photographer, Dora Maar, and then later father two more children with Françoise Gilot. Despite remaining loyal to Picasso all her life, Marie-Thérèse’s story ends in tragedy in 1977, only four years after Picasso’s death, when she took her own life.

What price art and why? Is tragedy the necessary precondition that Picasso unassailably sought to repeat throughout his life? Or is life itself replete with a tragedy, the truth of which the artist may hope to convey? What is certain is that love and tragedy were seminal to the breadth and development in Picasso’s work during this period.

This is an intense exhibition that explores emotion, both joyful and tragic, with something for everyone. A volatile journey into a single pivotal year in the life of this most extraordinary artist, it gives a deeper appreciation into the conflicted lexicon of a man whose journey has mapped that of 20th century art and given us a legacy that will inspire, confound and challenge for generations to come.

Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy was jointly curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Laurence Madeline, Nancy Ireson and Virginie Perdrisot-Cassen for Tate Modern and closed on 9 September 2018