‘The EY Exhibition – Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy’ presents a show that explores a year in Picasso’s life. Considered as his ‘Anno Admirabilis’, 1932 is the year when he managed to leave cubism behind which, as we know, was not only a breakthrough in his career but also in the way painting, in general, approached three dimensionality on a flat surface swapping one-point perspective by simultaneous points of view. Having led that visual revolution entailed not only becoming the better paid living artist of his time but also shaping western civilisation according to his own reputation. 1932 was, also, the year when he tried to reinvent himself without falling into the traps that that kind of success usually brings about to artists. This new Picasso was very different from the former cerebral primitivism that characterised his collaborations with Braque and Apollinaire. Enjoying a bourgeois life with a driver, a limo, a mansion in the countryside, a wife and a lover who also was her muse at the time, he transformed his private life into the preserve of the very much needed instability that would, eventually, fuel his creative output.
Married to Olga Khokhlova and in an illicit relationship with Marie Therese whom he met when she was only 17 and he was already accomplished and successful artist, Picasso sees women as threatening entities whom he fails to ‘save’. Thus, when Marie Therese becomes ill from a viral infection caught while swimming in a polluted river, Picasso perceives an analogy to his own failure of preventing his own sister from dying of diphtheria. With a God complex, painting is for this artist an instrument to exorcise his own sexual insecurities and a way to reinforcing the belief that women cannot take care of themselves. It is as if women made him realise that, actually, he is not a god and precisely because of this he ends up representing them, as the exhibition shows, as giant sea monsters or squids who, like in Shunga (Japanese XIX century porn) threaten to devour man’s own sense of sexual pre-eminence. Painting seems to be the only place where he can control his own misoginistic fears of losing them and himself in spite of all his success and reputation.
It was probably this mid life crisis realisation which fuelled the astonishing speed in which he painted during that year. It is precisely that body of work that Tate Modern presents throughout ten rooms which, from the point of view of style, pass from abandoning the chiaroscuro aspects of analytical cubism to flirt with Matisse’s flat decorativism and with the contorsions that, according to the curators, he firstly spots in Mathias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and that, eventually, set the scene for his Guernica to appear. The show’s thesis, however, is that his approach to Surrealism has a sexual and therefore, private nature which coincides with his retreat to his recently acquired chateau in Boisgeloup where he can isolate from his own success to focus on the female body as a threatening and uncontrollable entity that ultimately makes him realise of his own limitations. It is this that makes him take control of his own career. The irony is that his own personal failures fuels his institutional success.
One of the most interesting rooms of the show is, however, the one dedicated precisely to his care for having the control of his own reputation by deciding to curate his own retrospective at the George Petit Gallery in Paris. This, as the Tate Modern shows states, is exceptionally done (at least, for today’s standards) in a synchronic manner instead of in a chronological one. Thus, he rejected Alfred Barr’s belief (and thus, MoMA’s) that modernism could only be presented as a clinical narration where progression was equated with the cerebral aspects of the artistic institution. This, of course, happened in the aftermath of the big (financial) Depression which forced him to be more decorative and commercial and, probably, because of that he found himself competing with Henri Matisse who, until that point, had been the only living artist who had been given the honour of having a retrospective as well as a catalogue raisonné. By chosing to curate his own show at the George Petit Gallery as an immersive experience in no chronological order and without clarifying signage, Picasso was saying something more meaningful about the way art and artists’ careers should be apprehended. It might be this the reason why his galleries later rejected to show his ‘women as squids’ paintings. It might not have been an issue of sexual puritanism as the Tate Modern shows suggests but a deeper contention between a modernist way of presenting the work and a more artistic and immersive approach to his own work. In other words, at the height of his success, Picasso seemed to ask himself whether we want to experience art as art or as bureaucracy and it is precisely this question that makes his show relevant today. It is ironic that Joan Jonas’ retrospective takes place in the same building and at the same time than the Picasso show for the latter unwillingly shows the artistic shortcomings of modernism when focussing too much on the reputation and career of an artist. The question that an informed viewer might ask himself or herself after seeing both the Picasso and the Joan Jonas shows has to do with the relevance of the institutionalised showcasing of artists in the context of a modernist art history in which everything seems to be neutralised by the destructive synergy of institutions, corporate patronage and the new artistic bureaucracies. J A T