The painter Picasso said, ‘The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary.’
The Tate Modern’s current exhibition of his work gives us a glimpse into his diary for 1932, a year that ‘began … under the sign of love [but] ended with a premonition of tragedies to come’.
The exhibition is largely made up of brightly coloured and highly sensual images of his young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. As time progresses, however, the images veer into surrealist distortion and abstraction. Towards the end of the year, faced with increasing discord in his personal life, Picasso turns to another topic: the crucifixion, creating 13 monochrome sketches showing Christ on the cross surrounded by mourners.
For Picasso, an avowed atheist, the crucifixion is a religious image, but not a spiritual one. His drawings depict the barbarity of the act and the agony and desperation that it causes. The focus is on the experience of the mourners rather than on Christ himself.
This is suffering without redemption, savagery without transformation, darkness without light. The images feel far closer to his Guernica (1937) – a large-scale depiction of a Nazi bombing during the Spanish Civil War – than to the bright, exuberant images of Marie-Thérèse of early 1932.
If together these contrasting images form a diary, they reveal a mind battling to understand the relationship between beauty and anxiety, harmony and discord. Picasso tries repeatedly to find a counterpoint to life’s pain in physical beauty, often originating in women, and expressed in art.
As such, Picasso’s work expresses something profound about the depravity of the human condition and our need for redemption. He finds temporary reprieve in creativity and beauty, and yet even he finds that it is not enough to overcome the darkness. Despite this, he unwittingly reminds us what we can do when we find ourselves in the same predicament: we can turn our attention to the cross.
Understood fully, the cross brings together Picasso’s two opposing forces; in the crucifixion scene we encounter beauty in suffering, beauty through suffering, beauty made possible because of suffering. It is discord and harmony, pain and peace, love and tragedy, working as one.
Rachel Helen Smith
Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy runs until 9 September 2018 at Tate Modern, London.