How Political Was Picasso?

Picasso: Peace and Freedom

an exhibition at Tate Liverpool, May 21–August 30, 2010; the Albertina, Vienna, September 22, 2010–January 16, 2011; and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark, February 11–May 29, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Lynda Morris and Christoph Grunenberg
London: Tate Publishing, 255 pp., $60.00

Morir en Madrid

by Louis Delaprée, edited by Martin Minchom
Madrid: Raíces, 222 pp., €18.00
Musée Picasso, Paris/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
Pablo Picasso: Jeux de Pages, 1951. John Richardson writes that ‘that was how he saw war, Picasso told a group of friends in March 1959: medieval children playing nasty, medieval games.’ All images are © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Picasso’s work abounds in paradox, as did his religious and political beliefs, not to mention his love life. All the more reason to look skeptically at the exhibition “Picasso: Peace and Freedom,” which started out at the Tate Gallery’s Liverpool branch, is currently at the Albertina in Vienna, and will end up at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. Lynda Morris, who has masterminded the show, makes much of the period following World War II when Picasso, who had joined the Communist Party in 1944, painted works that reflected Party propaganda. But as the art historian Gertje Utley has shown, many of the works in the exhibition, such as The Rape of the Sabines, are not “programmatic statements,” as the exhibition catalog claims, but testify to Picasso’s “life-long fear and horror of armed conflict.”1

“Picasso: Peace and Freedom,” in fact, includes a number of remarkable apolitical paintings, notably Picasso’s variations on works by Delacroix, Manet, and Velázquez that looked very much at home in Tate Liverpool’s refreshingly modest spaces, but their relevance to the show is spurious. Inevitably, “Picasso: Peace and Freedom” includes a lot of kitsch, including his doves, often displayed at Communist Party rallies. Unfortunately, Picasso’s ability to give kitsch a paradoxical edge was not in evidence at Liverpool, except insofar as his flocks of peace doves looked as out of date as the campaign they had once promoted.

The two wall panels depicting war and peace that Picasso painted in the Communist-inspired Chapel de la Guerre et la Paix in Vallauris, France, are far too large to travel. This is less of a loss than one might think. Wildly acclaimed in 1952, half a century later their simplistic sentimentality looks decidedly dated. The remarkable drawings for them in the show make up for them. Theoretically, the most important loan to the show, MoMA’s The Charnel House (1944–1945), is a sequel to Guernica in that it also portrays the mindless massacre of innocent people. Perhaps because the subject lacked the anguish and stimulus of a specific incident, The Charnel House fails to overwhelm. No wonder Picasso left it unfinished.

Unfortunately for students of agitprop, his only other major example of this genre, Massacre in Korea (January 1951), is conspicuously absent. Just as well; the painting’s crude imagery might have demonstrated that if Picasso’s psyche was not engaged, the message could work against him. Sadly, neither the exhibition nor the catalog includes a far more honest war painting done in the immediate aftermath of Massacre in Korea. Jeux de Pages depicts medieval page boys—their absurdly helmeted leader in spiky armor on a comically caparisoned…

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