Review: Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy at the Tate Modern

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The Tate Modern’s PR team write that the ‘myths around Picasso will be stripped away to reveal the man and the artist in his full complexity and richness. You will see him as never before.’

And yet, you don’t see so much of Picasso ‘stripped away’ than his young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was only 17 when she met Picasso, then 46. In 1932, Picasso had just turned 50. He was preparing for his first major retrospective. He wasn't, however, going to stop and look back. Indeed, his productivity was astonishing; fuelled, in part, by his affair with Marie-Thérèse. For Aistè Ga, my gallery partner for the day, this turned Picasso into less of an artist at the height of his creative powers, and more of a flailing, finite man.

On entering the galleries, you’re presented with a painting of Olga Picasso, née Khokhlova, which presages the strange energies of the artist’s ‘annus mirabilis’ to come. Usually, Picasso's paintings of Olga are strangely lifeless and frigidly  inert. She's always too demure, too remote; and therefore, too unlike Picasso. But La femme au stylet (1931) transforms Olga into something wildly alive, but only by delivering death. She's an amorphous assassin with a dagger. 

 Picasso's  La Femme au stylet  (1931) © Succession Picasso

Picasso's La Femme au stylet (1931) © Succession Picasso

La femme au stylet represents a turn in Picasso and Olga's already strained marriage; and only footsteps away, in cooling, creamier colours, is Marie-Thérèse. La femme au stylet isn’t just Picasso’s understanding of Olga’s jealousy--a jealousy, mind, which was quite justifiable given the artist’s numerous infidelities--but also evidences his growing interest in surrealism through the increasingly nebulous forms of his works.

 Picasso's  La lecture  (1932) © Succession Picasso

Picasso's La lecture (1932) © Succession Picasso

Aistè wasn't impressed. She felt doubly sorry for Olga: not only because of her cheating husband; but because he'd painted her so awfully. 'I'd stab you,' she warned, 'if you ever painted something like that and said it was me.' I agreed, it wasn't his best work. 

La femme au stylet is enough to give you nightmares, but you’re soon presented with the serenity of Le Rêve (1932). Again, it depicts Marie-Thérèse. Picasso paints her sleeping, dreaming. Of what? Picasso? Sex? 

Traditionally, the upper-part of Marie-Thérèse's face is supposed to be Picasso's erect penis--although, it looks decidedly limp according to Aistè. But Will Gompertz's review doesn't go for the 'sex on her mind’ interpretation: ‘Isn’t she asleep? The artist couldn’t possibly know what she was dreaming, could he? Isn’t this more likely the imposition of Picasso’s unconscious (or conscious) thoughts projected onto his young lover?’ 

Le Rêve isn't the only time that there's more of the artist's manhood on display than his genius. Picasso's Le Miroir (1932) suggests a reverse--perhaps, even perverse--version of Velazquez's Rokeby Venus (c., 1650) which was famously slashed by the Suffragette, Mary Richardson, in 1914. Richardson was protesting the incarceration of Emmeline Pankhurst. Later, she added that she 'didn't like the way men visitors to the gallery gaped at it all day.' 

Even today, you'll catch men and women gawping at the Rokeby Venus. And yet, you sense that she's aware of what she's doing. She looks at the gawping viewer, who, however daftly, must flick their attention from the body to its owner's eyes that are reflected in the mirror. It's disarming, unsettling, yet alluring. She's aware of the 'male gaze' and maybe complicit with it--or, depending on the shade of one's interpretation, must simply comply with it. 

 Picasso's  Le Miroir  (1932) © Succession Picasso

Picasso's Le Miroir (1932) © Succession Picasso

Picasso’s ‘Venus’ isn’t so awake or self-conscious. Again, she’s sleeping. Moreover, where Velazquez painted the svelte curvature of Venus' back, Picasso paints Marie-Thérèse’s front, her breasts. And where Velazquez's mirror brings Venus' eyes to the viewer's gaze, Picasso's mirror brings together only Picasso’s gaze and Marie-Thérèse’s derriere... For Aistè, this wasn't genius but the finitude of manhood. 

You're then presented with the disarming Nu sur la plage (1932). Ultimately, this painting is something else. You're forced into an alluring state of doublethink: on first sight, the painting is compellingly and aesthetically balanced; and yet, it's also salaciously obscene and dangerously weighted in favour of a virile gaze. Out of its abstract jumble, the vulva becomes the breast, its nipple now the labia minora and majora. Suddenly, we're not so much among the works of Picasso's annus mirabilis than Marie-Thérèse anus mirabilis. The Tate explains that Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s dealer since 1918, refused to show the paintings: 'Non, je refuse d’avoir des trous de cul dans ma galerie.' In English, ‘No, I refuse to have any arseholes in my gallery.’

 Picasso's  Nu sur la plage  (1932) © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018

Picasso's Nu sur la plage (1932) © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018

In the same room, the curators, Achin Borchardt-Hume and Nancy Ireson, have cleverly co-presented Picasso’s take on Katsushika Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (c., 1820) alongside Jean Painlevé’s quasi-surrealist film, The Octopus (1927). You sense something of the artist's unconscious here, however sexual and surreal.

 Picasso's  Femme nue couchée  (1932) © Succession Picasso

Picasso's Femme nue couchée (1932) © Succession Picasso

Aistè didn't know much about Picasso before the Tate. She'd seen photographs of his wide, searching eyes, whose intense stare was always predatory, almost wild. She quickly surmised, however, that she didn’t like Picasso--not the paintings themselves, which weren’t always exceptional but easy-on-the-eye nonetheless--no, she didn’t like the man who’d painted those paintings. She wondered, ‘How much do you have to objectify women to actually turn their parts into separate shapes and objects?’ I wondered whether this was true, and, if so, how much I'd enjoyed the exhibition. 

I didn't say that he’d once remarked to his lover, Françoise Gilot, who's also a very accomplished artist, that ‘[f]or me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats’. I didn't mention that Picasso had slept with other women as Eva Gouel succumbed to tuberculosis in 1915. Or, that Marie-Thérèse, who, in many ways, is the subject of this show as much as Picasso, hanged herself in 1977. Or, that she was later joined by Jacqueline Roque, who shot herself in 1986.

We turn to the quotes written on the wall: 'Everything we love is about to die, and that is why everything we love must be summed up with all the high emotion of farewell, in something so beautiful we shall never forget. Essentially, there is only love. Whatever it may be.’

Whatever it may be, indeed.

Unfortunately, tickets will cost the average punter £22--although, the Tate recently announced £5 tickets for those aged between 16-25. I think £22 is too much, really, but I'd also pay it again. For that, 4/5 stars from me. Aistè felt that 3/5 was more appropriate. She'd learnt more about Picasso, but she didn't like him anymore. 

Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy runs from 3 March- 19 Sept., Tate Modern.

D.S. Graham