Before entering the Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate Modern, I knew Picasso was a bit of a prick, and I knew that a look at ‘Love, Fame and Tragedy’ was going to display that in all its glory. But I also came with anticipation; I love modernist art and Picasso is a master, some say the master. Yet throughout this exhibition, it was not just that egotistical sadist that filled my thoughts but two, far more elusive figures. The women in Picasso’s life were a palpable presence amongst the canvases, I saw signifiers of women torn to shreds and spread violently across endless rooms and, it made it hard to ignore one overwhelming affirmation: yep, definitely a prick.
The women I’m referring to are Picasso’s wife Olga Khokhlova and his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. How did these two women feel about all this? How would they feel about perhaps the most prolific year in Picasso’s career culminating in an overwhelming de/reconstruction of Walter, erotic aggression ending in scenes of self-rape? The fact is, the exhibition gave no insight into how either felt, but that didn’t stop me from returning to the thought again and again.
In the first room, two pieces sit beside each other, created in the same day: ‘Woman with Dagger’ and one of many – many, paintings of a woman in a red armchair. The former is a surrealist nightmare of a woman killing another woman, perhaps the nightmare/fantasy of Picasso, perhaps the recurring dream of Olga. It’s terrifying, but it’s small and almost scared to be any larger, any more real in comparison with the latter painting. Here a woman’s body is swollen into hearts and sensual curves, her face violently smudged into a grey mess with one glaring clue as to the subject: a blonde flash of hair. In ‘Rest’, the conflict of home and escape conflates these two women into a violent hysteria; the hair becomes black spikes, the flesh raw with flecks of red, the mouth a hole of bared teeth, set against the wallpaper that recurs in the armchair pieces, here melting into chaos. These pieces are disturbing in different ways and an indication of what’s to come: very little of Olga other than nightmarish surrealism and a whole lot of Walter in increasing degrees of objectification and erotic violence.
As the exhibition develops, the extreme distortion of Walter becomes relentless. She becomes an object in a still life study, inanimate. In a piece that perhaps defines the complex relationship Picasso had between love and horror, a bronze sculpture, carved unmistakably into Walter’s profile, distorts and swells into an unhuman mass depending on your viewpoint.
In another piece, her rest is realised through an expression of ecstasy met with violence; there’s a serenity in the soft lilac folds of stomach flesh, with a restful face lost in ecstasy, until we reach the head. Almost decapitated with the red armchair, the object that capacitated her respite now forms into a knife-edged chopping block, threatening it. Shortly after this he places her again in the armchair but this time, with his penis as her forehead, in the rather arrogantly titled ‘The Dream’. I wondered whose dream. And yet, I can’t help that my eye enjoys what he does to the human body. I enjoy the distorted swollen limbs flushed with pastels and a body melted into a repetition of curves. And for some reason, I can’t quite explain, I love the strange violence, the mixture of sex and aggression, the making-absurd of a canon of beauty.
But it’s the context, and it’s the relentless use of women, of one woman. It’s the imbalance of power that makes me want to turn away. There are many moments where this eroticism is met with the artist himself, with mirrored faces repeated in the piece; gender is fleshed together, but never close enough to implicate him in the violence beyond his paintbrush. Looking at a woman violently splayed into a sharp geometric figure with her arse hole exposed to the sun (Femme nue couchée au soleil sur la plage), felt a little like the kind of humiliation of women so proliferated by the likes of Bukowski.
This imbalance of passive sitter and violence of the artist is loud and unflinching, but what is it achieving other than tickling the dark fantasies of a misogynist? I’m still not sure. This exhibition’s torture of the two women in his life, and the corporeal woman in general, was the main impression I left with. So, said Angela Carter ‘Picasso liked cutting up women.’ But, and please forgive me, I enjoy his work. I love the strange, carnal expression and coalescence of dream and horror. I almost wish I could go to an exhibition of it and not hear a word about him with not a woman in sight but lots of fleshy men baring themselves to the moon or swollen into octopuses, then maybe I’d be able to just enjoy the paint on the canvas. But this exhibition was so inextricably linked with his misogyny it was impossible to not feel a little rage. How much can you remove the artist when he’s such a glaring arsehole?
In one of the final rooms, a rescue from drowning evolves, beginning in one piece as the figures of a man and a woman (the woman is always Walter), to two women, which turns into ‘The Rape’, a nightmarish tragedy of swarming figures resembling Walter. Rather fittingly intimating the closeness of violence and revival, of ecstasy and humiliation for Picasso, and a relentless refusal to be vulnerable – too shy to paint yourself as the abuser, Picasso? A quote printed onto the wall reads: ‘[Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon.] When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs. We love with our desires – although everything has been done to try and apply a canon even to love’. The we here is undeniably masculine, and it makes me read the paintings as nothing to do with these torn apart women, with representations of them; these paintings are about him, his ego, his grotesque machismo. His desires, however violent, refusing to concede to a ‘canon’ of love.
Towards the end of the exhibition, a sculpture of a large nobly cock is displayed in the centre of the room, I thought of how present this cock was in every room. The egotistical restlessness of Picasso’s life during this prolific year, is expertly evoked in this exhibition, where a wealth of pieces confronts you with the fact that, yes, he is a master, and a misogynist.