The Ey Exhibition: Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy at Tate Modern

Pablo Picasso. The name holds a place in the minds of millions of people across the world and his pivotal influence on the direction of modern art is common knowledge on a universal scale. And yet, so few people really know Pablo Picasso, the man behind the art.

The Tate Modern is currently displaying ‘The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932’, the Tate Modern’s first ever solo Picasso exhibition, which offers visitors a small glimpse into Picasso’s surreal life as they come face to face with over 100 of his paintings, sculptures and drawings, alongside family photographs.

In 1932, Pablo Picasso was not yet even halfway through his career. Due to critics continuously questioning his artistic abilities to create radical new work, Picasso became mildly aware that he was losing touch with his contemporary side, making him consistently restless, forever trying new things. Subjects that he frequently visited were nude females, classical mythology - particularly the Minotaur - and the art of bullfighting, which Picasso was incredibly fond of.

Picasso had just turned fifty the year before, and 1932 was a crucial time for him in his career. While he was constantly sent invitations to exhibit his work, he was also under the scrutiny of critics who openly discussed whether he was an artist of the past rather than of the future. Signs that Picasso was climbing away from his poor Spanish migrant status and making it as an artist were his grand apartment on the rue La Boétie, his tailored suits and chauffeur-driven car. As was his marriage to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, who was his muse for much of the late 1910s and early 1920s. He also bought an eighteenth century mansion in the Normandy countryside, which served as a sanctuary to serve his restlessness and a studio to experiment with sculpture. This was also the secret place where he took Marie-Thérèse Walter, a considerably younger woman with whom he was having an affair.

The contradictions in Picasso’s life, resulting from his fame and relationships, became very apparent in his first major retrospective in June 1932. Picasso’s mood darkened and though he usually stayed away from politics, his work reflected the times of the world, showing Spain with increasing economic depression, mass unemployment, populist nationalism and the rise of totalitarian regimes. While 1932 started out full of love and rich spoils for Picasso, it ended with a sad premonition of the tragedies to come.

The exhibition displays Picasso’s strong focus on his lovers as his artistic muse.  During this period, it was his secret lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter who was a major focus. Marie was seventeen years old when she began her relationship with Picasso after they met in front of the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Picasso and Marie-Thérèse’s relationship was kept secret from his wife until 1935 but in the meantime, the young woman became the unseen shadow looming over the Picasso family, as she assumed the role of the artist’s main inspiration. Many of the paintings in this exhibition feature Picasso’s imagined, surreal interpretation of young Marie-Thérèse, including three of the artist’s most extraordinary paintings of her, which is the first time they have been shown together since they were created over a five-day period in March 1932.

There is often a thin line between beauty and terror in Picasso’s work. Many of his pictures in this exhibition, particularly at the beginning, show distorted female figures that blur the boundaries between ecstasy and hysteria and explore the themes of abandon and agony. Picasso’s ex-wife, Jacqueline Roque, once said, “If my husband ever met a women on the street who looked like one of his paintings he would faint.” The constant distortions and terrifying representations of women his works could be related to Picasso having difficulties in his marriage with Olga. However, it could also reflect his interest in the connections between sex and violence - a common theme explored by surrealists, and psychoanalysts. It could be argued that Picasso’s attitude surrounding women was incredibly old-fashioned and not moving forward with the times, as he viewed them as sexual prizes and objects for his pleasure, or, perhaps he simply had a mind too wrapped up in his art, and a body filled with too much love and lust for one person alone. What is clear, however, is that Picasso was incredibly fond of having a new, pretty young woman by his side, regardless of whether he was currently with another. This flirtatious and lustful aspect of Picasso’s life greatly inspired much of his work.

Featured in this exhibition is ‘The Dream’ (La Rêve), which shows a young woman asleep in the famous red armchair. Sleep and dreams dominated the imagination of surrealists, allowing their works to venture off on long voyages of their own creation, following no pre-determined route. The female figure in ‘The Dream’ is Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso’s depiction of her goes beyond conventional portraiture conveying, the artist’s own emotions. The fact that the upper half of the figure’s face resembles a phallic form attests to Picasso’s sexual desires.

Around the exhibition, there are photographs of Picasso and of his family members, giving viewers rare glimpses into his personal life. An entire wall of one room is covered with a blown up copy of a photo showing the doorway into Picasso’s sculpture studio at Boisegeloup with Tériade and Bob, the Pyrenean Mastiff. Covering the wall with this particular photographs creates the illusion that Picasso’s studio is right there, inviting visitors to walk right in, creating a small personal bond between viewer and artist.

Many of Picasso’s works featured include floral themes, such as ‘Still Life with Tulips’, ‘Nude in a Black Armchair’ and ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ which shows a blonde woman, presumably Marie- Thérèse, lying nude on the floor in a rather casual and content position, while vivid green leaves rise above her and a statue of a head looks across. The dark shadows cast by the objects in the room fall over the figure’s body, appearing to wrap themselves around her, restraining her tightly on the floor while she relaxes.

Another series of paintings on display show various depictions of women as octopus-like creatures. This area of the exhibit includes a video of an octopus enclosed in a small space with a skull, as people often wonder if the paintings were of a woman or of an octopus holding a skull. Assuming the paintings are in fact of women, Picasso’s decision to compare women to this animal could possibly be seen as a compliment as octopuses are incredibly intelligent and adaptable creatures. His decision to portray women as sea creatures could also stem from Marie-Thérèse Walter being an incredibly avid swimmer.

Marie-Thérèse’s swimming was also the inspiration for his series of paintings that included the threat of drowning and the possibility of rescue, subjects that Picasso became obsessed with in the later months of 1932. The reasoning for this could possible be because Marie- Thérèse contracted a serious viral infection from swimming in contaminated water from a sewage pipe. However, his apparent obsession with the doom of women could be due to the death of his sister Conchita, who died at seven-years-old from diphtheria. Picasso would draw women in terrifying situations and scenarios, as he distorted their faces and bodies in a unique fashion, showing terrifying scenes of kidnapping, sexual harassment from minotaurs, drowning, and rape. These situations are particularly evident in the sketches on display, ‘The Rape (Le Viol)’.

As the year drew to a close, Picasso’s colour palette changed drastically. He tossed aside his bright pigments and replaced them with blacks and greys and the majority of his works were done on paper. The ever-changing themes of his works suggest growing restlessness, as Picasso’s ‘year of wonders’ came to an end.

A few years later in 1935, Marie-Thérèse Walter became pregnant by Picasso, and she gave birth to a daughter, Maya. This caused his wife Olga to leave him, and she took their children away with her to the south of France. Picasso described this as the worst period of his life.

Marie-Thérèse and Picasso maintained a happy relationship for a while and their daughter modelling for some of his paintings, including ‘Maya with Doll’. Marie soon learnt however, that she was not Picasso’s first secret lover and she would not be his last, as he soon began a romantic relationship with Dora Maar. Maar became Picasso’s new muse and inspiration but he portrayed her as dark and in pain, whereas he had painted Marie as just the opposite: blonde and bright.

With so many extraordinary paintings, including a stunning piece from his Blue Period ‘Seated Nude (Femme new assise)’ (1909-10), and photographs all featured here together, this exhibition offers viewers magical and rare opportunities to delve deeper in Picasso’s life, stripping away the myths of the extraordinary artist, to reveal the man beneath the paint, unveiling the well-known figure in his full complexity and richness. Visitors to this exhibition will see Picasso as they have never seen him before.

The Ey Exhibition: Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy is on at Tate Modern until 9th September 2018.  More information may be found here.