“Make for me whatever is personal for you” – that has been the form of many a modern art commission, and it is one with which Picasso here complied. His interior with figures is grandiose but defiantly scruffy. Its bohemian-aristocrat proprietor has been a happy shopper, riffling wallpaper offcuts from all over – cheapo 1930s geometric, floral jollities from the Paul Poiret era, Second Empire crimson-and-gold. He is free with his tastes but he rules over his roost. For Picasso, to think about his personal domain is to think about the women he has loved and about how they interrelate. Accordingly, what these women are likely to be busy with, for the purposes of his reverie, is each other and themselves. To organise this dream harem in Femmes à leur toilette, Picasso leans (as in Guernica) on the reliability of a tripartite composition. Let it revolve around his current amorous obsession – Dora Maar, the 30-year-old artist who had introduced him to the big studio in which he was now working. The flavour of that obsession was bittersweet, a hankering after fascinating discord. Thus, as in Tate’s celebrated Weeping Woman (1937), Picasso casts Dora as a figure of distress for the sake of distress, in stricken dialogue with her spooked reflection. Alongside, holding up the mirror to her, Picasso posits the by-now sidelined Marie-Thérèse – a muse familiar to everyone who visited the astonishing 2018 Tate exhibition Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy. To the other side of Dora, however, Picasso’s thoughts mutate. There’s a notional Olga – his discarded wife, put to service with a comb – but through the corniest of puns, a dress composed of a strip of wallpaper with a pattern of maps, also identifies her as tout le monde, and this “everybody”, it seems, may have better things to turn towards: flowers in a vase, or that blaze of yellow window light. Just possibly, indeed, there might be a world beyond this dream chamber.
Cuttoli never got her tapestry. Picasso wouldn’t allow the big canvas with its pasted papers to leave his studio. (Only 30 years later, aged 86, did he relent, permitting weaving to proceed under alternative direction.) Whether this was because he himself felt the outcome was not satisfyingly resolved, or because he cherished it too zealously, is left to each of us to decide when Femmes à leur toilette arrives in London as the largest single exhibit in the RA’s show Picasso and Paper. How much, anyway, should we look to Picasso – the instigator of the most momentous of all pictorial arguments, that which convulses 1907’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – for works of art that are ‘well resolved’? The copious selection loaned to the RA deflects that demand, turning our attention from product to process. As well as exhibiting the sequences of drawings behind major projects, such as Guernica and the Demoiselles (Five Nudes, Study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907), the show presents us with an artist who was in many ways an eternal explorative apprentice, pushing the possibilities of every graphic idiom within sight, while slyly subverting each. (“Down with style! Does God have a style?”)
The scope of the RA show is the countless dealings that Picasso had with an indispensable – in fact a fundamental – medium. So there are not only drawings, prints and collages, but costume designs, photography (a medium with which Picasso was considerably engaged), manuscripts of poetry (another with which he dallied), and books, newspapers and envelopes that he modified or defaced. Organised chronologically by the curators Ann Dumas, William Robinson and Emilia Philippot, the survey steers us towards steady but awed appreciation of the energies that we saw so explosively detonated in Tate Modern’s focus on a single melodramatic year. Surprises nonetheless abound: among them, for me, the hip upgrade of tactics Picasso came up with in his late ’60s, when asked to respond to a collection of desolate wartime lyrics by Pierre Reverdy. Le Chant des Morts (1948; opposite top) reproduces the poet’s handwriting festooned with bold mysterious ideograms that the painter has brushed in blood red – not so much as the accompanist to this singer, more in the manner of a bebop player abstractly improvising. (How hard it is, even now, to outpace Picasso! Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s collaged interiors look gorgeously of the moment as the 2010s end, but Femmes preceded them by most of a century.)