1932: The year Picasso had something to prove

The Tate’s latest retrospective shows that the artist’s peak came at a personal low

Girl Before a Mirror, Source: Flickr

There are very few artists who could fill an entire exhibition with work created in a single year. Yet the Tate’s 1932 Picasso- Love, Fame, Tragedy centres on one year of Pablo Picasso’s life and career, a period of intense and exhilarating creativity in which he produced some of his most fêted works.

This vast collection of artwork is organised chronologically, with each gallery representing a progression through 1932. Every piece of work is labelled with the exact date it was created, emphasising just how astoundingly prolific Picasso was – masterpieces such as ‘La Rêve’ were churned out in the space of one afternoon.

The premise of the exhibition means that extraordinary pieces are interspersed with unspectacular experiments, providing the viewer with a tantalizing glimpse of Picasso as he is not often seen: warts and all.

This focused approach enables the viewer to chart the development of Picasso as an artist, in the context of developments in his personal life. By 1932, not even halfway through his career, he had already achieved international recognition as an artistic demigod. This was not an unchallenged status, however; Picasso’s determination to rejuvenate his work and reaffirm his reputation is palpable throughout the exhibition.

Although at the time retrospective exhibitions were unusual for living artists, Picasso curated his own in June of 1932. One gallery of the Tate’s exhibition recreates part of this original retrospective, which mixed art from various periods – early works, such as neo-classical paintings of his wife, are displayed alongside his Cubist ‘Seated Nude’ of 1910.

It was at this 1932 retrospective that Picasso’s wife finally recognised his infidelity. His young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, is the heart and soul of the year’s body of work. Her distinctive aquiline nose and blonde hair reappear time and time again, immortalised in innumerable paintings, drawings, and sculptures. These works are permeated with unmistakable desire; broad and generous strokes of pencil and paintbrush form luxurious, undulating curves. ‘La Rêve’ depicts his lover in blissful slumber, whilst her head forms a phallus and her hands curl between her legs: transforming her body into a representation of the artist’s lust.

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Whilst some of these nude studies are deeply intimate, many are somewhat disturbing. His series of Reclining Nudes manipulates the female body into fantastical, crude contortions, so that every side and orifice is visible. In ‘Sleeping Woman by a Mirror’, the face is seemingly slashed and gauged with paint, whilst her breast is flipped so that it forms a phallus emerging from between her legs. This visual language of violence appears most explicitly in the rare studies of his wife, reflecting marital strain, such as in ‘Woman with Dagger’.

This underlying darkness gains prominence as the year nears to an end. The last gallery, November and December, is dominated by images of drowning and rescue, based on Marie-Thérèse’s contraction of a serious infection after swimming in sewage-contaminated water. These are accompanied by depictions of sexual violence, revealing the artist’s troubled state of mind. It has been claimed that since the childhood death of his sister, Picasso felt cursed to inflict suffering upon women.

This unsettling conclusion to the exhibition perfectly highlights the significance of 1932 for Picasso, both artistically and personally. Marie-Thérèse  was soon to become pregnant, thereby ending his marriage to Olga, who subsequently moved away with their son. Meanwhile, fascism and Nazism engulfed much of Europe, paving the way towards another world war. Picasso described this as the worst period of his life; the so-called ‘year of wonders’ had undoubtedly come to an end.