Tate Modern, London
In 1932, Picasso embarked on a love affair that led to 12 months of furious creativity, as revealed in this exhilarating show
The new painting shows a curvaceous girl in an armchair. Her arms are lilac – telltale colour, if only Olga had eyes to see it – and her body softly voluptuous. Her head takes the shape of a heart. Picasso cannot paint her face, for that would give him away; instead she has a flurry of brushmarks that blur the special palette he so often, and so ostentatiously, uses for this sitter. She is Marie-Thérèse Walter, 22 years of age, the artist’s secret lover.
To say that life and art are never far apart would be true, but an understatement for Picasso. “The work one does,” he wrote, “is a way of keeping a diary.” And the object of this riveting exhibition is to open that diary for the year 1932, following the artist with such dramatic intensity that you can see what he painted by the week, the day, and even before and after making love with Marie-Thérèse – the impulses of mind and body streaming straight into the art.
Picasso met Marie-Thérèse by chance outside the Galeries Lafayette in 1927; she was 17, he was 45. Photographs show her as short, sturdy and tanned, extremely athletic and addicted to the beach; surely a kind of female counterpart. Marie-Thérèse did not know who he was, but her bourgeois mother did, for Picasso was world-famous, a chauffeur-driven celebrity with a Russian ballerina wife, about to buy a Normandy mansion with a tower for painting and a barn for sculpture. Anyone visiting this show will be amazed that Olga Khokhlova could have seen exactly what we see – over 100 major works from 1932 – and failed to deduce the threat of a rival.
Marie-Thérèse is the central presence here, first to last. The opening portrait is sensational – an odalisque in lavender, blue and gold, head thrown luxuriously back in an armchair. You will recognise her palette all the way through the show, along with her oval eyes, classical nose and radiant crop of blonde hair. Here she is in postcoital bliss, reclining, sleeping, stretching, dreaming, nearly always pictured as if seen in, or from, bed.
Nude in a Black Arm Chair, 1932
In January, she appears by silvery moonlight; in August, nude beneath a scorching cobalt sky. She becomes the yellow triangles of her swimming costume, balances a ball seal-like on the beach, curls up like a cat. Picasso sculpts her as a massive head, bulbous and yet somehow beautiful with her ancient Greek profile. The bust reappears in a painting, poised on a classical column in remembered white light, or bursts into the present as a living painting alongside her fascinated maker.
The titles give nothing away – Sleeping Woman, Bather, Nude, always anonymous. Marie-Thérèse was installed in an apartment directly opposite the Picassos by now. But perhaps Olga wasn’t looking; she was, after all raising their son, Paulo, and running a hectic social salon. Life goes torrentially forwards, as indicated in judiciously selected photographs, newspapers, films and letters throughout this show. In February, a Picasso sells for a record-breaking 56,000 francs. In March, editors begin the first catalogue raisonné. He’s in Zurich for a solo show; he’s bulk-buying canvases for a flat-out summer; he’s sleeping with Marie-Thérèse while Olga is away.
Reclining Nude, 2 April 1932
Even if one did not know the affair was clandestine, the paintings might show it. For of course, they are nothing like conventional portraits, where the subject sits before the painter. Marie-Thérèse is often recollected as a hazy purple memory, or her limbs and hands are isolated, then ecstatically reassembled so that one can scarcely make out the figure. In one painting the nose appears priapic, the hands vulval. In another, a sweeping oval of back and hips holds the face and breasts like lush fruit in a dish.
Not the least virtue of this tremendous exhibition is that it emphasises the irreducible strangeness of Picasso. For all the miscegenation of forms, the apparent dissonance of colours – crimson, pistachio, mauve – these paintings are often erotic, even tender. Their beauty is counterintuitive. One begets another in sequence. It feels as if the paintings are talking to each other across the studio, and nowhere more than the majestic group of nudes painted across six momentous days in March, reunited here for the first time since 1932.
Picasso - rue de la Boettie, 1933 by Cecil Beaton
Marie-Thérèse lies sleeping below her own classical bust, a theatrical curtain pinned up behind her. Now the leaves of a fig tree look down upon her, as if swooning over her body. And here she is again, a rhythm of undulations multiplied in the glimmering mirror behind, like Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. The atmosphere runs from midnight to bright day, across the seasons and centuries from some ancient grove to modern-day Paris. She dreams; he conjures the myths.
These paintings appeared in Picasso’s first retrospective in June 1932. Two thousand Parisians attended the opening in evening gowns and tails; photographs show that they weren’t inured to the shock. And it seems that Olga finally realised what was going on, although she did not leave Picasso until Marie-Thérèse became pregnant in 1935. Picasso was absent; he went to the movies instead.
The retrospective is brilliantly condensed in a few works at Tate Modern, giving a full sense of his career so far, from the sorrowful Girl in a Chemise and Blue Period self-portraits to a neoclassical Olga in all her glacial rigidity. Picasso redefines the portrait for each woman. Olga does not appear again, except perhaps in a frightening painting of a black-haired woman, her face a violent black palette, features unrecognisable. Olga was undergoing psychiatric treatment.
What did Picasso really feel for either woman? “Love is the only thing,” he once said, but with a hasty qualification, à la Prince Charles, “whatever that means.” His is not an open-hearted art; and there is a fine line between beauty and horror. Marie-Thérèse may be his glorious shining moon, but she can also dwindle to a stick figure scuttling along a beach.
Picasso was so prolific this show could have run to several hundred images. But discerning selection means you are never overwhelmed. A room of black-and-white canvases shows him working with paint as if it were charcoal, drawing then freely erasing, the blackened results presaging abstract expressionism. Another gallery presents Titianesque goddesses reclining to the music of young Grecian flautists – he was always competing with the old masters – and 14 inky crucifixions based on Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. There’s no profundity here, only ramification; Picasso is merely investigating that spiritual masterpiece as a way of practising his own graphic notations.
That he worked quite so intensively in series, image breeding image, is a physical revelation at Tate Modern. Every work is charged with sensational force and desire, the brush moving around his lover’s body like a tongue or hand. Life alters towards the end of the year. Fascism is stirring in Europe, Marie-Thérèse becomes dangerously ill after swimming in a contaminated river. The final works show men desperately trying to rescue drowning women. But still there is a sense of metamorphosis, of episode and emotion becoming myth. Picasso is about to enter the worst period of his life, shifting faithlessly between two women. But Marie-Thérèse never abandons him. Like the classical bust he astutely makes of her, she remains heroic and enduring.
Three stars of the show
24 January 1932
Billionaire investor Steve Cohen paid billionaire casino magnate Steve Wynn a record £103m for this trophy in 2013. It had to be repaired in 2006 after Wynn accidentally put his elbow through it. Marie-Thérèse dozes in her chair, dress slipping off to expose one breast, fingers significantly gathered to a point. She is dreaming of Picasso (look closely at the coded forms in that head). A morning of love followed by a single afternoon’s work.
Nude Woman in a Red Armchair
27 July 1932
Of all the hundreds of images Picasso made of his lover, this is surely the most beautiful and tender, painted in high summer not long after her 23rd birthday. Marie-Thérèse is all rhyming curlicues and arabesques, holding her own bosomy beauty together. She has two kissing forms for a face, like the new moon holding the old in its arms, and her silky flesh is bathed in moonlight.
Marie-Thérèse became gravely ill after swimming in a polluted river in the autumn of 1932. She lost her brilliant blonde hair. Picasso produced a tide of images of men desperately attempting to rescue drowning women. In this early version, the agony is condensed on a small-scale, the bearded man has classical features and the victim might be a nymph.There is that pale lavender again: Marie-Thérèse’s signature colour.