In 1932, Pablo Picasso spent the early days of March producing some of his most fevered images of lust and love. He was playing with shape and colour too, but at the centre of it all was the face – and the twining, pale body – of Marie-Thérèse Walter, his new, 22-year-old lover.
On Saturday Tate Modern opened its doors for the first weekend of what promises to be one of its biggest shows ever, as well as its first solo exhibition devoted to the great Spanish artist – but it was Walter who was the centre of interest. The show – Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy – concentrates on this especially productive time in his life, in which he made her image repeatedly.
“He was an obsessed man, to produce so many pictures over one period,” said Jeff Irvine, 57, from Belfast, who was visiting the gallery while staying with friends. “I studied his paintings at school, but it is great to see some of the less well-known images, showing what he was trying to get at. This has filled in some gaps.”
Tate Modern’s show crowns a spring of renewed worldwide focus on this period of Picasso’s work. His portrait of Walter, The Golden Muse, from 1937, sold for just under £50m at Sotheby’s, while an earlier portrait of Walter, Le Repos, showing her resting her head in sleep, is due to be auctioned in New York in May, with an estimate of $25m-$35m.
On Saturday particular attention was paid by many to a painting never shown in Britain before: the renowned study of Walter called The Dream, or Le Rêve, which also serves as the poster image for the show. Picasso, then 45 and married to Olga, a former dancer from the Ballets Russes, had met Walter by chance in a Paris department store and asked her to sit for him. The legacy of that random encounter lives on.
Caroline, visiting the Tate from her home in Amsterdam, stood in front of the portrait for at least five minutes. “It is great. It says a lot,” she said.
While Walter’s name is not so familiar outside the art world, her face is probably better known, in all its aspects and angles, than that of Picasso himself. Her strong nose has been accentuated in a hundred abstract studies and sculptured heads, many of them included in this show. Similarly, the straight blond hair she was sadly to lose in an illness, soon after it had first delighted Picasso, plays a big part in many of the portraits.
The Dream is famous not just for its sensual charge. In 2006 a US art collector, the hedgefund manager Steven Cohen, agreed to pay $139m for the work just before the previous owner put his elbow through the canvas. Restoration work didn’t damage its value. Cohen finally bought the work five years ago for $155m.
Sarah Denne, 70, from Tavistock, Devon, flew in from Australia on Saturday after a holiday, and made straight for Tate Modern with her partner, Patrick. “We are tired, but we wanted to see it,” she said. “I find the show quite moving. The Dream itself is terribly erotic, but in some of the other portraits you get a real sense of how happy she was then.”
The show, as critics have noted, includes some works of lower calibre in the service of the story it wants to tell. But this weekend one visitor after another expressed pleasure in seeing a love affair at the core of this period of Picasso’s work laid out in such detail. The sex also provides a predictable draw. Even today the comparisons of Walter’s writhing nude body with the tentacles of an octopus drew people up short. The artist had been working at great intensity and speed in spring 1932 in order to produce work to furnish his first retrospective show, staged later that year. Some of the images Picasso created were to prove too explicit, or at least potent, to be included.
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