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
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.
STEALING A MARCH
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.
DESCENT TO DESPAIR
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 three nudes were displayed together at the retrospective in Paris – giving clues to the secret woman in Picasso’s life THE MIRROR
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