8th March – 9th September 2018
On March 8th, the first stand-alone exhibition in Tate Modern about Pablo Picasso opened its doors to the public. The exhibition, on until 9 September, follows the world-famous artist in his 1932 “year of wonders.” It was a turbulent make-or-break year for him: he was already fifty, relatively well-known. It was the year of his retrospective exhibition in Paris, a rare phenomenon, since he was alive and curated it himself. Fleeing the pressure of the art world, his troublesome marriage, and the rising tensions in Europe, he retreated in his château Boisgeloup in Normandy, where he had frequent meetings with his secret lover Marie-Thérèse Walter. The goal of the new Tate Modern exhibition is to “strip away the myth, to show the man.” Tate designed ten rooms, chronologically ordered, each discussing one to two months of Picasso’s life in 1932.
Picasso struggled with marital issues and often dreamed about his secret lover, 22-year-old Marie-Thérèse. To kick off the narrative of the exhibition, the first room presents two paintings Picasso made on Christmas Day 1931. “Woman with Dagger” is a painting inspired by his wife, Olga Picasso, with harsh, contrasting colours and a blurred out face, which makes for an overall violent impression. The other painting of a seated woman is one of his mistress, with dreamy pastels and delicate brushstrokes.
The crystal clear contrast perfectly sets the tone for the rural love life Picasso was living at the time, as well as the restlessness the painter felt at the start of 1932. Intended or not, this theme is the main recurring theme of the exhibition’s narrative. It shows Picasso’s retreat in Boisgeloup, where he mainly painted his mistress: on the beach, sitting in a chair, sleeping. His paintings express extremely fluctuating moods and a lot of Freudian influences in their sexual symbolism — they show an impression and a fear towards not only women the artist knew, but womankind in general. It is an interesting subject, and Tate successfully achieved a full emergence in the subject, yet it can at times feel slightly uncomfortable to see so many consecutive paintings of the (sexual) abstraction of women; it creates the feeling that in Picasso’s eyes, there was a merely thin line between admiration and objectification. But by lovesick anecdotes from Marie-Thérèse’s point of view, as well as displayed polaroids of the two lovers on their French getaway, Tate elegantly humanises the intriguing love story. Just don’t think about the fact that the artist was, in fact, married at the time.
In 1931, a year after Picasso had bought Boisgeloup, he had developed his own new sculptural language, which became the key reference for his paintings in 1932. Because of this, most of his paintings in 1932 share a dreamlike atmosphere and the same round facial features, with Marie-Thérèse ever being the artist’s muse. Since the exhibition is chronologically ordered and based on one or two months of the same year, the displayed artworks are mostly a series of either the same sitting or the same theme. Where one room showcases a series of abstracted paintings of Marie-Thérèse reclining on a beach, another shows the artists’ charcoal studies, accompanied with his sketchbooks.
Almost every room in the exhibition has artefacts to enhance the personal interaction with the painter, such as photographs and letters. These documents, accompanied with the engaging stories at the entrance of every room and the chronological set up creates the exciting feeling of a walk-through storyline in the world-famous artists’ life. This effect is perfect to immerse yourself into Picasso’s world, but sometimes the setup of the same series of paintings in a specific locale feels a little bit safe. However, Tate creatively manipulates this with the room that discusses Picasso’s retrospective in Paris, July 1932. The room tells the story of how Picasso took full control of his own show. When a journalist asked him how he would curate his retrospective, he answered: “badly.” The artist compiled a confusing mix of paintings from different periods, its subjects being mostly family members and Marie-Thérèse. While the entirety of fashionable Paris gathered for the opening of the retrospective, Picasso himself went to the cinema. Tate recreates the chaotic feeling of the retrospective, by displaying several paintings from the show, showing the contrast in Picasso’s style. It almost feels like as a visitor, you are visiting Picasso’s own show.
A lovely feature about this exhibition is that it focuses on a year in which Picasso had already developed his own art style. It is not entire possible to put a label on his art style in 1932: cubist and surrealistic influences are clearly seen, yet his artistic mentality differs from that of the surrealists at the time—a tension that is discussed in one of exhibition’s rooms. The painter still playfully experiments with his style and his materials. For example, one of the rooms presents a whopping amount of thirteen of ink drawings inspired by the crucifixion. It shows how the painter, despite lacking the necessity of the constant production of his art, due to his success, was still endlessly curious and inspired by everything around him, hence why Tate hits the nail on the head by calling 1932 Picasso’s “year of wonders.” The exhibition is therefore a lovely ode not only to one of the most influential artists of all time, but also to the curious visitor.