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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give kitsch a paradoxical edge was not in evidence at Liverpool, except insofar as his flocks of peace doves looked as out of date as the campaign they had once promoted.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 horse—trying to look warlike. That was how he saw war, Picasso told a group of friends in March 1959: medieval children playing nasty, medieval games.

Compared to the new discoveries coming out of Spain and other European countries, Lynda Morris’s “rich variety of original and unknown material” is neither original nor unknown: pro-forma acknowledgments of charitable contributions to Party and other causes, long known to scholars such as Utley. Rather more worrying are the conclusions that Morris derives from these receipts. In a newspaper interview headlined “Picasso Revealed as a Feminist in New Exhibition,” she describes, for example, how a donation to the Women’s International Zionist Organization in Tel Aviv entitles us to see Picasso (famous for obliging his mistresses to read de Sade) as having “sympathy for women.” Contributions such as this confirm Picasso’s generosity to liberal causes. However, his art tells a somewhat different story. Take the painting Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold for a record $106.5 million seventeen days before the opening of “Picasso: Peace and Freedom.” It depicts Picasso’s mistress in bondage and, according to the art historian Charles Stuckey, is based on one of Man Ray’s fetishistic photos. The image is redolent of predatory possessiveness. Picasso was indeed a paradox; he was also a misogynist.

As someone who frequently talked to Picasso in the 1950s, I realized that for all his overt loyalty to the French Communist Party, his most intense feelings in exile were more and more focused on Spain, specifically Spain’s “Golden Age” of Velázquez and Ribera, Góngora and Calderón. What Picasso wanted above all was a full-scale retrospective in his native land that would accord him a similar status. Hitherto this had been unthinkable. King Alphonso XIII had patronized Diaghilev’s ballet company and laughed at the comic horse in Parade at a 1918 performance in Madrid, but Spain made no attempt to honor its greatest artist until the Republican government took over. In November 1933, Ricardo de Orueta, a young Malagueño art historian newly appointed director general de bellas artes, was charged with contacting the artist. Since his Paris address was not known to the ministry, Orueta called the ambassador in Paris, the eminent historian Salvador de Madariaga. The conventional Madariaga replied that he had indeed met Picasso but had found him “arrogant and rude,” and the idea of a state-sponsored retrospective was “deplorable.”

Perturbed by Madariaga’s comment, Orueta took no further action. However, more progressive members of the government persisted and came up with a proposal. Unfortunately, so depleted were the new government’s funds that there was no money for shipping or insurance, and so no loans of paintings could be expected from foreign sources. All it could promise was a contingent of the Guardia Civil to escort the paintings from the French frontier to Madrid.

This lack of funds played into the hands of the newly created right-wing political organization the Falange and its charismatic leader, José Antonio Primo de Rivera (whose father had endeared himself to Picasso in 1917 by approving of his work). To give the Falange the cultural gloss that Marinetti’s futurists had supplied to Mussolini’s Fascist movement, Rivera—called “El Jefe”—had appointed as his cultural adviser the brilliant, fanatically right-wing Ernesto Giménez Caballero. Formerly editor of the country’s avant-garde La Gaceta Literaria, and a passionate aficionado whose concept of the corrida de toros as a mirror of Spain’s inherent theatricality rivaled Picasso’s, Caballero had transformed himself into the blackest of Catholic bigots. Still, his job was to inveigle prominent poets and painters, above all Federico García Lorca and Picasso, into the Falange. An easy conquest was Max Jacob. A former poète maudit who had converted to Catholicism (with Picasso as a godfather), this superb gay poet needed no coercion to join the Falange cause. Lorca would try to stay above politics and ended up murdered by the Fascists. When contacted by emissaries of Caballero, Picasso initially played it safe.

Aware that Spain’s greatest artist was taking his family on a bull-fighting tour in August 1934, Caballero invited him to a dinner in his honor in San Sebastián given by the Falange’s gastronomic society. Picasso accepted. During dinner, El Jefe proposed a retrospective exhibition in Madrid financed by the Falange. Besides providing a Guardia Civil escort for the works, they would cover the insurance. Thirty years later, to cover up his acceptance of Caballero’s invitation, Picasso told his Argentinean friend Roberto Otero that when Caballero likened his eyes to Mussolini’s, he had taken the next train back to Paris. Untrue. He and his family stayed on in San Sebastián for several days being entertained by the Falange. No wonder Caballero later boasted, to Picasso’s rage, that he had won him over.

Far from returning to Paris, Picasso ended up in Barcelona to attend the opening of the great new Museum of Catalan Art. He was anxious to see the stunning collection of Spanish art that had been acquired from the sugar king Luis Plandiura. The inclusion of nineteen of his early paintings delighted Picasso. This was the first time his work had been exhibited in a Spanish museum, let alone acquired by one. The experience made the prospect of a retrospective in Madrid even more of an idée fixe.

El Jefe’s grandiose offer of a retrospective failed to materialize. The Republicans soon outlawed the Falange and exiled General Franco to the Canary Isles. British secret agents masquerading as tourists (MI6’s code name: “Operation Miss Canary Islands”) quickly arranged for Franco to go to Morocco, and from there he launched the civil war.

The outbreak of war coincided with Picasso’s hate-filled separation from his neurasthenic Russian wife, Olga, which set off a major midlife crisis in the form of a temporary switch from painting to poetry. The war would also exacerbate Picasso’s fear of the French authorities. In their paranoia about Spanish anarchists, the police had always kept him under surveillance. Meanwhile, his mistress Marie-Thérèse’s pregnancy with his child had left Picasso accessible to other women, notably the strikingly intelligent Surrealist photographer Dora Maar, fluent in Spanish and formerly the mistress of the Sadeian writer Georges Bataille.

To help deal with his difficulties, Picasso called upon a friend since adolescence, a Catalan poet turned journalist, Jaime Sabartés, who had spent the previous thirty years editing and teaching in South America. They had remained in touch. Now in desperate need of support, Picasso summoned him back to Paris. He had never had a secretary; now he had one who was not only Spanish but was specifically Catalan in his canniness, discretion, and loyalty. Sabartés would be privy to all Picasso’s secrets.

One of Sabartés’s first tasks was to work on a smallish Picasso show with Paul Éluard, André Breton, Christian Zervos, and a Barcelona arts group, called ADLAN, so disparate that it included Lorca, Joan Miró, and Josep Lluis Sert, as well as Caballero. This opened in Barcelona on June 13, 1936—a few days before war broke out—in a gallery with an entry charge. Picasso stayed away. Left to Parisian intellectuals, the choice of works was too arcane for the public, and the best that could be said of it was that it was a succès de scandale. As a perceptive article on ADLAN said, the exhibition

included too many hermetic [i.e., cubist] works and monstrosities from the Dinard period of the late 1920s…when Picasso was getting back together with the surrealists. The show could be faulted for being too fragmentary and…for trying to legitimize avant-gardist activities…. “It did Picasso a disservice.”

Following the show, the envious Salvador Dalí dismissed Picasso, describing him as an express train that had arrived twenty years too late. What Barcelona—the city in which he grew up—needed instead was an exhibition that would chart the development of the artist’s seemingly disparate styles. The civil war would not put an end to his determination to have a full-scale retrospective in Spain.

Two months into the war, the Republicans appointed Picasso director of the Prado, albeit in absentia. Nevertheless, he took his duties very seriously, especially after the Condor Legion, which Hitler had put at Franco’s disposal, bombed the Prado and other Madrid targets. As director, Picasso was responsible for having the museum’s contents evacuated to Valencia. Two years later, when the treasures had to be transported for safekeeping to Geneva, Picasso personally provided the funds to rescue the seventy-five truckloads of paintings that, despite constant bombing and roads choked with refugees, had safely crossed the frontier into France. The only major victims were Goya’s Second and Third of May, severely damaged by a falling balcony, and the Spanish Republican guards, who were later handed over to the Germans by the French and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

  1. 1

    See her Picasso: The Communist Years (Yale University Press, 2000) and “Picasso’s Politics,” her recent letter to The Burlington Magazine, September 2010. 

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