Last week I visited The Ey Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, which celebrates Picasso’s work from 1932-1933. My overall response to the exhibition was…complicated. The overriding feeling it left me with was, not wonder or awe, it was a difficult-to-pin-down, nagging kind of emotion.
In the first room, a painting of Picasso’s wife, Olga, hangs on the wall. Next to the painting is a description of their relationship (which at this stage was beginning to break-up). In the portrait Olga looks delicate. She is wearing a black kimono with exotic plants embroidered in the sleeve. Her expression is hard to interpret. She seems to be in a world of her own and perhaps she is, ruminating over a past memory or future dream.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Olga in an armchair, (1932)
The Japanese dress perhaps alludes to Picasso’s fascination with Japanese erotica, Shunga. Yet Olga’s portrait isn’t sexual in any way. In fact, Olga’s expression, the dark colours and shadows in the painting, are far from erotic. What Picasso has created feels more like an elegy; commemorating the loss of desire and communication within his marriage. Perhaps that’s why Olga’s expression is so hard to interpret, what we are looking at, is a point in Picasso’s marriage where he no longer understood or felt connected to his wife.
In the same room is a painting entitled “Women with Dagger”, a surrealist nightmare of a woman killing her sexual rival. The description on the wall tells us that this painting alludes to the increasing strain on Picassos marriage (he was already involved with his lover and mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter). The female figure in “Women with Dagger” has sharkish teeth, cold eyes, electric hair and enormous limbs.
It struck a chord with me. The terror (and repulsion) that Picasso communicates through his art is frightening. What we see here is not a conventional romantic depiction of marriage or relationships, we see an art that is fuelled by fear, yearning, and an inability to connect.
Pablo Picasso, Women with Dagger, (1932)
Walking round the gallery I felt sorry for Picasso’s wife, Olga. Clearly, he didn’t understand her, I found myself thinking. In the second room, surrounded by pictures of Picasso’s disembodied, sexualised, mistress I felt this even more strongly. Who was Picasso? Clearly he was a monster himself… sex-obsessed…unfeeling.
It wasn’t until the final room, which features images of drowning women, that my anger lapsed into a sort of sadness. The curator describes how these images can be seen as a reflection of Picasso’s own anxiety. He was afraid, the curators says, of causing the women in his life pain. He felt out of control, and this manifested itself in the series of paintings.
The exhibition had me thinking about relationships. I wanted to explore why I had felt that initial response of anger towards his paintings. I wanted to explore my own ideas about relationships as well as culturally-inherited ideas about relationships.
From a young age we are of course sold the idea of a perfect relationship, you find a soul mate and you live happily ever after. That’s the narrative. Nowadays this notion (of what a relationship should be) has become so prevalent that when we see a relationship that doesn’t match that model, or narrative, we are naturally upset by it, we disapprove of it, we judge it.
Some days later, still thinking about the exhibition, I realised that my feeling toward the collection had changed. I felt more sympathetic towards Picasso, Olga, and Marie. The fairy-tale relationship, I re-realised, is incredibly damaging because we dismiss everything else that doesn’t fall into its category. Love and relationships are of course wonderful and fulfilling and, in some cases, they can last a life time. But more often than not, they don’t. Usually they feature a number of different hurdles, obstacles and difficulties, especially when it comes to communication. You don’t suddenly meet your soul mate and discover everything’s wonderful. Relationships involve learning and mistakes.
Picasso, I realised, probably hadn’t set-out to demonise Olga. What he communicates, through his painting, is his own confused emotional state. He communicates his own fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities.
Pablo Picasso, The Dream, (1932)
“The Dream”, in contrast to “Women with Dagger”, is tranquil, clean, calm. Here we see Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, looking like a goddess: she is blissful, calm, post-coital, her top hangs loosely from one of her shoulders, her breast is exposed, her head is split by a large crack that runs from her scalp to her mouth, one side of her face is normal while the other resembles a penis, purple and erect.
The portrait marks the beginnings of a prolific collection of others, all featuring Marie-Thérèse Walter. In Picasso’s work Marie is a sexual marvel. Her shape is voluptuous and often distorted, her limbs fold, in and out of each other in an endless sea of impossible flesh. The paintings have a dreamy but also nightmarish quality. They highlight Picasso’s obsession with women as well as his struggle to connect with them.
The paintings express fear and desire and anxiety all at the same time. When it comes to Picasso, everything is personal. Walking round the gallery is like peering into another human being’s head, a rare insight into someone else’s struggle, we see all that is wonderful and all that is frightening in his relationships with women.
The exhibition overall is an incredible glimpse into another human being’s mind, one that we are not often granted. It celebrates relationships but in a different way to what we’re usually accustomed to. It celebrates, for example, just how hard it can be to express oneself, to say what we really mean. It exposes fear and vulnerability. Through the artist’s work, we see relationships as they can be. Everybody’s experience is different, but nobodies experience matches the perfect romantic model that we’re so often sold in film, advertising and social media.
I discovered, in the end, that what had made me feel uncomfortable in the exhibition (Picasso’s adultery, and his inability to understand his wife) is also what makes this collection powerful: It is incredibly human.
All of us experience difficulties when it comes to relationships and all of us have a hard-time communicating what we mean. That’s part of the human experience. That’s part of what makes relationships so amazing. YES, they’re complicated, YES, they’re a roller coaster ride of emotions, and, YES, they do require learning, negotiation, sympathy, patience.
It was okay to feel saddened by “Women with Dagger”, but I shouldn’t feel angry at Picasso for failing to understand his wife. It is human nature to sometimes fail to understand each other. My take-away from this exhibition, I concluded, shouldn’t be anger, I should see it instead as an opportunity to embrace the complexities of love and relationships, and to sympathise with the part, in all of us, that finds communication and connection tough. These issues (communication and connection) aren’t just male-issues…they’re not just Picassos issues…they’re issues that we all go-through and all struggle with in our way.
And so, in the end, I decided, it is the struggle in Picassos painting that makes the exhibition successful. His work acts as a reminder of how hard (and of how wonderful) relationships can be. His work reminds us to be sympathetic, with ourselves and others, because when it comes to relationships…they just are complicated. But It’s these complications (if you can learn to navigate and negotiate them) that make love worthwhile.
The Picasso Exhibition is on until 9 Sep 2018 and is well worth a visit.