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How Political Was Picasso?

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Musée Picasso, Paris/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
Pablo Picasso: Still Life with a Lamp, 1936. December 29, on the poster on the wall at left, was the date chosen by Louis Aragon for a demonstration celebrating Louis Delaprée, a columnist for the right-wing newspaper Paris-Soir who in his dispatches from the Spanish civil war was ‘merciless in denouncing atrocities, whoever committed them.’ He died on December 11, 1936, after his plane from Madrid to Paris was shot down over Spain by Soviet aircraft. According to John Richardson, his inclusion of the date indicates that ‘Picasso was one of Delaprée’s admirers,’ and the severed arm is his ‘first reference to the war.’

Paralleling the fighting in Spain was a war in the press. Atrocities by Republican extremists were denied by Europe’s Communist papers, while Franco’s use of Mussolini’s planes to bomb Palma de Mallorca was played down by conservative ones. There was, however, one formidably apolitical exception: Louis Delaprée, who wrote for the sleazy, right-wing Paris-Soir. Delaprée was merciless in denouncing atrocities, whoever committed them. This resulted in his ruthlessly honest reports being edited or turned down by his timid, rightist editors. Most of the paper’s available space was devoted to Mrs. Simpson, who was costing Edward VIII his crown. In his last dispatch from Madrid, Delaprée berated his editor for featuring the “putain royale” rather than the massacre of Spanish children.

Summoned back to Paris from Madrid, which was under Fascist siege, Delaprée left on a French embassy plane, which was shot down by Soviet aircraft while still over Spain. His injuries were not serious, but his treatment was botched and he died a few days later. Soviet fighter pilots had been instructed to kill his fellow passenger, a Red Cross official summoned to investigate the massacre of a group of Franco sympathizers by Republican extremists. Delaprée’s death devastated a widespread public that had read his haunting dispatches. Louis Aragon organized a demonstration in Delaprée’s honor and arranged the publication of his unexpurgated writings.

That Picasso was one of Delaprée’s admirers emerges in a seldom-exhibited anthropomorphic painting, Still Life with a Lamp. As so often, the artist portrays himself as a jug, and Marie-Thérèse—the mistress he was forsaking for Dora Maar—as a wretched-looking fruit dish. Linking them is a severed arm, Picasso’s first reference to the war, and one that would play a momentous role in Guernica. A poster on the wall consists of a date, “29 Decembre.” My collaborator, Gijs van Hensbergen, checked with Franco’s erudite biographer Paul Preston, who explained that December 29, 1936, was the day Aragon picked for his demonstration celebrating Delaprée. The announcement proclaimed: “The voice of a dead man denounces the lies of the press.”

In death, so his admirers hoped, Delaprée would awaken Europe to the anguish of war. Virginia Woolf, whose nephew Julian Bell had gone off to die fighting for the Republicans, had Delaprée’s reports on her desk when she was writing Three Guineas. Recently republished in Spanish under the title Morir en Madrid with a revelatory introduction by Martin Minchom, his texts are still terrifying.

There is no mention of Delaprée in the catalog of “Picasso: Peace and Freedom”; nor, rather more surprisingly, is there any reference to The Dream and Lie of Franco, Picasso’s two sheets of small engravings that rival Goya in their ribald mockery of war and Alfred Jarry in their mockery of Franco. The very same day he painted Still Life with a Lamp, he executed a disgustingly Jarryesque drawing of a Franco-like blimp figure seated at Olga Picasso’s cute, candle-lit piano, spreading its flippers across its seemingly shit-smeared keys. This was in fact Picasso’s first engagement in his conflict with Franco. Six months later he would embark on Guernica. Its imagery is redolent of Delaprée’s reports.

Asked where he stood politically in the years leading up to the Spanish civil war, Picasso would answer that since he was a Spaniard and Spain was a monarchy, he was a royalist. D.H. Kahnweiler, his dealer and close friend, and a lifelong socialist, asserted that Picasso was the most apolitical man he had ever met:

His Communism is quite unpolitical. He has never read a line of Karl Marx, nor of Engels of course. His Communism is sentimental…. He once said to me, “Pour moi, le Parti Communiste est le parti des pauvres.”

In the last months of World War II, this apolitical position was difficult to maintain. De Gaulle’s liberation of Paris had transformed the artist, albeit momentarily, into a Gaullist. But after dining with the general’s associates, he declared that they were “une bande de cons.” This perception made him, along with many of his fellow intellectuals, all the more susceptible to the Communists, whose party he joined in 1944. That Picasso’s private life was once again in a state of flux helped him to persuade himself that he was joining a kind of family. As a lifelong pacifist, he also persuaded himself that he had joined the party of peace—an alternative to the Catholic faith that he had tried and failed to repudiate and seemingly drew on throughout his life.

Over the next eight years, Picasso and Françoise Gilot, who would bear him two children, lived in Vallauris, a dilapidated Communist-run pottery-making town near Cannes, which the artist would transform into a thriving ville d’art. Besides reinventing the craft of ceramics and transforming it into a modern art form, he would demonstrate that he had the people’s interests at heart by allowing inexpensive copies to be made; he would also revolutionize printmaking techniques, which he hoped would bring his work within the reach of the workers he identified with. In fact, the low-priced masterpieces that poured from his presses too often wound up making fortunes for art dealers.

In no time, Picasso became celebrated, along with Louis Aragon and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, as one of the Communist Party’s Three Musketeers. Much as he loathed foreign travel and public appearances, he allowed himself to be trotted out as a figurehead at peace conferences in Sheffield, Rome, and Wrocław. At the same time, he made no secret of his distaste for Marxist theory and factional squabbling. Paradox kept him balanced, he once said. When Aragon chose his lithograph of a dove as the Party’s emblem of world peace, Picasso could not resist pointing out that he kept these vicious birds in separate cages, otherwise they would peck each other to bits. Still, he named his daughter Paloma after them.

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Musée Picasso, Paris/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
Portrait of Joseph Stalin by Pablo Picasso, commissioned by Louis Aragon for the cover of the March 12, 1953, issue of the French Communist Party’s literary journal, Les Lettres Françaises, in commemoration of the dictator’s death

Although he had turned a blind eye, like Sartre and Beauvoir and many other French intellectuals, to Soviet brutality in Eastern Europe, Picasso’s faith in communism had already begun to falter when, in March 1953, Aragon commissioned him to do a portrait in commemoration of Stalin’s death for Les Lettres Françaises, the Party’s literary journal. Aragon was blamed when Picasso’s stylized rather than idealized image of a heroic, overly mustachioed young leader was received with howls of derision by Party members when it was published. This was not how true believers envisioned the “eternal father of the people.” After this episode, Picasso limited his agitprop contributions to Party fluff.

When the woman in Picasso’s life changed, everything else changed, including his political attitudes. Françoise Gilot was a left-wing intellectual, but his next companion, Jacqueline Roque, had no time for communism. Neither did Jean Cocteau, who had recently reclaimed the position of jester in Picasso’s court. Characteristically, the artist would sometimes agree with him: “Like most families, the Communist Party is full of shit.” If, however, Cocteau dared to take a similar line, the artist would become defensive and berate him.

The ruthlessness with which the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the French Communist Party’s condoning of this abuse of human rights provoked a far deeper disillusion. Given his much-publicized identification with the Party, and unable to face the consequences of being a turncoat, this most ironical of men found himself at an almost total loss. “Il était coincé,” Jacqueline later said. To friends he would raise his eyes to heaven, extend his hands, and shrug his shoulders in despair at Soviet excesses.

In late 1956, Picasso asked the collector Douglas Cooper and me to intervene and stop James Lord—an American writer the artist had befriended in 1944 and dubbed “mon GI”—from publishing an open letter challenging him to publicly condemn the Soviet brutality. “A crass attempt to get his name in the papers at my expense,” Picasso told us. It would, he said, endanger his own “delicate negotiations” with the Party. Directives from his Communist minders would have been more accurate. In letters described by Gertje Utley as “Machiavellian in their manipulative use of information,” Hélène Parmelin, the fanatically pro-Soviet and Russian-born friend of Picasso, was doing her best to prevent him from joining the powerful intellectuals, including Sartre and Leiris, who were then criticizing Russian aggression. Parmelin’s directives worked: the letter of protest that Picasso and some of his associates published in Le Monde was shamefully weak. The ultimate irony: students in Warsaw used a mock-up of Picasso’s Massacre in Korea for an anti-Soviet protest.

Picasso surely knew that Parmelin was working on the Soviets’ behalf, but he did not fully realize that there were friends with very different sympathies in his entourage. Following the invasion of Hungary, the artist’s favorite photographer, an intrepid midwesterner, David Douglas Duncan, reported to Richard Nixon (then vice-president): “Look, amigo, I know this man very, very well…. If officially invited to visit the United States…I feel certain he’d come…. That would be a cultural body-blow to the Communists.” Nixon duly replied: Picasso would be granted a tourist visa, but no official invitation. He never visited the US.

Rather more surprising is the identity of Franco’s representative in Picasso’s entourage: Luis Miguel Dominguín, the suave Madrileño bullfighter who can be identified as the torero in so many of Picasso’s tauromachic images. The artist had once tried to buy the Vallauris soccer field and turn it into a bullring for Dominguín to star in. Back in Spain, Dominguín was a regular guest at Franco’s partridge shoots and often consulted by his hosts, for example, about rumors that Picasso would hand over his works to Mexico and about how he could be stopped if the rumors were true. Franco and his associates tried, through Dominguín, to bring pressure on Picasso to cooperate with the regime.

More to the point, the worldwide power of the anti-fascist icon Guernica, which had been left in the custody of MoMA, had become a crucial problem. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been inundated with complaints from ambassadors in key capitals that this painting generated anti-Franco feeling wherever it was shown. How could they exorcise it? Twenty years earlier, the Falange’s offer of a retrospective in Madrid had nearly won Picasso over. Why not bait their hook with the same lure? He might even include Guernica in the show. Dominguín’s reports to Franco are likely to have suggested this course of action. In 1956 a young employee at the Institute of Spanish Culture, Moreno Galvan, was dispatched to Cannes to ask whether Picasso would allow Madrid’s Museum of Contemporary Art to follow MoMA’s example and celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday with a retrospective later that year.

At first, Picasso refused to receive Galvan, but after a month he saw him and Galvan conveyed the museum’s request. Galvan was anything but a Francoist and had no visible ties to the regime—although Franco’s officials would have known of his mission. Picasso neither turned his proposal down nor accepted it. Convinced that diplomacy was called for, the foreign minister asked Jose Luis Messia, cultural attaché in Paris, to take over the negotiations from Galvan. The wily Messia demurred; the Franco government should not show its hand. The director of the Contemporary Museum in Barcelona should be put in charge—so long as he did the minister’s bidding. This plot would not have come to light if the art historian Genoveva Tusell had not discovered the documents confirming it while working in the ministry’s archives. In a letter to Galvan, the cultural attaché wrote: “Imagine if García Lorca was still alive, we could kill off two myths at the same time.”

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