Curator Nancy Ireson shines a light on why 1932 was the most productive year of the artist’s life and one that changed his work forever
In 1932 Pablo Picasso told an interviewer, “The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary.” That same year, his life would unfold like the plot of a soap opera – a life-changing 365 days which are now detailed in the upcoming The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, which opens at the Tate Modern on Thursday.
Having just turned 50, Picasso was in the midst of his career. 30 years in, his successes were vast; spanning several periods such as the “Blue Period”, “Rose Period”, “Analytic Cubism”, “Synthetic Cubism”, “Neoclassicism”, “Surrealism”, and the list goes on. He was an artist who had the ability to continually transform his work, even though his subject matter often remained the same.
1932 was a year that also saw Picasso overseeing preparations for his first retrospective – an event he wasn’t keen on, and famously when he was asked how he would curate it, he replied, “Badly”. Aside from being a year of reflection, it was also a major time of rejuvenation. Picasso created work constantly, with notable examples being the three paintings, “Nude In A Black Armchair” (1932), “The Mirror” (1932), and “Nude, Green Leaves And Bust” (1932), which the artist began and completed collectively in just ten days.
Many of his works at this time reflected deep changes in his personal life. His marriage to Olga Picasso (previously Khokhlova) was rocky, perhaps due to his then-five-year affair with the much younger Marie-Thérèse Walter. Walter had begun to appear more and more in his works throughout 1932 – most notably in “The Dream”, which shows her peacefully resting in an armchair. The affair was made public at the opening of the retrospective that summer, which, alongside portraits of his family, featured many recent, sensual paintings of Walter.
Picasso’s co-habitation between his two properties in Boisgeloup in Normandy and central Paris began to echo his increasingly juxtaposing lives, between his wife and his lover, as well as a balance of painting and his sculpture work. Tragically, at the end of 1932, Walter became poorly after swimming in the river Marne. The illness took her golden hair – a visual which recurred in Picasso’s works, often as a yellow plume. As the year closed, Picasso’s works had increasingly come to mirror the storminess that had not only settled over his own life but which had begun to take hold across Europe due to the rise of Fascism, the Great Depression and mass unemployment.
As the exhibition prepares to open to the public with over 100 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper – many of which are being shown in the UK for the first time – we speak with curator Nancy Ireson about the importance of this year on one of the greatest artists of all time and she gives context to four of the significant works in the show.
“The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary” – Pablo Picasso
Would you say that 1932 was Picaso’s mid-life crisis?
Nancy Ireson: There's definitely a sense of this being a landmark moment, and I think we can all relate to that. You reach a significant birthday and it's a time of questioning – it's a time where you look at what you've done and you think about what you want to do in the future. I think, with Picasso, by that stage of being a famous artist, it was amplified because he was in the spotlight. Other people were waiting to see what he would do; waiting to see whether he could better himself. And, fortunately for us, his answer to those questions was something resoundingly confident.
In the current day, it feels ridiculous to think that Picasso was questioning himself and for others to be asking, “Is Picasso still relevant?” Why was that happening?
Nancy Ireson: It was really part of a debate, not only about whether Picasso was relevant, but whether painting was relevant. There were different ways of working. Cinema was really coming into its own by the 1930s and so it was a question of whether it was still important to do something as old-fashioned, essentially, as painting? Picasso showed us that it was not at all old-fashioned –that it was still relevant, it was still contemporary, and he really took on people of a younger generation. He wanted to be on the forefront of the contemporary art world.
Stylistically, what changes in Picasso’s works in 1932?
Nancy Ireson: 1932 sees a great deal change in Picasso's work. A lot of the pictures he produced in the 1920s were quite stripped back with quite a refined palette. In 1932, colour really comes to the fore – there's a wonderful sense of abstraction and also patternation. It's as if he was taking on his rival, Matisse, and trying to outdo him.
Where do we see his works go after 1932? What elements from 1932 did he continue to use in his career?
Nancy Ireson: A lot of the motifs that we find in 1932, whether that's the profile of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, or the colouration. Those things have a kind of afterlife in Picasso's work, and we see that time and time again. He takes the same motif and he reinvents it. But he's endlessly surprising and that's perhaps why we prize Picasso so highly these days – because he takes on many, many styles and each time he makes it his own, he really grasps an idea and runs with it.
PABLO PICASSO, PARIS, 1933, PHOTOGRAPHED BY CECIL BEATON
Nancy Ireson: You mentioned the quote about how Picasso described his painting as a ‘diary’. In this photograph by Cecil Beaton, who was a society photographer, we see Picasso very smartly dressed. By this time he was having his suits commissioned in Saville Row, he was living in a very nice part of Paris, he was moving in all the right social circles. And yet, even in this photograph, we see a painting of one of the March nudes, an image of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter in that space. And so you sense that these worlds are co-existing and that life is very much a part of his practice.
“RECLINING NUDE” (1932)
Nancy Ireson: Picasso's art often looks at the ways in which shapes can change and transform and also, the way that making a picture presents ideas to you as an artist. One of the things we think he might've seen in the late 1920s was a film by a filmmaker called Jean Painlevé – who was a little bit like David Attenborough at that time – and he made a documentary about octopuses which borders on the strange. We see an octopus underwater, but it also crawls out and it ends up crawling over a figure – it becomes quite an imaginative voyage into this underwater world. Picasso produces some paintings which have a figure turning into an octopus and then, potentially, back again. There's a playfulness to them. The breasts of this creature become eyes, it's almost slightly comical. And there's a tactility to the surfaces. He uses quite a limited range of colours, the background is a very wonderful soft blue and he works into that with smudges of different colour.
NUDE IN A BLACK ARMCHAIR (1932), THE MIRROR (1932, BELOW), & NUDE, GREEN LEAVES AND BUST (1932)
Nancy Ireson: March is an incredible moment is Picasso’s year. In preparation for his retrospective exhibition in the summer, he produced a series of reclining nudes, where he takes the female form and he experiments with a kind of organic melding of the body and the plants. Often, in these images, there are these plants growing in the background and you get a sense that the figure itself is transforming and changing. He uses a mirror in these images so you see a thing from all sides. Part of this is taking on a language he invented when he was young – a language of Cubism – where you often see different facets of a work. But it's also taking on art's historical tradition – centuries of painters who have painted nudes, who've painted figures before a mirror. It's almost as if Picasso is taking his place within that great trajectory.
“SELF-PORTRAIT” (LATE 1901)
Nancy Ireson: At the heart of Picasso's retrospective exhibition (in the summer), he placed portraits of his family. And those are hung above each other in quite a haphazard fashion, and yet they do different things. First of all, they refuse categorisation – they mix styles, they mix periods. It's as if Picasso is telling his public that his work belongs altogether. The other thing it does is reinforces the role of his family in his work.
Presiding over the exhibition, and presiding over a group of family portraits, we see an image Picasso made of himself in 1901 when he was just 21. It’s a “Blue Period” portrait, showing Picasso against a stark blue background as a very young man, very high cheekbones, a little beard, a real sort of sensuality to his face. He’s has a confidence, even though he was living in relative poverty at the time, even if he was still looking for buyers and to establish a reputation. It's a statement picture – it's almost as if we know he's going to become the household name that he is now.
The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy opens 8 March – 9 September 2018 at London’s Tate Modern