Issue Number: 109
Picasso himself curated the first retrospective of his work in 1932, showing off his protean passion in paint. Now the exhibition has been recreated, giving viewers a glimpse into how the artist saw his own work. By Simon Wilson
Pablo Picasso, 'Sleeping Woman in a Mirror', 1932. The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection. After 40 years as an art historian, the bulk of that time spent working at Tate, I can still be surprised by Picasso. That is perhaps symptomatic of his stature as an artist, or it could be that I just have not been getting out enough. Anyhow, the source of my surprise is a new exhibition that raises the interesting question of when precisely the full extent of Picasso’s extraordinary gift, of the breadth, depth and sheer richness and complexity of his work, was first made manifest to the public.
The answer is almost certainly the enormous retrospective exhibition of 225 paintings and several sculptures staged by the artist and his dealers in 1932 at the luxurious Galeries Georges Petit in Paris. It went on to the Kunsthaus, Zürich, where it became Picasso’s first museum retrospective and a controversial sensation. It was, and probably remains, the most important show in the museum’s history. Now, in its centenary year, the Kunsthaus is recreating the exhibition as part of the celebrations.
In 1932 the controversy was stirred up not least by the response of one of Zürich’s most celebrated citizens, the founder of analytical psychology Carl Gustav Jung. On the last day of the exhibition his article in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung caused ‘an international furore’. Picasso, Jung said, ‘turns fatefully into the darkness… following the demonic attraction of the ugly and evil that wells up in modern man… veils this bright world of day with infernal fog… and finally disintegrates it… into fragments, fault lines, remains, rubble, scraps and inorganic units’. This was seen as shockingly negative. But today it reads as penetratingly true and positive praise. We expect our artists to explore the darker side of human nature.
Why did Picasso and his dealers go to the enormous effort of mounting this show which, at the height of the Depression, was a huge gamble? Evidently they hoped to boost Picasso’s reputation and increase sales. But for Picasso himself undoubtedly a key factor was his old rivalry with Matisse, who had had a major show at the Galeries Petit in 1931. Determined to outdo him, Picasso made his exhibition much larger, and fully retrospective, as Matisse’s was not. Picasso also curated the show himself, as Matisse had not. And Picasso got his show into a museum. It was a blatant display of artistic machismo. And not just artistic. Picasso was at this time engaged in a passionate love affair with a young woman called Marie-Thérèse Walter. He was 50 and married, unhappily, to the Russian dancer Olga Koklova; Marie-Thérèse was 22.
Pablo Picasso, 'The Rest', 1932. © 2010 ProLitteris, Zürich. Courtesy Nahmad Collection, Switzerland. It is clear that Picasso was enormously energised by his affair with Marie-Thérèse and this was also part of the drive behind the exhibition. It seems clear, too, that he used it to show off to the world his possession, in middleage, of a ravishing young mistress. Starting in the spring of 1931, Picasso produced some 30 extraordinary paintings inspired by her, including the ecstatic The Rest and the more relaxed Sleeping Woman in a Mirror, both from 1932. They are remarkable in the history of the nude in Western art for combining a lyrical eroticism and a frank, though often visually coded sexuality, with a complete absence of prurience or the voyeuristic offering of the nude to the gaze of the male spectator. Perhaps for this reason, John Berger – Picasso’s sternest critic – claimed in his famous book The Success and Failure of Picasso (Penguin, 1965) that they were Picasso’s greatest works. Posterity has recently resoundingly agreed with him: one of the most beautiful, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) was sold at Christie’s in May, 2010, for £70 million, the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
Twenty-two of the Marie-Thérèse paintings, probably all that had been produced to that point, were included in the 1932 exhibition and brought it to a powerful conclusion. Sleeping Woman in a Mirror, which is included in the new show, reveals how Picasso used the freedoms of Cubism to create the complex, often highly abstracted erotic imagery of these paintings. He divides the head of the figure in two: one half takes on the unmistakable straight-nosed profile of Marie-Thérèse, the other becomes another profile, Picasso himself, sticking an orange tongue into her open mouth. The whole figure is seen as a system of sensuous curves, set off by the rectangle of the mirror.
The 2010 recreation of this important show, although necessarily incomplete, offers a unique and fascinating opportunity to catch a glimpse of Picasso’s own vision of his oeuvre. However, if you can’t go to Zürich, just make your way to Tate Modern, where The Three Dancers (1925), one of the greatest paintings from the 1932 show and too fragile to travel, is hanging. Also there, you will find a painting of Marie-Thérèse, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, which Picasso completed after his exhibition opened in 1932 and has therefore not gone to Zürich. It is quite equal to Nude, Green Leaves and Bust in beauty and far exceeds it in thematic richness. It has been the property of the nation since 1953, and you don’t have to pay £70 million to enjoy it.