Tate Modern’s new exhibition, Picasso 1932, is a breathtaking display of one artist’s relentless and restless creativity. Running until September, it is already destined to be one of Britain’s cultural events of the year. Yet it embodies an unresolved paradox about the way that modern societies think about art. Picasso 1932 is exactly what the title suggests it is – a chronological survey of Pablo Picasso’s work during a single year, when the artist was 50 years old.
The exhibition at Tate Modern is laid out month by month, starting in January 1932 with several ebullient portraits of women and proceeding in stages to the darker work of November and December in the last room. In between, Picasso’soutput ranges prodigiously wide, from primitive sculptures and line drawings, through a set of pictures inspired by the octopus to another triggered by Matthias Grünewald’s early 16th-century Crucifixion.
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Chronology is the essence of the show. It focuses close-up on Picasso’s evolution in those 12 months. Yet here’s the paradox. Picasso himself disdained chronology. He thought of himself as someone who made new art. He was certainly interested in other art, like Grünewald’s, for example. He was always experimenting with subjects, line, colour and composition. But he wasn’t particularly interested in his own evolution or in his objectification as a significant historical figure. This disjunction is highlighted in the exhibition.
Back in 1932, Picasso curated in Paris one of the first retrospectives of his own work. Impatient with chronology, he deliberately mixed up his work from different periods – a device that is repeated in the June 1932 room of the Tate Modern show. To Picasso, his art needed no explanation. It existed as art, and not as part of a story. To the exhibition visitor, however, the chronology and the art are harder to separate.
Picasso is not the only artist who fought against attempts to impose chronology and meaning upon his work. His contemporary Igor Stravinsky was exactly the same about his music. Many others, before and since, have wrestled with attempts to categorise, judge or impose hierarchies on their work. Yet this is a struggle that can have no end. The artist always prefers to do new things in their own terms. But the viewer is always making connections and drawing conclusions that the artist rejects.
This is particularly important with Picasso. He expressed the visible in dazzlingly different ways. The late John Berger once called him “the master of the unfinished”. He didn’t mean that Picasso never finished his pictures. He meant that Picasso’s work is quintessentially the work of a particular moment, when the visible is always on the threshold of becoming the differently visible or the possibly visible. The brilliance of the Picasso 1932 exhibition is that it manages to be bring the two approaches together. It combines the actual – Picasso’s output of art – with the day-by-day possibility of paths not chosen. Picasso’s pictures and sculptures are objects now. But at Tate Modern they are objects of a creative moment. In this exhibition, creativity and chronology don’t repel; they reinforce.

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