Sometimes there is a positively frightening aspect to the dogged fecundity of Pablo Picasso. A single month in the artist’s long life might produce a dozen large canvases, a host of preparatory drawings, a scattering of oil sketches and the odd sculpture or two. Was this compulsiveness now and then in the nature of a curse, like that which burdened the Lady of Shalott in Tennyson’s famous poem? Or was Picasso simply carried along by exuberant creativity and the joy of virtuoso accomplishment?
Tate Modern has no difficulty in devoting an entire show, filling 10 rooms, to his achievement within the space of a single year. Subtitled “Love, Fame, Tragedy”, Picasso 1932 is an ingenious synthesis of art and biography. This was a major crux in Picasso’s personal life. His marriage to an erstwhile model, the Russian ballerina Olga Kokhlova, was crumbling under the strain of his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, the inspiration for most of the images in the present show. Further tension was created by sceptical critics starting to wonder if Modernism’s former poster boy had anything worthwhile left in him.
Picasso used his burgeoning obsession with Marie-Thérèse to confront his doubters. Rejecting Olga, he began invoking his latest muse in the extraordinary series of lavish, bright-toned images dominating the first stage in Tate Modern’s compelling display. Their palette centred on planes of radiant green, pink and white, these canvases using the curves and hollows of the female figure to shape a new visual language. “Very alive, very erotic but the eroticism of a giant,” commented one early admirer. The painter’s obsession focused both on the model’s sleeping form and on its role as the generator of dreams. Two of the most striking works, each called Seated Woman in a Red Armchair, show Picasso veering towards darker, more viscous paint surfaces as he deconstructs, then arbitrarily reassembles Walter’s body in a monumental celebration of its palpable physicality.
Here, as elsewhere in the show, we see him returning to Surrealism, more especially in haunting transmutations of the nude into shells, pebbles and sea creatures. A dignified farewell to Cubism resonates in the meditative stasis of a Still Life With Bust.
The age-old conflict in a successful artist’s career between personal imperatives and public expectations is mirrored in the section labelled “Fame”, marking Picasso’s 1932 Paris retrospective with three contrasted paintings from his earlier phases. More modestly proportioned works, such as the exquisite Small Sleeping Woman and a black-framed oil sketch of Walter’s face in close-up, balanced the grand gestures of his celebrity. In its world of unstoppable abundance and vitality, Picasso 1932 remains captivating from end to end.
Jonathan Keates is chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund. The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy is at Tate Modern, London, until September 9