Pablo Picasso: A Political Life
Pablo Picasso is one of the pre-eminent artists of the twentieth century, having mastered various art forms such as painting, sculpting, print-making, ceramic-making and stage designing. Alongside Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp, Picasso is considered to have revolutionized plastic arts in the early part of the twentieth century. He is also credited with co-founding the Cubist movement and constructed sculpture. The invention of collage is also attributed to him. Although Picasso is a house-hold name across the world, his political views and affiliations are not as well-known as his artistic accomplishments. His political commitments have been one of the most underexplored areas of his life and work. (Kiaer, 2003, p.395) But new scholarship and evidence from exhibitions identify the political facet of Pablo Picasso. This essay will argue that though not much publicized or documented Picasso held strong political beliefs. This is evident from the events of his personal life and the content of his artistic works.
Although art critics often suggest that art should transcend politics, this assertion does not always holds true. The most important event in Picasso’s life, which betrays his strong political sympathies, is his joining the French Communist Party in 1944. Picasso’s contribution to the party came
“he maintained an aesthetic distance from the views of the party though he repeatedly expressed his horror of war as one can see in his Guernica, Guerre et Paix, and Massacres en Coree. Thus a Picasso of peace rather than a Communist painter, who, nevertheless, never forgot his “Stalin” as he demonstrated in a sketch in November 1949: “A ta sante, Staline.” (Gavronsky, 2001, p.47)
Hence, what we see is a complex development of Picasso’s politics, that does not lend itself to convenient stereotypes and categorization.
In the exhibition Musee National Picasso held in Paris recently, more evidence of Picasso’s political engagement has emerged. In an obscure little file labeled ‘Political Correspondence sent to Picasso’, many erstwhile unknown facts about the great artist are revealed. We learn that Picasso sent “generous donations to African, Muslim and Jewish causes, as well as his support for the refugees of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, striking miners in northern France, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in the US for passing on atomic secrets to the USSR.” (Gavronsky, 2001, p.47) But what politicized Picasso the most was his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. At the Tate Liverpool exhibition, one is reacquainted with the political side of Picasso through paintings such as Guernica (1937) and The Charnel House (1945), the latter based upon a short documentary film about a Spanish Republican family slaughtered in their kitchen.
“The austere use of grisaille (monochromatic tones of grey, black and white) emulates the grainy newsreel and newspaper photographs of the period. Still lives executed during the last years of the Second World War are filled with animal skulls and that harbinger of death, the owl, to evoke traditional forms of vanitas and memento mori paintings…Other series, such as the War and Peace murals, reflect Picasso’s attitude to the cold war. His Las Meninas series (1957) viciously satirises–in the tradition of Goya–the Spanish monarchy and Franco’s bid to install the young exiled prince Don Juan as his puppet.” (Hubbard, 2010, p.47)
In one of the interviews Picasso gave, he’s admitted to his Socialist leanings as “the logical outcome of my whole life”. (Davis, 2010, p.3) It is appropriate, then, that the recently held art exhibition at Tate Liverpool was titled Picasso: Peace and Freedom. The painting Monument to the Spaniards who Died for France (1947) is a homage to the Republicans who escaped interment by joining the French Resistance. Its “ruddy blood reds and greys contrast dramatically with the more optimistic works in the same room – The Cockerel of the Liberation (1944) showing France’s emblematic bird in cheerful greens and yellows…Symbols of war and peace appear in works throughout his life, as emphasized in the exhibition.” (Davis, 2010, p.3)
Hence, in conclusion, as much as Picasso is an artist with bohemian tendencies, he is also a political activist. Not only is the evidence amply available in his works of art, but they are to be found in other artifacts related to him. For example, there are photographs of him speaking at peace conferences, newspaper clippings of the sketches he drew for publication in Les Lettres Francaises, pamphlets he made for Daily Worker, etc. What comes across most strongly “is the impression of a man who used his art to express his convictions, but who would not be swayed by the opinions of others without a fight.” (Davis, 2010, p.3)
Daix, Pierre. Picasso: Life and Art. Trans. Olivia Emmet. New York: Icon Editions, 1993.
Gavronsky, Serge. “Aragon: Politics and Picasso.” The Romanic Review (2001): 47+.
Hubbard, Sue. “War Paint: Sue Hubbard Explores the Politics of the 20th Century’s Greatest Artist.” New Statesman 28 June 2010: 47.
Kiaer, Christina. “Dreamworld and Catastrophe: the Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West / Picasso the Communist Years / French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art Before, during and after Vichy / Mario Sironi and Italian Modernisms Art and Politics under Fascism.” The Art Bulletin 85.2 (2003): 395+.
Davis, Laura, “Symbols of War and Peace Strike a Chord in Landmark Picasso Show.” Daily Post (Liverpool, England) 21 May 2010: 3.