Pi­casso’s Year of Won­ders

In­spired by a pas­sion­ate af­fair with a younger mistress, 1932 would be­come Pi­casso’s an­nus mirabilis. Jonny Wilkes ex­plores the de­sire and heartache be­hind his pro­lific year

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

Al­though torn in dif­fer­ent direc­tions, the artist was at his peak in 1932

When Pablo Pi­casso turned 50 on 25 Oc­to­ber 1931, his rep­u­ta­tion as an artist of global in­flu­ence had al­ready been es­tab­lished for decades. His Blue Pe­riod had come as a young man barely out of his teens, and he quickly fol­lowed it with his Rose Pe­riod and the cre­ation of Cu­bism. The Spa­niard, un­like other greats such as Van Gogh, was no pen­ni­less pain­ter un­ap­pre­ci­ated in his own life­time; the artis­tic com­mu­nity li­onised him, and high-price sales of his pieces brought him fab­u­lous wealth and fame.

His fifties were not go­ing to slow him down. In fact, 1932 proved to be a re­mark­ably fer­tile year for Pi­casso, dur­ing which he dashed out some of his most iconic can­vases in a mat­ter of days. At the same time, his pro­fes­sional and pri­vate lives were be­ing torn in dif­fer­ent direc­tions by con­trast­ing cir­cum­stances and ideals. But rather than di­vide him, they seemed to cre­ate a pre­car­i­ous har­mony – for those 12 months, at least – in­spir­ing what would be­come known as his ‘year of won­ders’.

This bal­ance can best be seen in Pi­casso’s re­la­tion­ships. On one side was his Rus­sian wife, Olga, and 10-year-old son Paulo, while on the other was his blonde French mistress, 28 years his ju­nior, named Marie-Thérèse Wal­ter. As Pi­casso saw in the new year at the fam­ily home, he could not help his thoughts from stray­ing to his clan­des­tine af­fair.


Pi­casso’s mar­riage had de­te­ri­o­rated dur­ing the 1920s. He had met Olga Khokhlova in 1917, dur­ing a pro­duc­tion for the Bal­lets Russes (she was a bal­le­rina, he was the set and cos­tume de­signer). They mar­ried the fol­low­ing year, moved into a grand apart­ment in Paris at 23 Rue La Boétie, and soon be­came a fea­ture in high so­ci­ety, at­tend­ing for­mal din­ners and pre­mieres in the com­pany of the elite.

To Pi­casso, Olga and his swanky home em­bod­ied a sti­fling bour­geois life­style, which he both en­joyed and be­lieved clashed with his de­sire for a sim­pler and more bo­hemian ex­is­tence. Part of Pi­casso wanted to re­con­nect with the world he knew as a young artist, liv­ing broke in Mont­martre.

Marie-Thérèse of­fered Pi­casso some­thing much more pas­sion­ate and, as his muse, more in­spir­ing. Their af­fair had be­gun in 1927, when she was 17 years old; he had bumped into her out­side the Ga­leries Lafayette depart­ment store on Boule­vard

Hauss­mann in Paris. They man­aged to keep their re­la­tion­ship a se­cret for years, though through­out Pi­casso used Marie-Thérèse as a sub­ject for many of his works, in­clud­ing a trio of paint­ings in Jan­uary 1932 – ‘Rest’, ‘Sleep’ and the highly erotic ‘The Dream’. The lat­ter is said to have been com­pleted in a sin­gle af­ter­noon.

The vi­brant colours, flow­ing lines and sen­su­al­ity of these paint­ings speak vol­umes about Pi­casso and MarieThérè­se’s re­la­tion­ship, no mat­ter how well they hid their il­licit li­aisons. What­ever Olga knew of their af­fair, she re­mained with Pi­casso un­til 1935 – when she learnt that Marie-Thérèse was preg­nant with his child.


In the first half of March, Pi­casso was par­tic­u­larly pro­lific, fin­ish­ing seven paint­ings later de­scribed by art his­to­rian Al­fred H Barr as “un­like any­thing he had done be­fore”. Three of them – ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’, ‘Nude in a Black Arm­chair’ and ‘The Mir­ror’ – took just five days; all show Marie-Thérèse drap­ing her naked body across the bot­tom of the can­vas. Then, only two days later, he put the fin­ish­ing strokes on yet an­other mas­ter­piece, ‘Girl Be­fore a Mir­ror’.

De­spite the eroti­cism of his art, Pi­casso rarely worked with a live model in his stu­dio, not even his dar­ling Marie-Thérèse. In late March, he had an­other burst of cre­ativ­ity, but the six ab­stracted naked fig­ures he cre­ated were much more ex­plicit – so much so that his art dealer, Paul Rosen­berg, would not dis­play them.

Ear­lier in his ca­reer, Pi­casso had painted a por­trait of Olga. It was far from the highly charged and sex­ual de­pic­tions of Marie-Thérèse, a neo­clas­si­cal paint­ing that shows his wife as re­fined and al­most aus­tere.

It was Rosen­berg who rented and paid for the apart­ment on Rue La Boétie for Pi­casso and Olga af­ter they mar­ried, as he owned a gallery next door. From there, he helped sell Pi­casso’s work for stag­ger­ing prices; in Fe­bru­ary, ‘La Coif­fure’ had fetched 56,000 francs. The fam­ily home, how­ever, con­tin­ued to ran­kle with Pi­casso. As Olga had – ac­cord­ing to artist and pho­tog­ra­pher Bras­saï – turned the apart­ment into “one of the cen­tres of so­ci­ety life”, Pi­casso set up a stu­dio in the rooms above, a stu­dio that Olga would not en­ter. Filled with art sup­plies and piles of books, Bras­saï called this refuge “an apart­ment turned pigsty”.


Yet Pi­casso’s fame and bour­geois life still pulled against his long­ing for a qui­eter, more pri­vate dwelling, lead­ing him to split his time be­tween Paris and Bois­geloup, the coun­try chateau he had bought in 1930. Olga greatly en­joyed en­ter­tain­ing fam­ily and friends there, while Pi­casso fre­quently made the 40-mile trip without his fam­ily in search of soli­tude – or to be with Marie-Thérèse. In the con­verted sta­bles, he found a new kind of space for sculpt­ing, which he did at night by the light of oil lamps. As with his paint­ings, his mistress pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion for a se­ries of plaster heads and busts.

For Pi­casso, 1932 was not only for new cre­ations, but a chance to re­flect on his ca­reer and en­sure his legacy. Look­ing back nearly 40 years, he com­piled and pub­lished, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with art writer and critic Chris­tian Zer­vos, a cat­a­logue raisonné – a list­ing of all the pieces he cre­ated be­tween 1895 and 1906. It turned out to be the first of 33 vol­umes.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, a group of French art deal­ers or­gan­ised a ret­ro­spec­tive, the first such ex­hi­bi­tion of Pi­casso’s art. But rather than solely look­ing back over his past glo­ries, as with

“The vi­brant colours, flow­ing lines and sen­su­al­ity of these paint­ings speak vol­umes about Pi­casso and Marie-Thérèse’s re­la­tion­ship”

the cat­a­logue, he wanted it to demon­strate his on­go­ing rel­e­vance to art in the 20th cen­tury, and so look to the fu­ture. In­deed, he pro­duced many of his paint­ings that year es­pe­cially for the ret­ro­spec­tive, which had the added ef­fect of giv­ing vis­i­tors a glimpse into his af­fair.

As Pi­casso an­nounced around the time of the ex­hi­bi­tion’s open­ing at the Ga­leries Ge­orges Petit in Paris, “Paint­ing is just an­other way of keep­ing a di­ary” – and Marie-Thérèse had been tak­ing up many of his days.


With the ret­ro­spec­tive un­der­way, and prov­ing a suc­cess, Pi­casso felt a greater sense of artis­tic free­dom. When he went to Nor­mandy with his fam­ily, he com­pleted a se­ries of can­vases show­ing strangely formed hol­i­day­mak­ers on the beach. Then, af­ter fol­low­ing the ret­ro­spec­tive to the Kun­sthaus art mu­seum in Zurich, he started on a col­lec­tion of black-and­white draw­ings of Christ’s cru­ci­fix­ion. Among those who vis­ited the ex­hi­bi­tion in Switzer­land was Ger­man artist Paul Klee. “All in all: [Pi­casso is] the pain­ter of to­day,” Klee wrote to his wife. Psy­chi­a­trist Carl Jung, on the other hand, ex­pressed con­cerns for Pi­casso’s men­tal health.

By the end of 1932, Pi­casso’s work be­came darker, and fo­cused more on sub­jects such as death and rape. Again, this came down to the in­flu­ence of his muse, as Marie-Thérèse had con­tracted a vi­ral in­fec­tion af­ter swim­ming in the River Marne and lost most of her hair. The year ended with Pi­casso still un­able to stop his thoughts stray­ing to his lover, but the sen­su­al­ity, coy­ness and soft, pas­tel colours from the likes of ‘Nude Woman in a Red Arm­chair’ – painted in July – had been re­placed by se­vere, greyer tones, and a more som­bre, trou­bled mood.

For the next 40 years, Pi­casso con­tin­ued in­no­vat­ing, de­fy­ing cat­e­gori­sa­tion and pro­duc­ing work with ex­tra­or­di­nary abun­dance. His re­mark­able ca­reer started be­fore he had reached 10 years old and con­tin­ued right up un­til his death at 91, yet 1932 – the sub­ject of a ma­jor new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Tate Mod­ern in Lon­don – still stands out as won­drous.

“Sen­su­al­ity and soft colours were re­placed by a more som­bre, trou­bled mood”

The Mir­ror, 1932/Pablo Pi­casso/Pri­vate Col­lec­tion/© Suc­ces­sion Pi­casso/DACS Lon­don, 2017

The three nudes were dis­played to­gether at the ret­ro­spec­tive in Paris – giv­ing clues to the se­cret woman in Pi­casso’s life THE MIR­ROR

© RMN-Grand Palais/Musée Na­tional Pi­casso, Paris

In the sum­mer of 1932, Pi­casso went to the Nor­mandy coast with Olga and their son Paulo FAM­ILY HOL­I­DAY

ARTIST AND HIS MUSE Pablo Pi­casso with one of his 1932 paint­ings of Marie-Thérèse Wal­ter, the muchy­ounger woman with whom he had been hav­ing an af­fair since 1927. Sugges­tively, his por­trait of his wife, Olga, is seen lean­ing against the wall

GIRL BE­FORE A MIR­ROR Marie-Thérèse be­came Pi­casso’s favourite sub­ject, and in­spired him to use in­tense colours and flow­ing lines, giv­ing his work from 1932 a greater sen­su­al­ity Girl be­fore a Mir­ror, 1932/Pablo Pi­casso/The Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, New...

THE CRU­CI­FIX­ION The death of Je­sus Christ was a sub­ject that Pi­casso re­turned to sev­eral times dur­ing his ca­reer – not nec­es­sar­ily for any re­li­gious mean­ing, but as an ex­pres­sion of pain and suf­fer­ing The Cru­ci­fix­ion, 1932/Pablo Pi­casso/Musée Na­tional...

Pi­casso dated this volup­tuous paint­ing of Marie-Thérèse as 27 July 1932 pre­cisely, sug­gest­ing that he com­pleted it in one day NUDE WOMAN IN A RED ARM­CHAIR

PARIS RET­RO­SPEC­TIVE The widely re­viewed ex­hi­bi­tion caused a sen­sa­tion, though not many paint­ings were ac­tu­ally sold Nude Woman in a Red Arm­chair, 1932/Pablo Pi­casso/Tate. Pur­chased 1953/© Suc­ces­sion Pi­casso/DACS Lon­don, 2017

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