‘Love, Fame and Tragedy’, the subtitle of Picasso’s exhibition at Tate Modern, recalls both the reputation of the artist as the ‘painter of love and death’ and his notoriety as one of the most successful and controversial artists of the 20th century. The theme of love is most apparent in the works inspired by his affair with Marie-Therese Walter with whom he had started an affair in 1926 when she was just 17 years old. Fame is demonstrated by the show’s partial recreation of his retrospective of June 1932. As for tragedy, there may be allusions to the recession and to increasing international tensions in his series inspired by Grunewald’s Crucifixion. Equally, there may be hints of the agony caused by the impending break-up of his marriage in his evocation of himself and his mistress clinging together in a series whose titles refer either to a rescue from drowning or a rape.
By concentrating on a single year in Picasso’s life, in which he completed five of his most famous paintings of Marie in a single week, the Tate demonstrates the artist’s extraordinary energy and the prolific range of his interests. The year began with his purchase of Boisgeloup, a mansion whose extensive outhouses enabled him to create a series of Matisse-like sculptural heads. His growing interest in surrealism then becomes apparent in the repeated images of his lover dreaming with her eyes closed. It reappears in his association of her with the continuity of nature through the metaphor of flowers and plants, perhaps under the influence of Arp and Miro. The influence of Surrealism can also be detected in his apparent commitment to Andre Breton’s belief that art must be ‘convulsive’. This can be found in his violent distortions of his lover and in his exploration of the darker aspects of human nature. Here one of his approaches is to portray himself as the Minotaur, a bestial figure and one of several classical personae that enable him to equate the disquieting force of his own sexual energy with a more universal experience.
Picasso once said that an artist’s work stands between two mirrors and it is interesting to note that images of mirrors and of double-portraits proliferate in this period. While his retrospective of 1932 seems to have inspired him to revive the sexual violence of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, many of his paintings look forward to the al fresco scenes of nymphs and satyrs that dominate his later work. In the latter case, there is an obvious debt to Manet, who was shown in an important retrospective in 1932. In several paintings of Marie the Tate points out the influence of Hokusai’s portrayal of the dream of a fisherwoman molested by sea creature. It also draws attention to the influence of a contemporary film about an octopus as another indication of the extraordinary diversity of Picasso’s source material.
After lunch we shall visit part of the permanent collection, Artist and Society, which is on floor 2 of the Boiler House.
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