Picasso in 1932: Ingenious, Exhausting, Relentless

Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” a breakthrough 1932 painting, treats Marie-Thérèse Walter’s mauve flesh as the source of vegetation.

LONDON — As the sun set on the last day of 1932, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt waited to take office, while American banks continued to buckle. The last chancellor of Weimar Germany sat in a Rococo palace in Berlin; the last emperor of China was installed on a puppet throne in Manchukuo. The globe was agitated, and art was not exempt. The Nazis forced the Bauhaus out of Dessau in 1932, and in the same year the Soviet Union dissolved independent artists’ unions and promulgated the single style of socialist realism.

Pablo Picasso, in his studio on Paris’s Rue la Boétie or from his chateau in Normandy, barely noticed. For him, the year 1932 was a cavalcade of public praise and private indulgences, a year when stylistic invention tipped into frenzy. Always overproductive, Picasso supercharged his career in 1932, the year his first retrospective exhibition took place and when the first volume of Christian Zervos’s mammoth catalogue raisonné was published. In 1932, the world was tilting toward catastrophe. Picasso was becoming a god.

What the Spaniard made in 1932 is the subject of an uncommon exhibition at Tate Modern with an almost irresponsibly simple premise: one year, in chronological order, in the life of an artist. At its initial outing last fall, at the Musée Picasso in Paris, it bore the title “Picasso 1932: Année érotique,” which, while candid, raises the question of whether every year in his priapic life might not be designated an erotic one.

Here at Tate Modern, the show has a tamer, Anglo-Saxon name: “Picasso 1932 — Love, Fame, Tragedy.” (The London version of “Picasso 1932” has been organized by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, and Nancy Ireson, a curator at the museum; Laurence Madeline and Virginie Perdrisot-Cassan were responsible for the Paris edition.)

A year’s work, for most artists, would fill just one gallery, if that. Picasso gives us enough for a feast. More than 100 paintings, sculptures and drawings from that year are here, representing just a fraction of his output, and they’re accompanied by copious archival materials — a butcher’s bill, a family photo album, a manuscript by André Breton — and earlier works that appeared in the retrospectives of that year.

Here at the Tate are point-blank masterpieces, above all the plaster and cement busts of his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter; wonderful and underrated drawings, including a suite of scenes from the Crucifixion translated into strange surrealist tableaux; frankly amateurish sketches of Boisgeloup in the rain; and a hefty amount of cruise-ship Picasso, such as the Tate’s own “Nude Woman in a Red Armchair,” with a face only an oligarch could love.

And if, like me, you look askance at overly biographical readings of modern art — not least as regards old male geniuses and the mute, pliant muses who love them — you will have an extra task in “Picasso 1932,” which in some spots reduces the art into mile markers in the life of a lech. Each work here, dated to the day and even the hour in some cases, serves as a page in a diary. Your mission is to treat them as more than that: to untangle the artist’s interwoven threads, and to reckon with the multiplicity of Picasso’s année érotique in stylistic and social terms that intersect with, but can’t be reduced to, a mere life story.

One painter, one year. He was 50 years old at the start of 1932, and the previous Christmas he’d painted a brace of pictures, on view in a prologue here, that prefigure the dreamlike, indulgent, violent year to come. One, the 1931 oil “Woman With Dagger,” is a riff on Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat,” in which the Girondin murderess appears as an ectoplasmic gray lizard, fangs bared as she soars above Marat’s bathtub. The other is a languorous portrait of a woman seated in a striped red chair, her hands an icy lavender, her single breast as round and rigid as a softball, her face liquefied into a heart-shaped squiggle.

The subject of that painting is Marie-Thérèse, who was 22 on New Year’s Day. “Picasso 1932” is as much her show as his, and the young Frenchwoman, lithe, athletic, untroubled, appears again and again in uncanny states of bodily deliquescence.

The role she would play in Picasso’s art is visible as early as January. In “Le Repos” (“Rest”), painted on the 22nd day of the year, Picasso’s wife Olga lazes in a chair in front of Matisse-echoing floral wallpaper. Olga’s right breast soars creepily upward; her head is thrust to the right, her dark hair rendered as bristling parallel cilia. Marie-Thérèse, blonde, sits with a look of postcoital bliss in front of the same wallpaper in “Le Rêve” (“The Dream”) from Jan. 24 — which became world-famous when its previous owner, the now-disgraced casino magnate Stephen A. Wynn, agreed to sell it to the financier Steven A. Cohen and then promptly punctured its surface with his elbow. (Mr. Cohen eventually bought the restored painting in 2013.) “Le Rêve” hangs here in a plexiglass vitrine, and you can’t detect any injury, even if you can look away from her closed left eye, transmuted into the glans of a tumescent penis.

“Le Rêve” is not a particularly accomplished painting, and indeed many works in this exhibition are garish, hasty and unremarkable. Moments of intense breakthrough — above all in early March, when he painted the surreal “Nude in a Black Armchair” and “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” which treat Marie-Thérèse’s mauve flesh as a source of vegetal growth, and the ultradense, psychologically troubling “Girl Before a Mirror,” on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York — coexist with fallow months. (In summer, Picasso really checked out.) That’s not a knock on the curators of “Picasso 1932.” It can be bracing to see Picasso shuttle between triumph and kitsch in the space of a week.

What endures through the year are the erotic and artistic drives to dominate and to reshape: drives that play out, more than anywhere, on the surface of Marie-Thérèse’s body. Endlessly pliable: She sleeps, she stretches, she dives, she undulates. That spring, in “Reclining Nude,” Picasso transmutes her into a sunbathing cephalopod, head thrust back in pleasure and flippers cast up to the sky. (The curators have winningly paired it with a 1928 film of a rippling, capering octopus.) In his sculpture studio in Boisgeloup, he turned her face into serene but sexualized busts, with noses that resemble a bodily appendage women do not possess. (Marie-Thérèse did not visit the studio; Picasso never worked from life, and indeed they might not have seen each other all that frequently in 1932.)

Why was Picasso so hyperproductive in 1932? This show stacks the deck in favor of emotional explanations — his strained marriage with Olga, his new infatuation — but those of us cursed by the procrastination gene will clock the real reason: He was racing to prepare his first retrospective, at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris, which opened on June 16 and featured a painting made as late as April 11. Picasso hung that show out of chronological order, and one of the sharpest moves of “Picasso 1932” is its partial reconstruction of this historical exhibition smack in the center of the current one. A Blue Period self-portrait and a proto-Cubist profile of a woman rupture the timeline in a way Picasso, ever a disrupter, would have smiled to see.

Later in 1932, after a sojourn in Switzerland, Picasso turned to ink drawing and completed a baker’s dozen of works on paper that reimagined Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516) as assemblages of acrobatic shapes and body parts. But in September, on the river Marne, Marie-Thérèse tumbled out of her kayak and nearly drowned. She was hospitalized; she contracted a viral infection that would cost her her hair. Even those suspicious of such biographical readings will note the darker tones of this show’s later galleries, and the recurrence of scenes of rape, diving and drowning. In the masterly “Rescue,” painted on Nov. 20, a gasping woman is pulled from the waters by an equally nude savior, their bodies flattened and distended into supple panels of lilac and blue.

“Rescue,” like all of Picasso’s best works from 1932, was born out of desire for Marie-Thérèse — but it exceeds that desire as well, and exceeds, moreover, the life of any one artist. In the last gallery, we come across a quotation from Michel Leiris, the French ethnologist, whose fatalistic interpretation of art in 1932 rings truer than the first-person-singular orientation that this show both indulges and disclaims. He wrote: “Everything we love is about to die, and that is why everything must be summed up, with all the high emotion of farewell, in something so beautiful we shall never forget it.”

Even Picasso, ensconced in his chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza, could not keep the outside world at bay for long. In three years, civil war would break out in his native Spain. The bodies in extremis he painted in the fall of 1932 — terrified, hungry, surging past their physical limits — would re-emerge in a Basque village called Guernica.

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