A Year in the Life of Pablo Picasso
An exhibition at the Musée National Picasso in Paris tracks the artist’s life and work, month-to-month, in 1932.
PARIS — The more than 110 paintings, drawings, engravings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso included in Picasso 1932: Année Erotique (“Picasso 1932: Erotic Year”) arrive as the world grapples with an avalanche of accounts of sexual abuse by powerful men. Creeping along an earlier, risqué line, Picasso’s sexual politics in 1932 were not that great either. At a libidinous 50 years old, he was still cheating on his ballet dancer wife Olga Khokhlova (with whom he had a son, Paulo) with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was 17 when they first slept together in 1927 (when he was 45). Picasso had met Walter by chance that year in the street and asked her to pose for him. She agreed to do so and went on to become his mistress and stayed so for almost 10 years; in 1935 she gave birth to a daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, who in turn was the subject of the recent show Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter at Gagosian Paris. This five-year gap between 1927 — the year of Picasso’s first encounter with Walter — and 1932 — the subject of Picasso 1932: Année Erotique — may account for why I felt a distinct absence of explicitly erogenous imagery on display. Indeed, in that respect, the show did not live up to its suggestive billing, though it did provide other pleasures in spades.
In 1932, Picasso was deeply into his moxie version of Surrealism and making preparations for his first retrospective at Galerie Georges Petit in Paris with a new series of works, for which Walter served as model and muse, such as the horrendously conceived but beautifully drawn bucolic image “Les femmes en fleur” (“Women as a Flower,” 1932). Indeed, “wilted woman shrunk by satyrs” seems to be his central sine qua nonmotif for signaling his sexual conquest and the female fulfillment he imagined providing. With the swooning “Nu couché” (“Reclining Nude”) from April 4, 1932, where the female anatomy is colorfully highlighted and paired with picked pears, he obviously paints, however nicely, the objectification of women as sex object. Picasso’s rendering of his sexual domination over women is done in terms of odalisque-like poses where the female form competes with limp fruit, something so cliché that it suggests to me that he may have been a self-centered “bad” lover. However, there are no clues to this in the many letters, postcards, and photographs in the show, which nonetheless give a richer contextual understanding for his sensual paintings and their historical moment.
In spite of its sour sexual politics, the show delivers sweetmeats of intrigue as it is organized by month in rigorous chronological fashion and includes masterpieces like the Museum of Modern Art’s “Fille devant un miroir” (“Girl before a Mirror,” 1932). We trace Picasso’s eroticized creative process and controversial life almost day-to-day over the course of the year as he moved between his Paris studio, his castle in Boisgeloup, and the Normandy coast. He also spent a few days in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and son, where they went together to install the second stage of his retrospective at the Kunsthaus. That year he also oversaw the publication of the first volume of the catalogue of his work and the special issue devoted to it by Christian Zervos’s journal Cahiers d’Art.
The welcome archival access on view in each of the galleries (which are organized by month) impressively informs us of Picasso’s integration of Surrealist experimentation into not only his work, but also his life. That means that the exhibition is also a remarkable contribution to a critical understanding of Picasso’s way of painting and drawing as if he were authoring a journal. Though this is hardly a huge drawback, it does mean there is a certain amount of repetition, and not everything journalized is that good. “Nature morte: buste, coupe et palette” (“Still Life: Bust, Bowl, and Palette”), painted at Boisgeloup on March 3, 1932, looks to me like the work of a schlockmeister.
However, there is also the frequently recurring motif of the female figure seated in an armchair. This in fact is a privileged mode of representation in Picasso’s paintings that year, as seen in the excellent “Femme au fauteuil rouge” (“Woman Sitting in a Red Armchair”), “Le Rêve” (“The Dream”) and “La Lecture” (“Woman Reading”), where the crease of an open book stands in for Walter’s vagina. This motif of the seated figure proved to be a useful conceptual device for Picasso. The more I sat with these vivacious paintings, the more metaphorical and thus less gratuitous the work became to me. In a more magnanimous mood, tyrannical male dominance morphed into a much more generalizing libido sciendi (lusting curiosity) applicable to both sexes as frolicsome spirit. The substitution process present in Picasso’s more Surreal works from 1932 might allow anyone the possibility of understanding the reciprocity and intimacy of the relationship between the human body and the human imagination. The book-crease-as-labia becomes part of a visual language system replete with contradictory metaphors, condensations, displacements, multiplications, and jokes.
But even more challenging in its permutability and imaginative instability is an obscure etching series that includes “Femmes voilées et endormies” (“Veiled and Sleeping Women,” 1932). It collapses the figure-ground relationship, allowing for a high degree of ambiguity and a far more plentiful reading of how, throughout 1932, Picasso explored the gamut of his desiring imagination. The viewer must willingly participate in seeing the image, which allows a personal appropriation of its considerable evocative powers. That way, all are able to appreciate the artist’s fascination with the surrendered, languid female form, as it poetically corresponds to a myriad of erotic desires. So, rather than mere male dominance, itinerant intoxication also appears as leitmotif of Picasso’s erotic achievement that year.
Clearly, Picasso’s fusion of Surrealism and Cubism in 1932 dramatically extended the erotic vocabulary of painting. This enabled him to express in visual terms the reconciliation that the erotic imagination can make between contradictory but complementary experiences, like pleasure and pain — recalling the idea of la petite mort (the little death), which is linked to the experience of orgasm. Picasso’s mode of Surreal-Cubist creativity signals displacement, but the lingering question is: is it an act of brutal displacement indifferent to female beauty that upholds phallocratic domination, or a token of desire that pays tribute to the whole person of both sexes?
Picasso 1932: Année Érotique continues at the Musée National Picasso (5 rue de Thorigny, 3rd arrondissement, Paris) through February 11.