by Roderick Conway Morris

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One year in the life of Picasso

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 23 March 2018
Private Collection of Steven A. Cohen
Le Rêve by Picasso, 1932



'Two days ago, at his place, we saw two paintings he had just done. Two nudes that are perhaps the greatest things, most moving things he has produced. It's not cubist, not naturalistic, it's without painterly artifice, it's very alive, very erotic but with the eroticism of a giant. We came away from there stunned,' wrote Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the German-born dealer, who was not given to hyperbole, after a visit to Picasso's studio in March 1932.

Visitors to 'Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy' at the Tate Modern may well come away in a similar state from this astonishing exhibition of the most tumultuous and productive single year in the artist's long career. With more than 100 works on display, the show, curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume and Nancy Ireson, follows Picasso's life week by week, sometimes day by day, during this momentous year and contains 25 loans from private collections, three quarters of which have never been seen in this country before.

Picasso had just turned 50 towards the end of the previous year. The richest contemporary artist of the era, he had bought an 18th-century château in Normandy, dressed in Saville Row suits and was chauffeur-driven in his own Hispano-Suiza limo. In February 1932, one of his earlier paintings sold for a record 56,000 francs.

But he had also acquired a new lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, a sporty French woman, nearly 30 years his junior, with an athletic, bronzed, junoesque physique and short blonde hair. This relationship severely threatened the Picasso's tranquil domestic life with his wife, the Russian former ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and their young son Paulo.

However, also looming was a retrospective exhibition, in Paris later in the year, an event then rare for a living artist. And it was this prospect - he was clearly determined to prove that he was still capable of artistic innovation and self-renewal - combined with his wish to express his often tortured passion for Walter, that drove him to produce the extraordinary stream of works, as impressive in their variety as in their quality, that fill the rooms of the Tate's exhibition.

The almost frenzied nature of this creativity is manifest in such works as the sequence of three large canvases here, depicting Walter in 'Rest', 'Sleep' and 'Dream', painted over consecutive days in January 1932. In just two weeks at the beginning of March, he produced 7 pictures, including 3 reclining nudes and 2 still-lifes.

Pictures of Walter figured prominently in the retrospective in June. The relationship remained secret, but her distinctive profile repeated in these images were the first public evidence that the artist had a new Muse. And how conflicted Picasso felt by his divided loyalties is clear from the fact that he also devoted a so-called 'family wall' to earlier pictures, which included his famous blue-period self-portrait of 1901, his classical unfinished portrait of Olga from 1918, the year of their marriage, and portraits of their son. Six of these have been hung in exactly the same arrangement in the Tate Modern show, in a room that partially reconstructs the Paris retrospective of 1932.

The retrospective marked only a brief distraction from Picasso's production of new works. By the autumn he was alternating between some wrenchingly dramatic crucifixion scenes to a series of captivating Arcadian pastoral vignettes with reclining nudes that transport us back to the age of Giorgione and the Venetian Renaissance.

The retrospective travelled on to the Kunsthaus Zürich, thereby giving Picasso his first museum exhibition. The psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung wrote a scathing review of it, interpreting the sheer variety of the artist's work as a sign of schizophrenia. But Picasso was vigorously defended by the Greek-French art historian Christian Zervos, who was then embarking on his monumental catalogue raisonné of the Spanish artist, which was finally to run to 32 volumes listing over 16,000 works.

Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy; Tate Modern; 8 March - 9 September 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023