Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Well I tried, didn’t I? I have to admit, I’ve always had a blind spot where Jackson Pollock’s concerned. So I was not that keen on seeing Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool. But I was persuaded by my daughter – who was blown away by the Pollocks she saw in MoMA a few years ago – to give it a go. I came away still unconvinced. Continue reading “Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot”

Hockney, Printmaker: a joyous celebration of mastery

Hockney, Printmaker: a joyous celebration of mastery

Hockney, Self-portrait, 1954

Self-portrait, 1954

Barely a month since seeing the Walker’s early Hockney exhibition, we enjoy a much bigger, comprehensive survey of David Hockney’s long and distinguished career as a printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  It’s a joyous celebration of his mastery of the techniques of etching and lithography, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the artist’s first prints, made while he was a student at Bradford College of Art in 1954.

I was interested in everything at first … It was thrilling after being at the Grammar School, to be at a school where I knew I would enjoy everything they asked me to do. I loved it all and I used to spend twelve hours a day in the art school. For four years I spent twelve hours a day there every day.

Hockney got into lithography early, as demonstrated by the three prints from 1954 that are exhibited here.  Here is his first self-portrait, in which he stares out at the viewer with folded arms, pudding-basin haircut and the round glasses that were to become his trademark, a portrait of his mother working at her sewing machine, and a drawing of the chip shop down the road.

Woman with a Sewing Machine 1954

Woman with a Sewing Machine, 1954

Hockney Fish and Chip Shop, 1954

Fish and Chip Shop, 1954

The exhibition opens, however, with examples of Hockney’s rapidly-developing skill in etching – beginning with the mischievous Myself and my Heroes, made while he was a student the Royal College of Art in 1961 in which Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi (with haloes) stand beside a young, flat-capped Hockney. This was a period in which Hockney characteristically scrawled lines of text on his images, and here – along with quotes by his two heroes – Hockney has summed up his own achievement in the immortal words, ‘I am 23 years old and I wear glasses’. (‘I hadn’t made any quotes’, Hockney later explained).

Myself and my Heroes 1961

Myself and my Heroes, 1961 

Hockney in 2012, aged 74

Hockney in 2012, aged 74: grumpy old man with fag

These days Hockney may sound like a grumpy old man (especially when he’s on about smoking), but back then he was an angry young man. The Diploma from 1962 came about after he and four other students were told they might not be allowed to graduate from the Royal College of Art.  Thumbing his nose at the college bigwigs, Hockney has etched his own diploma, lampooning senior figures and portraying he and the other four failed students bent double below.

Hockney The Diploma, 1962

The Diploma, 1962

From these beginnings we move on to three well-known series of illustrations: A Rake’s Progress (1961-63), Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy (1966), and Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969)Alongside portraits of some of his famous sitters and friends, these reveal Hockney’s growing stature as an exceptionally fine draughtsman and his rapidly-developing skills in etching and printmaking.

Hockney The Seven Stone Weakling, A Rake's Progress, 1961

The Seven Stone Weakling, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961

Hockney Bedlam, A Rake's Progress, 1961

Bedlam, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961

A Rake’s Progress was conceived in New York in July 1961; Hockney formed the idea of taking Hogarth’s set of eight engravings to ‘somehow play with them and set it in New York in modern times. What I liked was telling a story visually.  Hogarth’s story has no words: it’s a graphic tale.’ My eye was caught particularly by the witty and slightly self-deprecating plate ‘The Seven-Stone Weakling’, and ‘Bedlam’ which resulted from Hockney, in 1961 New York, seeing people with what he thought were hearing aids and later discovering they were actually the first transistor radios, as yet unknown in Britain.

Browsing the plates of A Rake’s Progress evoked echoes of Grayson Perry being similarly inspired more recently – and of another curious connection.  One place where you can see the Hogarth series displayed is the in the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  Soane was a leading architect in the early 19th century, responsible for many commissions around London – including the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The Marriage, 1962

The Marriage, 1962

The Marriage, an etching made in 1962, came about when Hockney was looking around a museum with a friend:

I caught sight of him looking at something on a wall, so I saw him in profile.  To one side of him was a sculpture in wood of a seated woman … Egyptian, I believe.  For a moment they seemed to be together – like a couple posing.

One Night, 1966

One Night, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966

The Shop Window of a Tobacco Store 1966

The Shop Window of a Tobacco Store, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966

In 1966 Hockney started work on  Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, a book of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems. The series reveals Hockney’s supreme mastery of line drawing, and the curators have grouped with the Cavafy images other prints which reinforce this impression.  While working on the Cavafy etchings, Hockney visited Beirut for inspiration, then an exotic and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, which had been the setting for Cavafy’s turn of the century poems.

Back in London, Hockney worked from photographs, his own drawings and directly from life onto copper printing plates.Hockney did not have a particular poems in mind when working – they were matched up afterwards, chosen from about twenty etchings made in around three months. Some images visualise incidents in the poems. Others are less specific, reflecting a mood or shared experience. Hockney’s bold images were defiant in their representation of homosexual love.

Hockney 'The Student - Homage to Picasso

The Student – Homage to Picasso, 1973

Hockney Artist and Model, 1973

Artist and Model, 1973

Next are two wonderful prints – made in 1973, the year after the death of Picasso – that tell of Hockney’s fascination with Picasso that began when he was a student at the Royal College of Art.  Hockney has continued to acknowledge the influence on his work of Picasso’s art and of Picasso as a model of creative freedom. In Homage to Picasso, Hockney portrays himself as a student, approaching Picasso carrying his portfolio for inspection, while Artist and Model is a marvellous etching of himself with Picasso, the two of them seated at a table, the aged Spanish artist dressed in a stripy sailor’s shirt and examining, perhaps working on, a sheet of paper in front of him. Hockney is seated opposite, wearing only a pair of spectacles, his nakedness expressing his vulnerability.

Martin Gayford once wrote of this etching:

It is a poignant image of a close artistic relationship that could not exist in reality. Picasso died in 1972. The little etching, dated 1973-4, was created in his memory. Later, Hockney confessed, “I would have loved to have met him, even once. It would have been something to remember, a great thrill.” He called the print ‘Artist and Model’, and depicted himself in the latter role, as naked sitter.

Hockney Panama Hat, 1972

Panama Hat, 1972

So much wit and humour runs through Hockney’s work: Panama Hat is his portrait of Henry Geldzahler, the influential curator, art historian and critic who was also a personal friend who had a profound influence on Hockney (for example, recommending that he read Wallace Stevens’ poem The Man With The Blue Guitar).  In 1971, Henry had asked Hockney to contribute a work of art to a charity fund-raiser.  Geldzahler declined Hockney’s offer to make his portrait, believing it might look vain.  So Hockney made an etching of Henry’s trademark jacket and hat – a portrait of Henry without Henry.

Hockney Henry At the Table, 1976

Henry At the Table, 1976

Henry recommended that David read Wallace Stevens’s long poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, which was itself inspired by a painting: Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. In the poem, Stevens meditates on the relationship between art and reality:

They said ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

The sentiment attracted Hockney: the idea that reality is transformed by the medium in which it is represented is a cornerstone of his aesthetic, and it is why he has worked in so many media, always searching for new ways to reveal ‘things as they are’.  For Stevens, as for Hockney, reality is not an object, but an activity, a product of the imagination shaping the world.

Stevens’s poem inspired Hockney to create an extended meditation on the process of artistic transformation, of print-making as being analogous to poetry.  The key for Hockney came in Stevens’s line, ‘poetry is the subject of the poem’, a line that Hockney borrows and reworks as ‘Etching is the Subject’, the title of one of the Blue Guitar etchings.

Hockney The Poet, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

The Poet, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

Hockney Blue Guitar Etching is the Subject, 1976-77

 Etching is the Subject, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

The series is also a profound homage to Picasso: as the frontispiece to the portfolio clearly spells out: ‘Etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso’. Hockney has explained that the etchings ‘were not conceived as literal illustrations of the poem but as an interpretation of its themes in visual terms. Like the poem, they are about transformations within art as well as the relation between reality and the imagination, so these are pictures and different styles of representation juxtaposed and reflected and dissolved within the same frame’.

Hockney Margueritas, 1973

Margueritas, 1973

At this time, Hockney was following in Picasso’s footsteps in another sense: through his choice of a new etching technique. While living in Paris between 1973 and 1975, he worked extensively at the Atelier Crommelynck where Picasso had made prints during the final two decades of his life. Aldo Crommelynck introduced Hockney to both the use of the sugar-lift technique, which enabled him to recreate brush marks on the etched plate, and the use of a single plate for multi-coloured etchings rather than having to register separate plates for each colour. Both of these techniques were revelations for Hockney and were essential to the genesis of his ‘Blue Guitar’ prints. Margueritas (above) was one of the first prints Hockney made using this technique developed by Picasso.

Hockney Red Wire Plant, 1998

Red Wire Plant, 1998

This comprehensive exhibition reveals the extent to which Hockney has constantly evolved as an artist, exploring new artistic trends and portraying a wide variety of subject matter – including his dogs.

Hockney Horizontal Dogs, 1998

Horizontal Dogs, 1998

Hockney. Two Vases in the Louvre, 1974

Two Vases in the Louvre, 1974

Hockney. Contrejour in the French Style, 1974

Contrejour in the French Style, 1974

There are many portraits here; rather than accept commissions, Hockney has always preferred to depict his friends, and one constant sitter over the years has been the fashion designer, Celia Birtwell. She appears here twice – in a superb 1973 drawing (below), and in a 1989 etching Soft Celia which I didn’t particularly like.

Hockney, Celia, 1973

Celia, 1973

There are also the superb portraits of Henry Geldzahler, and of his lovers, Peter Schlesinger and Gregory Evans, represented in the exquisite pencil drawing Small Head of Gregory.

Hockney Small Head of Gregory, 1976

Small Head of Gregory, 1976

A favourite of mine for a long time has been the series of prints that Hockney produced in 1973 that depict six weather states: fog, sun, rain, lightning, snow and wind.  In the gallery at Dulwich I sat for a while, entranced by a group of primary school children who had been positioned by their teachers in front of the prints, asked to decide which was their favourite – and then explain the reasons why.  Most of their responses showed how intently these children had looked at the images, noticing ways in which Hockney’s differing approaches to each weather condition reflected his grappling with how to depict the particular physical properties of rainwater, sunlight, or a blanket of snow.

Hockney  The Weather Series

The Weather series, 1973

Having listened to the kids’ thoughts on the artist’s methods, it was interesting read Hockney’s words alongside on how he tackled the work.  He had been inspired by a trip to Japan in 1970, and both ‘Snow’ and ‘Wind’ reference Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts.  On the genesis of ‘Rain’, Hockney commented that it was related to  a painting he had done in London very similar to it, called The Japanese Rain on Canvas, in which he had used a watering can to pour diluted paint onto the canvas on the floor.  In the lithographic version he replicated this effect by dripping a dilute form of lithographic ink down the stone.

Hockney Rain

Rain, from The Weather Series, 1973

Hockney Wind, from The Weather Series, 1973

Wind, from The Weather Series, 1973

Hockney explains that the series is not just about the weather, or a homage to Japanese prints, but is also about ‘the weather drawn’.  ‘Because in each one’, Hockney has said, ‘ the problem was, not just making a representation of the weather, but how to draw it. It means that the subject of the prints is not just the weather: the subject matter is drawing’.

The print here of the wind, for instance.  I couldn’t figure out how to do wind, make a visual representation of wind, because normally only the effects of wind show themselves.  So I kept thinking of palm trees bending and everything, and it all seemed just a little bit corny or ordinary or something, and I was just on the beach at Malibu one day and suddenly a piece of paper blew by, and it suddenly dawned on me, I’ll simply do all the other prints I’ve done blowing away across Melrose Avenue.

Hockney Afternoon Swimming, 1980

Afternoon Swimming, 1980

One focus of the recent exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery was Hockney’s obsession with capturing the properties of water, and it’s been such a recurrent theme in his work that the Dulwich exhibition also includes several examples of it.  There is Afternoon Swimming (above) and two examples from the 1978 series Lithographic Water.

Hockney Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon, 1978

Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon, 1978

Hockney. Lithographic Water Made of Lines, 1978

Lithographic Water Made of Lines, 1978

The movement of water, and the effect of light upon its surface offered Hockney the opportunity to introduce areas of abstraction within his figurative paintings, and an artistic challenge:

It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything – it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.

David Hockney: Lilies (1971)

 Lilies, 1971

Hockney Still Life with Book , 1973

Still Life with Book, 1973

Hockney Still Life, 1965

Still Life, 1965

Hockney Coloured Flowers made out of Paper and Ink, 1971

Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, 1971

Throughout his career, Hockney has constantly returned to etching and lithograph, regarding prints as a valid alternative to his paintings rather than mere complement to them whose purpose was the cheaper dissemination of an image. Anyone looking around this exhibition could not come away under the misapprehension that etching and lithography are techniques somehow secondary to painting.  And what makes this great display of prints so stimulating and entertaining is what they reveal, not just of Hockney’s skill in these techniques, but of a mind restlessly reflecting on problems of representation – often with wit and humour. So, in Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, for example, he deconstructs the artificiality of the image both in the title, and by arranging the coloured pencils he used to create the image in the foreground.

Hockney Matelot Kevin Druez, 2009

Matelot Kevin Druez, 2009

Hockney is an artist who constantly looks to the new – including the implications or opportunities that new technologies offer artists.  Matelot Kevin Druez, from 2009, is an image drawn on a computer and then inkjet printed. There are other examples of Hockney’s fascination with computer drawings, the best being Rain on the Studio Window, a prelude to his iPad works:

I was drawing a portrait when it began to rain.  Sitting under the window and watching the rain run down it, I could immediately change my subject, get as it were a clean sheet of paper (an empty screen) and draw as the rain came down.  No other medium would have allowed that change so quickly. With nature the moment rules.

David Hockney: Rain on the Studio Window (2009).

Rain on the Studio Window, 2009

This is a great exhibition that demonstrates Hockney’s achievement across a long career. Hockney seems as fresh and as relevant today as he was 60 years ago when he made those first prints at Bradford Art College.

In this YouTube video, Richard Lloyd curator of Hockney, Printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery takes us around the exhibition:

See also

A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz

A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz

When we landed in Nice for a long weekend, a city-wide tribute to Matisse – Un Ete Pour Matisse – was just drawing to a close.  Comprising eight (yes, eight!) exhibitions celebrating his work and legacy, we managed in the short time we were there to see just three. Continue reading “A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz”

Picasso in Bruges?

Picasso in Bruges?

Picasso in Bruges poster

Wandering around Bruges in July, we spotted a poster advertising an improbable-sounding art exhibition: Picasso in Bruges. We were strolling through the courtyard of Oud Sint Jan, Old St. John’s Hospital, an 11th-century hospital established to care for sick pilgrims and travellers.  It’s one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospital buildings.

Today part of the hospital complex holds the Hans Memling museum which we intended to visit, but overlooked after being sidetracked by the Picasso poster. The diversion proved worthwhile though, as the exhibition turned out to consist of drawings and lithographs – all of them from a private collection – not just by Picasso, but also by the likes of Joan Miro, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and others. The exhibition was pretty extensive, spreading through a series of galleries on two floors that overlooked the beautiful hospital courtyard.

Laura Knight La Grenouilliere 1910
Laura Knight, La Grenouilliere 1910

There were few oil paintings in the exhibition, though one of the first works we encountered was – Laura Knight’s La Grenouillere, painted in 1910. La Grenouillere was a riverside restaurant by the Seine a few miles outside Paris that had been frequented by Monet and Renoir.  The name literally translates as ‘frog pond’ but doesn’t refer to ponds or frogs as such.  At the time ‘frog’ was a slang term used by young men to refer to girls. Though that might have been one reason for the place’s attraction for the two painters, in the summer of 1869 both were drawn to paint the sunlit reflections on the water and the shades of greens and blues of the trees and the river. The two paintings would be amongst the first Impressionist landscapes.

Monet La Grenouillere 1869
Monet, La Grenouillere, 1869

I don’t know why Laura Knight chose to paint an almost exact replica of the central detail of Monet’s painting. Perhaps as a tribute: in 1907, Laura Knight and her husband moved to the artists’ colony in Newlyn, Cornwall where she began painting in an Impressionist style. This small work must have been painted there.

Claude Monet Campagne 1866
Claude Monet, Campagne 1866

My favourite work in the exhibition was this small drawing in coloured chalk by Claude Monet called simply Campagne. There was another work by him, too – a pastel, sketched from the balcony of the Savoy in 1901, of Waterloo Bridge.  Monet stayed at the Savoy three times after the hotel was recommended to him by Whistler. He used pastels and tan-coloured paper, bought on Charing Cross Road, after his paints, brushes and canvasses were delayed on the way from France.

Miro- Terres De Grand Feu 2
Miro, Terres De Grand Feu, 1956
Miro- Terres De Grand Feu
Miro, Terres De Grand Feu, 1956

There were several lithographs by Joan Miro on show, including a series entitled Terres De Grand Feu that had been produced for an exhibition that opened at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1956, before travelling to New York.

There were many wonderful late works by Matisse – all of them lithographs from the 1950s, some of them reproductions of drawings, others of paper cut-outs. Here is a gallery of some of them.

Matisse made hundreds of drawings, original prints and illustrated books. A biography of the artist  at www.henri-matisse.net sums up the extraordinary creativity of the last 14 years of his life in these words:

This last art form included what Matisse called his ‘flower books’. These were beautiful objects in themselves, inspired by the tradition of the Medieval manuscript. Faces, body parts, lovers, fruit and flowers reveal Matisse’s exquisite arabesque lines, along with an extraordinary sense of colour. For the celebrated Jazz for instance, the images are characterized by brilliant colours, swirling lines and arabesques form series of jewel-like shapes, in themes which range from the circus to female forms amongst the sea. Matisse made his images from coloured stencils based on paper cut-outs.

In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with cancer and, following surgery, he started using a wheelchair. […]  However, Matisse’s extraordinary creativity could not be dampened. Une seconde vie, a second life, was what he called the last fourteen years of his life. Following and operation he found renewed and unexpected energies. This new lease of life led to an extraordinary burst of expression, the culmination of half a century of work, but also to a radical renewal that made it possible for him to create what he had always struggled for: “I have needed all that time to reach the stage where I can say what I want to say.”

With the aid of assistants he set about creating cut paper collages , often on a large scale, called gouaches découpés. By manoeuvring scissors through prepared sheets of paper, he inaugurated a new phase of his career. The cut-out was not an abdication from painting and sculpting: he called it “painting with scissors.” Matisse said, “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.” Moreover, experimentation with cut-outs offered Matisse innumerable opportunities to fashion a new, aesthetically pleasing environment: “You see as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.”

Picasso Doisneau
Picasso photographed by Robert Doisneau

And so to Picasso.  Introduced by one of Robert Doisneau’s iconic photographs of the artist, the core of this exhibition consisted of prints from the 1950s. They included Dancer (1954), deftly created from a few coloured crayon strokes; Danse (1956), that creates a sense of joyous freedom out of a few black squiggles, two lines of scribble and two patches of coloured scrawl; and an autographed postcard of two hands, one giving, the other receiving a gift of flowers – again, the essence of simplicity, but vibrant and intensely emotional. There was also a magnificent little bronze statuette of a bull.

Danse, 1956
Danse, 1956

Then there were the doves. Picasso painted the dove as a symbol of peace repeatedly after the Second World War, reflecting his membership of the French Communist Party and support for the Mouvement de la Paix.  In October 1944, less than six weeks after the liberation of Paris, Picasso, aged 63, joined the French Communist party.  Shortly after, in an interview for L’Humanité, Picasso claimed that he had always fought, through the weapons of his art, like a true revolutionary. But he also said that the experience of the second world war had taught him that it was not sufficient to manifest political sympathies under the veil of mythologising artistic expression. “I have become a communist because our party strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”

Poster for Peace Conference, 1962
Poster for Peace Conference, 1962

In 1950 he was awarded the Lenin prize for his involvement in the Mouvement de la Paix, for which he had designed the emblem of a dove. His propaganda value as a prestigious artist was incalculable, and he generously donated time and money to the Party and associated organisations. He marched with the Front National des Intellectuels, but his contributions mostly took the form of paintings he donated for sale to raise money for related charities.

The matter of Picasso’s support for the Communist Party, even after Hungary in 1956, remains problematic.  But it’s probably true to say that what really motivated Picasso politically,  from Guernica onwards, was a deep commitment to peace, international understanding and equality. He avoided using overtly communist symbolism in his work and refused to work in the socialist realist style favoured by the party.

At the height of his involvement, Picasso toured Europe to promote the communist-supported Mouvement de la Paix, gave large donations to many communist causes, and produced a huge quantity of emblems, posters and portraits for communist publications on demand. His dove became a ubiquitous symbol of peace in the post-war era.

Picasso paints on glass
Picasso paints on glass

Also on display were preparatory drawings that Picasso made for the chapel in the town of Vallauris dedicated to peace.  The drawings were prefaced by this panel:

Right up until the end of his life Picasso remained committed to world peace. Works that reflect the horror of war and oppression on the population are numerous. In 1951, to celebrate his seventieth birthday, the town of Vallauris organised a party in the castle chapel of the city. Pablo Picasso came up with the idea of painting the chapel with the theme of war and peace. This project was both political and artistic.

Politically, Picasso was still very involved with the Communist Party as well as being Vice-Chairman of the World Peace Movement. Artistically, Pablo Picasso wanted to leave his mark by painting “his” chapel as other artists had done before him. In fact he really wanted to follow in the steps of Matisse who had painted the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, and Chagall who had painted the Chapel of Our Lady of All Graces d’Assy. However, contrary to Matisse and Chagall, Picasso left out any religious characters and painted a Temple of Peace. The actual work was completed very quickly but was preceded by about 300 preparatory drawings that Picasso drew between April and September 1952.

Picasso highlights

And what of Bruges?  Well, what is there to add to the volume of words that have been written about this perfectly-preserved medieval town?  We walked from one end to the other, arriving eventually on the banks the main canal that encircles the town, connecting it to the still economically-important port of Zeebrugge.  Every vista beguiles the eye, but perhaps the best was the last, just before returning to the railway station: the begijnhof, a section of the town reserved for the Beguines, lay sisterhoods of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 13th century in the Low Countries, communities of widows or elderly unmarried women who vowed to serve God by tending the poor and sick, though without retiring from the world and taking vows like nuns.

We queued for frites in the main town square, ambled through the antiques market, visited the lace museum, lay on the grass beneath the turning blades of the still-working windmills on the canal bank, and drank tea across from the town hall as the horse-drawn tourist carriages driven by women in straw hats trotted past over the cobblestones.

Bruges gallery

See also

Picasso: Peace and Freedom

Picasso Hands Entwined

‘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.

Picasso Massacre in Korea 1951

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.

Picasso Peace poster 1949

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.

Picasso Dove with olive branch

Picasso Colombe de l'avenir

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’.

Pablo Picasso The Charnel House, 1944–1945

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.

Picasso Cockerel of the Liberation 1944

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

Picasso War 1951

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.


A Christmas card

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry (1968)

Hockney notes Picasso’s balls

In today’s Observer Magazine, there’s this from a feature on David Hockney:

Picasso remains a touchstone for Hockney, particularly the late work, which as he gets older he sees ever more clearly. “I went in 1973 to see the original show of his late paintings in Avignon,” he recalls. “I went with Douglas Cooper, who was quite a Picasso scholar. He was telling me how terrible the paintings were, but I said I would like to go all the same. So we went over there and Douglas is going on and on about how poor the work is. And eventually I said: ‘Do you mind if I just have a look for a while?’ So I looked around for a bit. And I went back to Douglas, and I said: ‘You may not be interested, but these are paintings about being an old man.’ There was a painting of an old guy, his legs crooked, his balls on the floor, a woman trying to hold him up. I said these are the themes only the greatest take on: Rembrandt, Van Gogh. You wouldn’t get it in Andy Warhol.”

Here’s that ‘painting of an old guy, his legs crooked, his balls on the floor, a woman trying to hold him up‘ (Embrace, painted in 1971):

One of my favourite late Picasso works is L’Aubade (The Serenade), painted when he was 84 years old in 1965, and still full of a vitality that shimmers from the canvas.  I love it, too, for its sense of the joy of music:

I enjoy myself to no end inventing these stories. I spend hour after hour while I draw, observing my creatures and thinking about the mad things they’re up to.
– Pablo Picasso, 1968

On Artchive.com they say this:

In the last two decades of his long career, Picasso produced more work than at any other time of his life. During this period, some works are not only dated by month and day, but with a numeral (I, II, III, etc.) indicating multiple works created that single day!  This late period tends to be overlooked, but contains some of the finest of Picasso’s paintings. Some critics maintain Picasso was creatively lazy at this point, but a close look at the work is very rewarding. He had achieved a level of effortless artistic expression that, I believe, has still not been fully appreciated after more than 25 years.  Regardless of your position on Picasso’s personal and artistic life, each of us can, in view of our own mortality, be awed by his final Self Portrait (painted when he was 91, in 1972):

Wikipedia notes of this last period that:

Devoting his full energies to his work, Picasso became more daring, his works more colourful and expressive, and from 1968 through 1971 he produced a torrent of paintings and hundreds of copperplate etchings. At the time these works were dismissed by most as pornographic fantasies of an impotent old man or the slapdash works of an artist who was past his prime. Only later, after Picasso’s death, when the rest of the art world had moved on from abstract expressionism, did the critical community come to see that Picasso had already discovered neo-expressionism and was, as so often before, ahead of his time.

On June 1, 1972 Picasso painted his last painting, The Embrace (Étreinte). He died in 1973, just 10 months after making the work.

Their bodies entwine in the height of passion, their body parts a jumble. A blue wave of death is approaching the couple. The curtain falls. The game is over. The background is white nothingness.
– Brigitte Sträter, Painting Against Time, Atlantic Times

Picasso,  The Embrace (Étreinte), 1972

The grand old painter died last night
His paintings on the wall
Before he went he bade us well
And said goodnight to us all.

Drink to me, drink to my health
You know I can’t drink any more
Drink to me, drink to my health
You know I can’t drink any more…
– Paul McCartney, Picasso’s Last Words

‘What will the art world do when I am no longer…They’ll have to go over my dead body! They’ve no way of getting past it, have they?’
– Pablo Picasso

Picasso Museum: War and Peace


This was a superb exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. It was especially moving to see the Vallauris Chapel War and Peace panels recreated (Sarah & I saw these in situ several years ago), as well as the large Massacre In Korea painting.

From the exhibition summary:

‘…painting is not done to decorate apartments. It’s an instrument of War for attack and defense against the enemy.’ Pablo Picasso, Les Lettres françaises, 24/3/1943

The aim of the exhibition is to show those moments when the artist uses his work to echo his horror at the ravages of war. This horror was especially strong during the Spanish Civil War, when he was commissioned by the government of the Republic to paint Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937. With all the works that revolve around it, it has become a symbol of human suffering.

However, from Guernica on, a new symbolism in human representation appears in his work, particularly in his characterization of Maria-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, protagonists in Picasso’s life and work during these years, and who assume opposing identities, very close to the artist’s attitudes towards war and peace.During the Second World War, between 1943 and 1944, Picasso painted a series of still lifes in which he uses skulls to exorcise the sadness and pessimism of the war years, marked by the deaths of friends and relatives and the emergence of a cruel, violent world in which the premises he knew and understood were crumbling.

In the fifty or so drawings he did for the sculpture L’homme au mouton, an embodiment of the Christian Good Shepherd, evocative of the Mediterranean tradition, the humanism of his thoughts on the power of art over terror refers us to the context of war, in which the lamb is the incarnation of the victim and the shepherd the champion of peace and tolerance.

Two years later, in the summer of 1946, after the war had ended, he moved in with Françoise Gilot in Antibes and started on a new series of still lifes in which emblematic Mediterranean animals and birds radiate a new happiness and peace, endowing these works with an element of magic. The photographer Michel Sima gave him an owl, symbol of Antibes and of the goddess Pallas Athene. He included it in a number of the still lifes, in which it appears perched on a chair. This was, then, one of the elements which, like Pallas Athene herself, united wisdom and the victory of peace over war.

He joined the French Communist Party in October 1944 as part of his fierce defence of freedom and peace, which is expressed in his work at the time and reached its height with his participation in the Peace Conferences in Wroclaw in 1948, in Paris in 1949 and in London in 1950. The doves in his drawings and lithographs became an emblem of world peace.

Apart from the works for the Peace Conferences, in 1945 he started on the large panels War and Peace, which were installed in 1954 in a chapel in Vallauris after extensive preparatory work’.

See also