If you’ve ever doubted the sheer scale of Picasso’s productivity, a visit to the Tate Modern’s latest exhibition will convince you of the artist’s enormous capacity for work. Dedicated to a single year of Picasso’s life, the rooms of the gallery thrum with over one hundred works – paintings, sculpture, and works on paper – created in and around 1932. This period was a ‘make-or-break’ one for Picasso, as the gallery notes explain. He had turned fifty in 1931 and was preparing his first major retrospective for June 1932, with the aim of silencing critics who believed that he was no longer ‘contemporary’. In his personal life, his marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, who had been his principal model for much of his work in preceding decades, faced competition from the artist’s secret relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, almost thirty years his junior. In a wider sense, the early 1930s were troubled times, with economic depression and the steady rise of totalitarian regimes.
Perhaps these personal and political upheavals account for the strange mix of pleasure and horror in some of Picasso’s works from this period. Nonetheless, the first room of the gallery contains works tipped in the direction of sensual enjoyment, such as Woman in a Red Armchair. Here, the woman’s face has been replaced with the shape of a heart, in a ‘painterly dream’ of Walter, the gallery notes suggest. Her hands, meanwhile, are clasped and pointing suggestively downwards, in a motif that Picasso uses elsewhere to signify erotic energy. Walter appears again in Seated Woman by a Window, with its gorgeous play of deep red and pistachio green colouring, her serene and statuesque face gesturing towards Picasso’s later experimentation with sculpture. Picasso’s interest in both eroticism and sculpture converge in The Sculptor. The colours of the painting are striking: lilac glances off light blue, pale yellow lies against fire engine red, and a satisfying deep green floor provides a visual echo to the verdant hair of the sculpted woman. This sculpted woman appears to be watching the artist, whose face is doubled, one side a grey moon, the other side a luminous sun. Many of the painting’s shapes are curvacious, from the sculpture on a plinth in between the two figures, whose buttocks are placed firmly in the middle of the painting, to the artist’s round toes. Sweeping lines, like curtains, draw the viewer’s eyes down to the wooden floor, where the lines of the boards direct the eyes back up towards another round shape: the artist’s phallus, tucked between pistachio and violet legs.
Creativity and eroticism, for Picasso, then, go hand and hand. A second room, containing work from January and February of 1932, focuses on women in armchairs, this time drawing together sex and death. ‘When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair, it’s old age and death, isn’t it?’, Picasso queried. It might seem odd, given this question, that the majority of the women depicted look serene, resonating health and vitality. As in earlier works, there are strong references to sexuality. Rather than hands tilting downwards, Reading depicts a woman holding a book angled to suggest her sex, cradled by thick lilac arms. The Yellow Belt goes further, showing a woman with a phallic nose pointing up into the air. Above her belt, a long protrusion stems from two globular shapes, supposedly her breasts; the overall arrangement, however, is decidedly phallic, while the triangular red opening in her clothing seems equally suggestive. The colour red is also given a prominent position in The Dream. As in The Yellow Belt, the phallus becomes part of the woman’s face, here yet more suggestively. Traces of the woman’s red lipstick, or lips, at its base are suggestive of touch, and the woman sleeps contentedly with her head on one shoulder, ‘in a state of abandon, perhaps after sex’, the gallery notes propose.
Rest is much less restful. ‘The distorted female figure here is clearly indebted to surrealism’, assert the notes by the picture, which also explain that, in biographical readings of Picasso’s work, the painting has been associated with the difficulties in his marriage to Olga. In the painting, the woman flings octopus-like arms around her head, limbs circling her body in a wheel of rainbow colour. One of her breasts is lemon-yellow, fruit-like, and her hair is in rigid black spikes suggestive of pain. The hair reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s haunting lines from The Waste Land, published a decade before Picasso’s painting: ‘A woman drew her long black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings’. The woman’s tilted face, meanwhile, is reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, while the mouth lined with teeth, if not a nod to the ‘vagina dentata’ folk story, is certainly suggestive of fear and discomfort. The woman alo appears to be spinning around her anus, which is placed at the centre of the painting, leading Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s dealer since 1918, to decline to show certain of the artist’s paintings. He commented: ‘No, I refuse to have any arse-holes in my gallery’.
Early March was a particularly creative time for Picasso, and in just twelve days he painted a series of large canvases, including Still Life with Tulips. The latter painting features a wild bursting out of flowers pointing to a white sculpted face, and a tablecloth that is almost shockingly erotic in its blueness. The Mirror is a more obviously sensual painting, showing a sleeping woman reflected in a mirror. Though it is her shoulders that are reflected, the forms are more reminiscent of buttocks, as if the mirror is revealing a dream of a body, or a memory, rather than what is before it. The most immediately striking image in the room, however, is Girl Before a Mirror, painted two days later. The picture vibrates with intense colour and patterning, its thick black outlines contrasting to swatches of yellow and sweeps of orange.
In late March, Picasso turned to ‘the darker realms of the unconscious’, featuring more abstract nudes, and continued to investigate how figurative painting could be made modern. Inspired by Japanese erotica, the exhibition argues that Picasso melded images of women and sea creatures, producing works such as Reclining Nude, where a woman with fin-like limbs is flung against a blue background. (If you squint, the woman almost appears to be an octopus, her breasts transformed into eyes.) To support this idea, an astonishing film of the life cycle of an octopus, directed by Jean Painlevé in 1928, is screened onto one of the gallery walls, and viewers can watch as the octopus silkily, eerily, moves across land. Is all this woman-as-sea-creature indicative of desire or fear? Possibly the latter. A later section of the gallery is devoted to images inspired by drowning, perhaps prompted by Walter’s serious illness after swimming in the sewage-infested river Marne. Picasso himself could not swim.
A further room shows how Picasso ordered his 1932 retrospective, jumbling together works of different periods to highlight his contemporaneity. Paintings from 1932 were dispersed with works celebrating the artist’s family, and it feels odd to see some of these more naturalistic paintings after the fierce colours and fluid shapes of the 1932 works. Other rooms show Picasso’s charcoal drawings, beach studies, and ink drawings of the crucifixion, but, leaving the gallery, it is the paintings inspired by Walter that continue to pulse in the mind.
PICASSO 1932 – LOVE, FAME, TRAGEDY is showing at The Tate Modern until September 9th 2018. More info and book tickets here.
By Suzannah V. Evans