‘year of wonders’: Picasso at the Tate Modern

By Alex Leggatt

The EY Exhibition is a dazzling display of Picasso’s prolific output throughout 1932, otherwise known as his ‘year of wonders’. Straddling the barrier between his public and personal life, this exhibition illuminates Picasso’s love for his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter; his fame as one of the leading artistic forces of the twentieth century; and the tragedy of failed marriage and pre-war tensions.

Ten rooms lead the viewer through the turbulent and emotionally charged period for the fifty-year-old. They highlight his experimentation with varying themes, ranging from Grünewald’s crucifixion to Iberian primitivism to the female nude. All conveyed through lines, brushstrokes and sculpture, accompanied throughout with revealing fragments and photographs from Picasso’s everyday life.

an artist aware of his colossal artistic influence over the course of the early twentieth century

For an artist aware of his colossal artistic influence over the course of the early twentieth century, Picasso’s retrospective posed an issue of contemporaneity. How could his current output compare to his “Blue Period”, for example? The sixth room of the exhibition (‘Fame’), recreates his first retrospective at Galeries Georges Petit, in June 1932, which was particularly unusual given Picasso was alive and organised it by himself.

Notoriously curating his retrospective ‘badly’, Picasso refused to give a date to any of his paintings and avoided a chronological progress of his artistic career. By intermingling his current output among the rest of his work, Picasso appeared to be giving an equal weighting and influence to each period of his career. His 1901 self-portrait stands as a reminder of his past, above a demure and restrained portrait of his wife, Olga, sitting in an armchair. Instead of accepting the bourgeoisie life his wife had desired, Picasso wanted to revitalise his youthful creativity, and his 1932 output clearly manifests this artistic and personal crisis. His subsequent work is charged with a colour, vibrancy and playfulness that the viewer can’t help but be drawn towards.

Picasso’s feeling for women ‘oscillated between extreme tenderness and appreciation on the one hand and violent hatred on the other’.

Picasso had a complex and problematic relationship with women throughout his life, and the key focus of this exhibition is his exploration of the female form. As his biographer, Patrick O’Brian highlighted, Picasso’s feeling for women ‘oscillated between extreme tenderness and appreciation on the one hand and violent hatred on the other’. Instead of accepting the classicised ‘canon of beauty’ traditionally applied by the Academies of Europe, Picasso explores his own sensual method in his subjective representation of his mistress, Walter.

In his exploration of drowning in Room Ten, Picasso draws upon a formative yet deeply troubling experience: his younger sister’s death from diphtheria, leading him to feel fated to cause suffering for the women in his life. The further accident of Walter’s viral infection while swimming is thus transformed into a scene of sexual violence. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Nude in a Black Armchair shows an artist eager to synthesise his previous artistic accomplishments with a corpus of work that surely could not be repeated or improved upon. One sees echoes of Picasso’s cubist investigations through the disfigured body, yet also the influence of Manet’s Olympia, continuing a subversive redefinition of the female form as something that cannot be rationalised and systematised; as Picasso said himself: ‘When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.’

‘When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.’

The final room of the exhibition, showing his works from November and December, takes on a darker, more frenzied tone, lacking the artistic poise and balance he had possessed throughout the rest of the year. Tragedy was soon to overcome Picasso’s life both personally and publicly; his wife would discover his affair and take his son away to live in the south of France (which he described as the worst period of his life), and Europe’s political landscape would be overtaken by extremes, with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco signifying an ominous state of unease that was to erupt in the Second World War.

With that in mind, Picasso’s 1932 period remains one of his most prolific and emotive; exquisitely captured in this exhibition is an atmosphere of euphoric love, unprecedented artistic fame and all-consuming tragedy.


Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy is at Tate Modern, London, from 8 March to 9 September.


All photographs: Alex Leggatt

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