An important exhibition at the Tate Modern shows the sheer extent of Picasso’s creative energy, writes Christopher Jackson
It was James Shapiro who caused a minor stir in Shakespeare studies by publishing his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, which sought to study the playwright through the lens of a single year. He was hampered to some extent by the fact that we don’t know what Shakespeare was doing at that, or at any, time: there are still those, like Alexander Waugh, who contend that Shapiro should have been writing about the Earl of Oxford.
The Tate Modern has had no such difficulties in emulating Shapiro’s approach in its latest Picasso exhibition: Picasso painted as exhaustively as Shakespeare wrote – and luckily for us, all his Aubreys were his contemporaries. We know everything about him. ‘The work one does is a way of keeping a diary,’ as he said – the quote hangs above the first placard in the first room.
But Picasso still exercises a fascination. A cult arose around him during his lifetime which he was happy to stoke (understandably, he was living off it). It’s also because, for all the fanfare around him, his central mission remains unclear – on the evidence here, it wasn’t clear even to him. You sense that he was always giving expression to chaos. That it was a large chaos doesn’t necessarily excuse him from the charge that he missed the opportunity to pursue for himself - and for us - marvellous sensibility. Picasso is never explaining the world; more usually, he’s protesting it.
You’re not meant to say it, but the majority of Picasso’s work is startlingly ugly: we forgive him this because we also know that in his blue and rose periods he could do beauty. His picture Mirror, for example – in the third room here – shows a huge forearm in a mirror, depicted as if in the process of a particularly butch front crawl. The face is like one of those masks in the party scene of Eyes Wide Shut. The hand is a fin. The breasts are as absurdly spherical as those Michelangelo gave to his women in the Medici chapel. The wallpaper is a coarse simplification; the mirror itself is wonky and impossible. Yet because it’s Picasso and we know he could paint when he wanted to, we assume he had a decent reason for his departure from beauty.
The Mirror, 1932
Take also his picture Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (see top). There is a certain moony gentleness about the face, a voluptuous line throughout and the pastel colour scheme is not disagreeable to contemplate. But she is not beautiful; she is only desirable – or still less, momentarily desired by Picasso. Matisse did this with objects – collected them only to alter them on canvas. That Picasso does it with people can sometimes be a little alarming: he bestows only cursory and egotistical attention on his women.
Picasso’s career hinges on this radical departure – away from the broadly Grecian poetry of the blue and rose periods, towards this masculine assertion of erotic power. They amount to an assertion of the self-consciously masculine self.
Throughout the year, Picasso was producing at great speed images of considerable power. But one wonders why the speed had to be so breakneck. Was he creating always to fulfil a sufficient need? Or was he in a highly creative spiral, behoved to an ego which had grown monstrous on fame?
And yet - in the penultimate room but one, his pencil studies make one reconsider this verdict. These show explicitly the architectural under-energy of the paintings. Usually they relate to paintings earlier in the show. But whereas in the paintings there are huge lumps of colour, in these studies we see a busy weave of delicate line. It is as if, after seeing the lumpen atomic world, we are shown a subatomic complexity.
And they send you back through the other rooms, to detect a depth of feeling one hadn't suspected. In Nude in a Black Armchair, for instance, I saw the image afresh: the exaggerated languor of the neck; the fragile ecstasy of the mouth, and the way in which the ferocity of the sun adds to the intimacy of the moment. Suddenly it's all here - perhaps it was there all along.
Why did Picasso decide against beauty? For one thing, he was innately restless: he pursued greatness as a lion hunts down a wildebeest, in a flash of violent energy. But this show also suggests that throughout 1932, the artist already intuited that the world was heading towards ugliness: Guernica was still a few years away, but Picasso had arrived at the point by the last rooms of this exhibition – especially in his renditions of Grunewald’s Crucifixion – where it was a possibility.
Dark as that thought is – and ominous as any exhibition must be which culminates in the career of Adolf Hitler – how nice to arrive for once at the end of an exhibition and not find the artist about to die, but about to begin all over again.
Christopher Jackson is deputy editor of Spear’s