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Last week, I joined the many thousands of people crowding into the gallery space of Tate Modern, London, to bear witness to the newly opened show, Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy. It’s one of their not-to-be-missed showstopper numbers, bringing together more than 100 artworks created by Picasso in a single year.
The year 1932 was a landmark moment for Picasso both personally and professionally. Having recently turned 50, the artist found himself feverishly experimenting with new styles and subjects as he reflected on his own contemporaneity and relevance. It was the year his marriage to Olga broke down, and the year in which a group of Paris dealers would mount his first ever retrospective.
Picasso’s “year of wonders” is obviously a cause for celebration — even if only for his astonishing output. Nevertheless, as I joined the throngs of silver-haired afternoon gallery folk rhapsodising over “Nude in a Black Armchair”, “The Rescue” and “Bust of a Woman”, I was filled with a sense of profound and discomfiting unease. Such a volume, an embarrassment of work, was depressing.
It wasn’t only the vast proliferation of sculptures, paintings, sketches and maquettes that brought me down but the other, more ephemeral material recalling Picasso’s rich and lusty life. When he wasn’t slapping paint on an extra-large canvas, or creating some new master sculpture in his garage, he was having a whale of a time: being transported around in his chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza, or drawing plans for the new piscine he hoped to build in the grounds of the 18th-century Château de Boisgeloup he purchased in 1930. He was hanging out on the lawn with his artist pals Brassaï and Georges Braque and posing for photographs with his giant Pyrenean Mastiff, Bob. He oversaw the spiritual health of his family — 1932 saw the first communion of his only legitimate son, Paulo — while carrying on a barely concealed adulterous affair with his then-lover Marie-Thérèse Walter: her likeness features in many of the artworks at the Tate, often with a large, slug-like phallus on her head. He may have been very busy with the art work, but not so much he wasn’t also getting busy as well.
The show is a deft illustration of ordinary man’s (and woman’s) inadequacies. Picasso created more than 100 artworks, the exhibition seemed to whisper, what the hell have you got to show for a year?
I did a brief summation and realised that, while the past 12 months have included periods of intense industry, my accomplishments had been pathetically few. Not so much wonder, as a year of none-der. I mean, I did curate a parade of self-congratulatory Instagram images on my feed, and learnt to master that platform’s story feature, racking up at least 362 hours fiddling with percentages on the “Gingham” filter, writing captions in the “typewriter” font and wrinkle-blasting pictures with extra “brightness”. I channelled the spirit of the flâneur by trying to walk 10,000 steps a day— and failed. I spurned invitations in order to develop a deeper understanding of French social politics by spending Saturday nights sprawled in front of the Canal Plus crime drama Spiral. Oh, and I tidied my shoe cupboard by deciding to swap the shoe boxes for bags. Actually, the result was worthy of exhibition — which I did on social media. The space got rave reviews. But, really, I’ve done nothing. Achieved zero. Picasso lashed up some of his most significant paintings in only three days. I could barely bring myself to sort the laundry. (OK, maybe Picasso didn’t do laundry. But, whatever.)
The whole exercise reminded me of the time at university where, while studying the Irish writer James Joyce, I chanced on The Consciousness of Joyce, by Richard Ellmann, a 1977 overview of the 600 books left in Trieste by the writer when he moved to Paris in June 1920. It catalogued, in dispiriting detail, the awesome breadth of Joyce’s reading, which, as I remember, he had done in a few short years before embarking on his own literary efforts. The library contained nearly every significant writer, from Aristotle to Emile Zola, as well as musical compositions, political tracts, psychologies and science, all read and digested as he readied to become the world’s greatest writer. The book made me sick.
As the New Yorker writer and critic Malcolm Gladwell so deftly pointed out in his 2008 book, Outliers, those who are blessed with the talent of a genius only become so after 10,000 hours of practice: the “magic number of greatness”. Debate has raged ever since as to the precise number at which the merely good become gifted, but Gladwell’s theory has always held a beguiling allure. If only I weren’t so appallingly lazy, I too might write a bestselling novel, or win a gold medal for figure skating, or fulfil my life-long dream of becoming a lead soprano in a West End musical. It’s always served as a peculiar comfort to know that the only obstacle to my success has been feckless indolence — and possibly the invention of the iPhone.
Which is why the Picasso exhibition was so grim. It wasn’t so much that he worked extremely hard to become the world’s most famous artist. Anyone could, technically, slave away in a studio for hours crafting their genius. It’s that he still found time to finesse such a gloriously well-rounded and fulsome life in the spaces he found in between.
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