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How Political Was Picasso?

Musée Picasso, Barcelona/Bridgeman-Giraudon/Art Resource
Pablo Picasso: Las Meninas, after Velázquez, No. 1, 1957. John Richardson writes: ‘One of the most subversive Las Meninas jokes was Picasso’s addition of Dalí’s signature mustache to Velázquez’s face in the first and most elaborate of his variations.’

Despite the ministry’s insistence on secrecy, rumors spread that Picasso had promised Madrid not only a full-scale retrospective but a donation of thirty major works. Cocteau’s diary mentions a letter Picasso received from Spanish “noblemen” begging him to abandon the idea. A message from Picasso to his banker, Max Pellequer, suggests that he was blowing hot and cold. In the end, the artist concluded that a Franco-backed exhibition would shatter his image and amount to a victory for fascism.

A gossipy Madrid paper, Informaciones, broke the story on April 10, 1957. Although picked up in the foreign press, the news soon evaporated, never to be resuscitated. The Spanish government denied any involvement in the project. Picasso chose to forget all about it. For the sake of appearances, he continued to come up with obligatory peace doves and receive official visits from the French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez, though after Budapest, he would be a Communist in name only. But he never publicly or formally resigned from the Party.

That Picasso’s feelings for communism had a counterpart in his feelings for Catholicism emerges in a statement to his dealer, Kahnweiler:

My family…they have always been Catholics. They didn’t like the priests and they didn’t go to mass, but they were Catholics. Well, I am a Communist and I….

Meanwhile, according to Jacqueline, Picasso was secretly making charitable donations to Catholic causes. He was also corresponding with a Spanish priest who wanted him to fresco his village church. Deny it though he might, he was, according to Jacqueline, “plus Catholique que le Pape.”

Now that his prospect of a Spanish retrospective had vanished, Picasso decided to paint himself into Spain’s Golden Age using Velázquez’s Las Meninas as a medium. In the summer of 1957, he embarked on a radical deconstruction of this most challenging of masterpieces. The variations resulting from this five-month-long, no-holds-barred battle between the greatest artist of Spanish history and the greatest artist of modern times are the prelude to the Baroque Mosqueteros paintings of his last decade, in which he recaptures the low-life and raffish theatricality of Roja’s great fifteenth-century novel La Celestina and the plays of Lope de Vega.

One of the most subversive Las Meninas jokes was Picasso’s addition of Dalí’s signature mustache to Velázquez’s face in the first and most elaborate of his variations. Although Dalí’s antics once had amused him—Catalans could do no wrong—Picasso proceeded to drop him for announcing to the press that besides having the bishop of Barcelona offer up a Mass for his soul, he was chartering a submarine to kidnap Picasso and take him back to Spain.

Unlike Picasso’s variations on Delacroix and Manet, which Kahnweiler had shown, split up, and sold, the Las Meninas variations were, Picasso decided, to be kept off the market. They were all destined for Spain. With Picasso’s approval, Sabartés had secretly embarked on negotiations with the Catalan government to establish a Museu Picasso in Barcelona. Although there was no visible encouragement from official Madrid, the museum would open in 1963, twelve years before Franco died. The Velázquez paintings were among Picasso’s first donations. Francoist authorities tried to make the museum almost impossible to find: it was officially listed as the Fundación Sabartés. Today, as the Museu Picasso, it is on the way to becoming a Picasso research center with a major repository for a mass of early documentation and the new material about Picasso’s involvement in Spain that is coming to light.


Franco, MI6, Mussolini & Mallorca January 13, 2011

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