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Socialism Today 140 - July/August 2010

In pursuit of abstract peace

Picasso: Peace and Freedom

Tate Liverpool

Until 30 August, £10/£8 admission

Reviewed by Paul Gerrard

IN MAY a Picasso painting became the most expensive art work in the world when his Nude, Green Leaves and Bust was sold by Christie’s of New York for $106.5 million. Pablo Picasso died in 1973 but his work is still highly sought-after. The particular irony of Picasso as the most expensive artist in the world is that, for the last 30 years of his life, he was a committed member of the French Communist Party (PCF), and it is on Picasso’s later political and anti-war paintings that this exhibition at Tate Liverpool focuses.

Apart from his status as ‘collectable’, what does Picasso mean to us today? He is probably the most famous artist in the world, so famous Citroën named a car after him. Everyone has some picture of his work in mind: apparently random collections of images – birds, breasts, guitars, skulls, wine bottles. Strange geometrical shapes, too – Picasso was, along with Georges Braque, a pioneer of cubism, which attempted to render three dimensions as two on canvas. Above all, we remember Guernica, perhaps his most famous painting, its mangled images of death commemorating a Republican village carpet-bombed in the Spanish civil war by fascist warplanes.

Guernica itself is missing from the exhibition. Painted in 1937 and after many years in New York it is now too fragile to move from its present location in Madrid. But there are other paintings in a similar style, notably The Charnel House (1945), which is on display. As with Guernica, Picasso, known for his use of vibrant colour elsewhere, works here only in black, grey and white, emulating the newsreel and newspaper photographs of the time. The death agonies of a Spanish Republican family, slaughtered in their own kitchen, are all the more shocking for the crazy angles of their contorted limbs, a small child drinking its mother’s blood, and the father’s hand clenched into a fist.

Picasso had moved to Paris from Spain around 1900 to study art at a time when it was a hothouse for radical artists. He co-founded the magazine Arte Joven (Young Art) with an anarchist friend, Francisco de Asís Soler, and associated with poets Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon and others who were later drawn to the PCF. Despite his obvious sympathies for the left, especially the anti-Franco cause in the Spanish civil war, Picasso avoided a personal commitment until the second world war was virtually over. He remained in Paris during the German occupation. Leftish intellectuals, unable to publish or display their work, were occasionally offered bribes by the Nazis in the form of extra coal. Picasso always refused, saying that ‘a Spaniard is never cold’. At other times they suffered mild harassment. The story goes that one day Picasso was visited by the SS in his home where Guernica hung on the wall. The officer asked suspiciously: ‘Did you do that?’ Picasso replied: ‘No, you did’.

Within weeks of the liberation of Paris, in August 1944, he joined the PCF, who emblazoned its daily paper, l’Humanité, with the news. Picasso describes his decision lyrically: "I came to the Party as one goes to the fountain". His party membership card is on view here (he paid his dues at the highest rate), as is the receipt for a cheque he donated to striking miners in 1948 – a million francs (approximately £50,000 today). Picasso was nothing if not generous.

There began a long period of association with the party and with the peace movement which deepened as the cold war took hold. In 1949, Aragon asked Picasso to provide an image to use at a forthcoming peace conference. Picasso offered him a naturalistic lithograph of a fan-tailed pigeon. Within hours it was incorporated into a poster and plastered all over Paris. Later, Picasso produced many of the much more familiar line drawings of a dove: with the French flag, or carrying a twig in its beak, or accompanied by a classical face, as in Le Visage de La Paix (1950). Many of these images can be viewed here in context, on yellowing copies of l’Humanité or in their original poster form. This part of the exhibition is perhaps the most interesting for socialists since Picasso was probably the first artist to allow his work, in the form of posters, newspapers, headscarves and badges, to be used, reproduced and sold by the left press.

The PCF was delighted to have Picasso as a member, and he never let it down. But his non-realistic painting style met with the same disapproval from the Soviet Union as it had from the Nazis. Stalin and his artistic acolytes only officially approved of ‘socialist realism’ – the naturalistic (and implausibly heroic) depiction of workers in struggle and the aggrandisement of Stalin – and regarded cubism, which heavily influenced Picasso’s technique, as ‘degenerate bourgeois art’. The PCF was probably the most loyal to Moscow of all the European ‘Communist’ parties, and this led to tensions with party officials cautious in their defence of Picasso. Refused permission to mount an exhibition in Moscow, he is quoted as saying: "I don’t teach the Russians about economics, so why should they teach me about painting?"

Despite these differences, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Picasso produced publicity work for peace conferences all over the world and attended many personally. Individual works are prompted by episodes in the cold war: Massacre in Korea (1951) marks the Korean war, and The Rape of the Sabine Women (1962) reflects the Cuban missile crisis. War and Peace (1952), a major mural, and dozens of other smaller works, depict war through a dizzying and fantasmagorical set of images: armies of insects, classical centaurs, owls, and hybrid creatures – half men, half tanks. Some of this work is stark and terrifying, some of it seems clumsy, infantile, dashed-off.

In the extensive accompanying documentation to the exhibition, the International Peace Movement which Picasso joined emerges more and more as a collaboration between bourgeois and leftish figureheads, and the Stalinists of east and west. In this it resembles the popular fronts of the 1930s except that, this time, the Stalinists could buttress the conferences and rallies with more state delegations, and representatives from colonial countries in revolt. From the abandonment of the Comintern in 1943, right up to the restoration of capitalism in the early 1990s, the main concern of the Soviet Union was to reduce the military threat from imperialism, but without undermining it through independent working-class action. Picasso appears to have been a very willing player in this game, and he was rewarded with both the Lenin Peace Prize, in 1950, and the International Lenin Peace Prize, in 1962. All over the world, Picasso was feted and rubbed shoulders with leading left intellectuals, writers and artists. From his own statements, much of what he valued in the PCF was the contact it offered with the ‘best minds’ of the left.

Picasso is too complex an artist to pigeon-hole, and this exhibition does not attempt to do that. Another exhibition, Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (Gagosian gallery, London, until 28 August), focuses on the family and emotional life he experienced with a succession of female partners, and his works are constantly being presented from different perspectives. But politics is an essential component of this complex character. He remained a loyal member of the PCF until his death, apparently unmoved by the Hungarian uprising of 1956, which saw many intellectuals tear up their party cards, or Russian tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Politically, it is pacifism, more than socialism, which moves Picasso. The pursuit of an abstract peace somewhere above the class struggle was enough for him.


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