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Picasso 1932: Powerful portrait of a legend

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An employee poses with Picasso's Nude in a Black Armchair and Nude Green Leaves and Bust paintings at the Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.

London

AS THE sun set on the last day of 1932, President-elect Franklin D Roosevelt waited to take office, while US banks continued to buckle. The last chancellor of Weimar Germany sat in a Rococo palace in Berlin; the last emperor of China was installed on a puppet throne in Manchukuo. The globe was agitated, and art was not exempt.

The Nazis forced the Bauhaus out of Dessau in 1932, and in the same year the Soviet Union dissolved independent artists' unions and promulgated the single style of socialist realism.

Pablo Picasso, in his studio on Paris's Rue la Boetie or from his chateau in Normandy, barely noticed. For him, the year 1932 was a cavalcade of public praise and private indulgences, a year when stylistic invention tipped into frenzy.

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Always overproductive, Picasso supercharged his career in 1932, the year his first retrospective exhibition took place and when the first volume of Christian Zervos's mammoth catalogue raisonne was published. In 1932, the world was tilting towards catastrophe. Picasso was becoming a god.

What the Spaniard made in 1932 is the subject of an uncommon exhibition at Tate Modern with an almost irresponsibly simple premise: one year, in chronological order, in the life of an artist. At its initial outing last fall, at the Musee Picasso in Paris, it bore the title Picasso 1932: Annee erotique, which, while candid, raises the question of whether every year in his priapic life might not be designated an erotic one.

Here at Tate Modern, the show has a tamer, Anglo-Saxon name: Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy. (The London version of Picasso 1932 has been organised by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Tate Modern's director of exhibitions, and Nancy Ireson, a curator at the museum; Laurence Madeline and Virginie Perdrisot-Cassan were responsible for the Paris edition.) A year's work, for most artists, would fill just one gallery, if that. Picasso gives us enough for a feast. More than 100 paintings, sculptures and drawings from that year are here, representing just a fraction of his output.

Here at the Tate are point-blank masterpieces, above all the plaster and cement busts of his young lover Marie-Therese Walter; wonderful and underrated drawings, including a suite of scenes from the Crucifixion translated into strange surrealist tableaux; frankly amateurish sketches of Boisgeloup in the rain; and a hefty amount of cruise-ship Picasso, such as the Tate's own Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, with a face only an oligarch could love.

And if, like me, you look askance at overly biographical readings of modern art - not least as regards old male geniuses and the mute, pliant muses who love them - you will have an extra task in Picasso 1932, which in some spots reduces the art into mile markers in the life of a lech. Each work hereserves as a page in a diary. Your mission is to treat them as more than that: to untangle the artist's interwoven threads, and to reckon with the multiplicity of Picasso's annee erotique in stylistic and social terms that intersect with, but can't be reduced to, a mere life story.

One painter, one year. He was 50 years old at the start of 1932, and the previous Christmas he'd painted a brace of pictures, on view in a prologue here, that prefigure the dreamlike, indulgent, violent year to come. One, the 1931 oil Woman With Dagger, is a riff on Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat, in which the Girondin murderess appears as an ectoplasmic grey lizard, fangs bared as she soars above Marat's bathtub. The other is a languorous portrait of a woman seated in a striped red chair, her hands an icy lavender, her single breast as round and rigid as a softball, her face liquefied into a heart-shaped squiggle. The subject of that painting is Marie-Therese, who was 22 on New Year's Day. Picasso 1932 is as much her show as his, and the young Frenchwoman, lithe, athletic, untroubled, appears again and again in uncanny states of bodily deliquescence.

The role she would play in Picasso's art is visible as early as January. In Le Repos (Rest), painted on the 22nd day of the year, Picasso's wife, Olga, lazes in a chair in front of Matisse-echoing floral wallpaper. Her head is thrust to the right, her dark hair rendered as bristling parallel cilia. Marie-Therese, blonde, sits with a look of post-coital bliss in front of the same wallpaper in Le Reve (The Dream) from Jan 24 - which became world-famous when its previous owner, the casino magnate and later accused rapist Stephen A Wynn, agreed to sell it to the financier Steven A Cohen and then promptly punctured its surface with his elbow. NYTIMES