‘Painting is not made to decorate houses. It is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.’
– Picasso, 1943
With J this afternoon to see this year’s Tate Liverpool blockbuster exhibition, Picasso: Peace and Freedom, which documents Picasso’s engagement with politics in the Cold War era and how he negotiated the ideological and aesthetic orthodoxies of East and West. The exhibition is built around the works he made from the period of the Second World War to his death. These were the years when he aligned himself very clearly with the Communist Party and was politically active in the sense of creating artwork and making donations, primarily to promote the cause of international peace.
This is an unusual exhibition in that these works are not often shown together (for a the very good reason that most of them are not that good) but also because a large proportion of the extensive displays consist of historical materials, such as posters, photographs, magazines and newspapers, and a variety of political ephemera. These help tell the story of Picasso’s political engagement, and are more interesting than a good deal of the artwork on display.
Picasso joined the Communist party in 1944 and remained a member right up to his death in 1973. Though Stalin despised modern art, as far as Picasso was concerned the communists had been enemies of the fascists and many of his friends were members of the French Communist party.
‘These terrible years of oppression have taught me that I must fight, not only with my art but with my person…While I wait for the day when Spain can once again receive me, the Communist party of France has opened its arms’. (Picasso, 1944)
At the height of his involvement, Picasso toured Europe to promote the international peace movement (regarded as a communist front in America and the UK), gave large donations to many communist causes, including the French CP, and produced a huge quantity of emblems, posters and portraits for communist publications on demand. His dove became the ubiquitous symbol of peace – so much so that there is an entire gallery devoted to his dove designs.
On the face of it, Picasso’s unwavering support for the CP is disquieting. Even during the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he would not condemn the aggression, despite an open appeal from the great Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, and despite the pleas of a group of former students “to do for Budapest what you have done for Guernica: Help us!”.
Yet there is also evidence from this exhibition that what really motivated Picasso politically, from Guernica onwards, was a deep commitment to peace, international understanding and equality. And that he held unwaveringly to his own artistic and moral principles, despite pressure and criticism from party apparatchiks.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Picasso was actively involved in the communist-supported International Peace Movement and attended congresses in Poland, Italy and England (he was the only international intellectual allowed into the UK by the Labour government for the Sheffield Peace Conference in 1950; he consequently refused to attend the event). In 1950 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, but his art was not generally approved by the Communist Party. Picasso avoided using overtly communist symbolism in his work and refused to work in the socialist realist style favoured by the party. He was criticised for not being obvious enough in his accusations of American aggression in
paintings such as Massacre in Korea 1951 (not in the exhibition), which depicted a group of naked women and children being fired at by a group of helmeted, but anonymous soldiers.
The lithograph, Dove 1949 was chosen for the poster of the Paris Peace Congress that year. It became the symbol of the Peace Congresses and was also adopted as an international Communist emblem.
Though the dove was already a biblical symbol of peace, Picasso’s dove – ‘swift and elegant, it is a flight of a drawing in itself’ (Laura Cumming, The Observer) – became the quintessential image for the peace movement during the Cold War.
The one truly great ‘political’ work that Picasso created in this period is the War and Peace mural for the deconsecrated chapel in the Communist-governed village of Vallauris, near his home in the south of France in 1951-52. I’ve seen it there twice now, and it’s a wonderful work. Although the present exhibition includes a selection of studies for War and Peace, it’s a pity that the curators were unable to show visitors larger reproductions of the murals than the two postcard-sized ones on display.
Picasso painted the two large murals on panels to be fixed directly onto the walls. He later added another painting to the small end wall, composed of figures from the four corners of the world united in peace, painted in black, white, yellow and red.
Peace is a pastoral derived from Picasso’s painting Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Life) of 1946 (below). Mothers and children play around the central figure of Pegasus pulling a plough, personifying the fertile world of peace. War depicts a horse-drawn chariot against a frieze of carnage and a monumental figure with a blood-stained sword. The god of war in the chariot carries a vessel from which giant bacteria and a sack of skulls emerge. The figure of peace in the War panel carries a shield bearing Picasso’s symbol of peace, the dove.
The exhibition begins with a room dominated by the most significant painting here: The Charnel House of 1944-5. Because of his international reputation, Picasso was largely left alone during the Nazi Occupation of Paris despite being the most famous artist working in a so-called ‘degenerate’ style. The German occupiers tried to win over French intellectuals with offers of extra food and coal, but Picasso refused the bribes, defiantly declaring: ‘A Spaniard is never cold’.
The Charnel House 1945 is Picasso’s most overtly political painting since Guernica of 1937. It was based on a short documentary film about a Spanish Republican family who were killed in their kitchen. Picasso, who had lost many friends and associates during the war, was mourning his family, the Spanish people. This painting and Monument to the Spaniards who Died for France 1945-47 are memorials to Spanish Republicans killed in France during the Occupation. (source: Tate exhibition guide)
Much of Picasso’s work of this period symbolically chronicles the war and the deprivations of the Occupation. Rare cityscapes capture the oppressive mood of Paris in dark, grey tones. The Liberation of Paris in June 1944 and the feeling it brought of a new beginning were reflected in paintings such as The Cockerel of the Liberation 1944, a depiction of the symbol of a free France in vibrant colours.
After the doves and the rest of the work on the theme of war and peace, the exhibition seems, as several reviewers have commented, to fall apart. It concludes with a succession of rooms in which paintings – such as his series of variations on Velazquez’ Las Meninas and Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe – which most observers would argue do not have any political connotations, are subjected to laborious political interpretations:
This is an ambitious exhibition and I was hoping the curators would carry it off. But for all the richness of the early material, the remarkable loans, superb pictures and fascinating social history, about half way through, “Peace and Freedom” falls apart, as the curators arbitrarily impose misguided political readings on to pictures that just can’t carry them.
– Richard Dorment, The Telegraph
Perhaps the best conclusion is this, from Richard Dorment’s Telegraph review:
For all his immersion in left-wing politics, with one glaring exception (Guernica – the monumental canvas expressing his outrage at the Fascist bombing of the Basque village in 1937), Picasso was never conspicuously successful as a painter of political propaganda. That is because effective agitprop requires the simplification of complex issues. Picasso was a poet, not a politician. His is an art of allusion, symbol and metaphor.