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Why 1932 was Picasso’s year of erotic torment

It was, for the artist, a year of intense and focused activity – even by his own standards.

As 1931 turned into 1932, Picasso was 50 years old, famous, rich and admired. His main home was a swish apartment in Paris but he also owned an 18th-century manor house at Boisgeloup in Normandy; he shuttled between the two in a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza; he was married to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, with whom he had a son, Paulo, and he had a mistress too, Marie-Thérèse Walter, then 22 but whom he had met when she was just 17. Both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Venice Biennale wanted to stage a retrospective of his work but he had plumped for the Galeries George Petit in Paris and the show was to open in June. To cap it all, an early work, La Coiffure of 1905, sold for a record 56,000 francs in February.

So Picasso in 1932 had a rich, full life. But then, when didn’t he? Such was his emotional and artistic fecundity (he is said to have produced some 50,000 individual artworks during his career) that an enterprising curator could make an exhibition from pretty much any year of his career. Those at Tate Modern have gone for 1932 and tagged it his annus mirabilis. Their reasoning is that a set of tensions was then at play that had profound artistic consequences: in his emotional life he was pulled between Olga and Marie-Thérèse, while in his art he had to choose between painting and sculpture, and surrealism and classicism. He felt too that he had to prove a point to the critics who openly wondered if his best days were behind him.

 The Dream. Credit: Succession Picasso/ Dacs London, 2018

It is a tidy theory except for the fact his career to date was proof that he never settled on a particular style or even medium for long: relentless experimentation and unbunged creativity were key to his nature. Nor was he an artist whose self-belief ever wavered: as an impoverished foreign avant-gardist in Paris in the first decade of the century he was already convinced of his genius, and as a mature artist he believed his real peers to be the great names of art history – Velázquez, Rembrandt, Manet and just possibly, and grudgingly, Matisse. What 1932 did represent for Picasso was a year of, even for him, intense and focused activity.

The exhibition has travelled to Tate from the Musée Picasso in Paris; there it was called “Paris 1932: année erotique”, a much more apposite subtitle than the London incarnation’s bombastic “Love, Fame, Tragedy”, because the dominant motif is a single woman. Usually she is sleeping, sometimes in an armchair, sometimes lying down; in some paintings she reads or has a mandolin in her lap; in others she is placed near a window or a mirror, next to a bust or a pot plant. She appears on a beach and being rescued from drowning – and in one instance morphed into an octopus; she is painted, sculpted and drawn in a variety of styles, and she is ever present. Although Picasso neither depicts her in a straight portrait nor names her – she is always simply a “reclining nude”, a “swimmer” or a “sleeping woman” – she is Marie-Thérèse.

 The Dream. Credit: Succession Picasso/ Dacs London, 2018

Poor Olga. Picasso thought he kept Marie-Thérèse a secret yet, despite acknowledging that “The work one does is a way of keeping a diary”, in 1932 he paraded her flagrantly in canvas after canvas. Worse than that, for the wife who had also been his model for 15 years, was that he paraded his feelings too. In Reading, painted on 2 January, she is chaste but in The Yellow Belt, painted four days later, the biomorphic shapes that denote her breasts and arms are also unmistakably and insistently phallic. Even in the tender The Dream (24 January), the heart-faced blonde asleep in a red armchair has a nipple loose and hands forming a V resting suggestively in her lap. The subject of her dream, Picasso clearly hopes, is the painter himself.

As he worked obsessively at his subject some fabulous pictures emerged from the more workaday. The Dream is one, the monumental Nude in a Black Armchair and Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (which in 2010 fetched $106.5m, then a record price for a painting sold at auction) are the most notable others. The dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler saw the latter pair, all curves, lilac flesh and rich colour (Picasso is not always thought of as a colourist), when they were still in the studio. He later wrote to a friend that “‘It seems as though a satyr who had just killed a woman could have painted this picture,’ I said to him about one of the two… we came away from there stunned.” It is the sort of hyperbolic comment Picasso’s work often attracted but nevertheless gives a clear idea of the force of the paintings.

It is also, though, wide of the mark. There is some violence in the exhibition but what all those Marie-Thérèses speak of is Picasso’s yearning to possess her, first physically and then, just as importantly, to appropriate her calm. This last, as evidenced by the frenetic output of 1932, was a quality alien to his restless fingers and unquiet mind.

The exhibition runs at the Tate Modern until 9 September

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge