Picasso 1932
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The idea is a simple one – to show Picasso’s output for a single year, 1932, and bask in his prodigal invention. As you do. But there is significant moment in Room 6: ‘Fame.’ This section is arguably a moment of cheating by the curators – a welcome moment of cheating.

On 8 January 1927, Picasso met the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter outside the Galeries Lafayette and began an affair. In 1935 Marie-Thérèse gave birth to their daughter, Maya. When they met, Picasso was 45 and married to Olga Khokhlova, with a five-year-old son, Paul. By 1935, further complications: he had met the troublesome, tearful Dora Maar. With her, nothing was simple. (Analysis with Jacques Lacan was imminent.) The affair with Marie-Thérèse was effectively over, though this exhibition at Tate Modern shows how productive it was artistically. Picasso paints Marie-Thérèse obsessively, brilliantly – and, it has to be said, repetitively. Which is where Room 6 comes in.

In June 1932, after turning down the Venice Biennale and an offer from Alfred Barr in America, Picasso curated his own Retrospective at Galeries Georges Petit. After boasting that he would curate ‘badly’, Picasso’s hang was not chronological or dated. This 1932 retrospective permits the curators of the present Tate exhibition to quote from the retrospective, without violating the 1932 rubric. So we see the well-known ‘Olga in an Armchair’ (1918) and ‘Paulo as a Harlequin’ (1924). What a relief. What a surprise. We suddenly realise that we have been buttonholed by a single-minded genius, so gifted we hardly cared that the subject never changed. As if we were bored without being bored. There are two incomparable portraits here that I didn’t know, even in reproduction: ‘Portrait of Paulo’ (1921) and ‘Portrait of Olga’ (1923). Both are oil on canvas and quite small scale (335 x 270 mm and 330 x 240 mm). They are hung too high to see properly – mimicking Picasso’s original hang – but they are still remarkable.

‘Portrait of Paulo’ depicts the little boy with his hair en brosse, a hairstyle like a Rhodesian ridgeback. His eyes, without being black, are very defined and register as black, like his father’s. They dominate the picture. There is a dimple in his chin. In fact, he has a double chin. It is a fat little face and totally unsentimental. Under the face is a bib, which isn’t so much painted as implied. Barely visible, it is a semi-circular aura. It tells us something important – the context of the portrait. The flesh is inert, unpromising, accurate, and the eyes have the alertness of a famished cuckoo. It is a depiction of appetite.

‘Portrait of Olga’ is a painting with all the delicate freedom of a drawing. She has a centre parting, with wispy sidelocks, decorative tendrils. The upper lip is in shadow, the bottom lip the palest pink. The palette is so restricted it’s almost like looking at a hand-tinted, faded photograph. The expression in the eyes is drained, but you slightly discount this withheld emptiness because the drawing is so beautiful in its economy of line and pigment.

Neither, alas, is reproduced in the catalogue, which skimps on the pictures, preferring to give us large helpings of T J Clarke, surely the worst art critic in the world. (Apart from Adrian Searle.)

There is another example of benign cheating in this show – a tiny statuette, in varnished plaster, ‘Bather’ (1931), included to parallel a photograph of Marie-Thérèse in her swimming costume, balancing a beach ball. It isn’t a convincing match. Squat, spry, animated, like a dancer, short arms ‘extended’, one leg raised ironically, it is quite unlike the long-limbed Marie-Thérèse. Rather a stem ginger clump, a sort of improvised Willendorf Venus, ugly and vital, convinced of its own attractiveness. A dumpling with sex appeal. A masterpiece of humour and truth, buoyant with its own confidence. It was the piece I most coveted. But there are many, many lovely works in this show.

And so to Marie-Thérèse, the main attraction, the lead, who sleeps through rendition after rendition. She inaugurates a stylistic innovation: Picasso exaggerates the continuum of her nose and forehead. ‘Head of a Woman’ (1931-32) is a monumental bronze boulder, the cheek-bones so high the face is heart-shaped. The eyes are incised into the side of the head where the ears should be – like a bird. The head rests on a very long majestic neck. Her hair is divided asymmetrically in two solid coils. What is amazing is the way the head imposes its weird, implausible beauty on the viewer – a beauty achieved, I think, by the mouth which is counter-intuitively soft, singular, open, talking.

In Room 2, ‘January and February’, Marie-Thérèse is notionally awake. (In 1932 she is mainly asleep.) ‘Reading’ (oil on wood, 9 January 1932) shows her in a chair with a book in her lap. Her head rests against a red leather head-piece with brass studs. She is two-faced (another Picasso innovation) – in profile and full-face. Her hands are continuous with the scrolls at the end of the chair arms. Her open book is a vulva, divided at the gutter, hairy on each side with lines of print. She appears to be sleeping. Her eyes are closed, but she might be concentrating on her fantasy.

A day later, Picasso painted her again, ‘Young Woman with Mandolin’, this time oil on board. She is in the same chair. In her lap, not a book but a mandolin, but again signifying a vulva. The mandolin is a conflation of two viewpoints. It is seen from the front and from the back , so the gourd-like structure of the instrument is represented by a set of lines, a collocation of suggestive folds, the crow’s feet of the pussy. Again she is sound asleep.

Contrast ‘Rest’ (22 January 1932), oil on canvas. Here the figure is in a chair, with arms behind her hideous head. The tight mouth is lip-sticked, the harmonica teeth as mean and mirthless as Wallis Simpson. The figure is nude. Her hair on the right of her head is like anti-perching pigeon spikes. We can’t be certain who it is, but it isn’t Marie-Thérèse. The title, ‘Rest’, is surely ironic because the background consists of hysterical wallpaper, a dado, a turmoil of lower wall, and a busy tiled floor. It could be an epitome of Dora Maar but obviously the painting isn’t proleptic. The sole candidate seems to be Olga, the agitated wife.

On 23 January, Picasso returned to the sleeping Marie-Thérèse, again in a chair. This time she is truly, deeply asleep. The sign for her profile, extensively repeated, is like a knuckle-duster – and here it is definitely open-mouthed, abandoned and snoring. A hank of yellow hair is asleep on the chair back. Her left hand is limp and oblivious on her upper torso, her breasts below in a slump of slumber. We see the lovely simple cleft of her mons. The genius, though, is in one line just above her belly button, which gives you the precise, asymmetric, inelegant line of her stomach, lax and slightly swollen in sleep. ‘Sleep’ is the painting’s title but the painting demonstrates the thinness of the word by giving us the actuality of a particular kind of sleep. And Picasso achieves this conviction, this precision, with the barest handful of lines.

Picasso is the virtuoso of sleep. One of the best rooms is 8, ‘Black and White’. These are charcoal drawings, mainly on canvas, and two of them are of Marie-Thérèse sleeping. ‘Sleeping Nude’ (Saturday 30 July 1932) is charcoal on gessoed canvas. There is a pun between the knuckles and her stylised profile. Her navel is a teardrop. The nipple of her left breast has, within the circle of the areola, a tiny slump, a little v. Her right arm is behind her head, the fingers filling the right hand corner of the picture. How accurately Picasso captures the restless reconfiguration of curves in sleep, unguarded and voluptuous.

This is even more pronounced in ‘Sleeping Woman’ (1932) charcoal on canvas. She is asleep on a couch, which you infer from the curved furniture arm to the left and the double rows of parallel lines at the top of the drawing. The woman has two heads, one dominant, the other an echo, a shadow. They rest on her arms and convey profound repose. At the same time, paradoxically, Picasso sets the body on a dense palimpsest of semi-erased lines that conjure the thousand other nocturnal positions. (Effectively invisible in reproduction.)

Also in Room 8 is ‘Marie-Thérèse in a Pensive Mood’ (15 November 1932, oil on wood). She is resting her chin on her hand like Rodin’s ‘Penseur’. Everything that is pictorially important about this painting is lost in reproduction. For a start, you would never know how thick the white paint is, nor how the drawing is actually incised with the sharp end of the brush, nor that the gouged outline is brilliantly filled in with delicate grey-black paint, applied with the faintest of touches. In the catalogue, it is nothing. On the wall, it’s the real thing.

The dominant note of these works is of natural, unselfconscious economy. Nothing showily stringent. Take ‘Woman with Flower Writing’ (April 1932). The flower is visible on the left. It is in a vase that is two crossed bent lines, crossed where the neck narrows, like a skeletal set of tongs. Her profile is the now-familiar, lucid, gorgeous knuckle duster. Her eyelid is looking down, like a new moon. The pen is a broken line, broken where held, and thin as a blade of grass, thinner than a blade of grass, a thread of charcoal. On her other wrist, a five-beaded bracelet. This arm is absently fondling her breasts. It is a picture of rumination, of a woman lost in thought, and perfect in its comprehensive simplicity.

Finally, two paintings, still tied to Marie-Thérèse, but rather more complicated. ‘Still Life with Tulips’ (2 March 1932, oil on canvas) shows four loose petalled tulips growing out of soil in a wicker basket. Marie-Thérèse’s head is on a pedestal. There are three pale peaches on the table in the foreground, yellow, white, fuzzy. A proclamation of innocence. The sculpted head has a real green garland, so we know the art has a close relation to life. The boundary is porous. Nothing is fixed and aestheticised. The peaches, with their clefts, I take it, have sexual undertones. In a Guardian interview (31 October 2015) Françoise Gilot (the successor to Dora Maar) volunteered the following: ‘There’s always a subtle ambience of eroticism in the streets, in the air, of Paris. For instance, when you go to the market to select peaches, if you ask the vendor, “Are your peaches ripe?” he’ll often say yes with a wink because the peach is considered a fruit similar to the female sex. Sometimes having intercourse is referred to as ‘eating a peach’. So there will often be a little innuendo that isn’t rude but just reminds you of the eroticism of life.’ (Obviously, the French-speaking T S Eliot had this idiom in mind when he has the sexually unconfident Prufrock ask himself , ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’) And that wicker basket isn’t innocent either with its criss-crosses like the innuendo of a loosely woven scrotum. Which leaves the excitable tulips with their chaos of spurting petals…

‘The Mirror’ (12 March 1932, oil on canvas) shows a sleeping Marie-Thérèse in the foreground. She is all face, arms and breasts. The tilting, unfixed mirror, above and behind her, reflects her behind in its fullness. But what makes this picture is the paint. She is painted in ice cream – a luscious pinked vanilla you could almost eat. And Picasso probably did.


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