Picasso: a lover and a fighter  

A major new exhibition explores the war years of Pablo Picasso. Lesley Finlay and Joanne Baldwin take a look…

‘Painting is not there merely to decorate the walls of flats. It is a means of waging offensive and defensive war against the enemy.’ So said Pablo Picasso, arguably the most famous artist in the world, and one more renowned as a playboy and hedonist.

What do we know already about Picasso? He was an innovative, strong-willed and sometimes contradictory man. He was a communist, a lover and a hater of women, a revolutionary – how old-fashioned this now seems! Now a major new exhibition will challenge this perceived image.

Tate Liverpool has gathered more than 150 works by the artist that reveal the artist’s work as a tireless political activist and campaigner for peace.

Called Picasso: Peace and Freedom, it is the first exhibition to explore the postwar period of the artist’s life in depth, and looks at Picasso’s work in the Cold War era from 1944 to 1973. This is more than an exhibition of a renowned artist’s work; it’s a veritable potted history of the latter half of the 20th century, viewed through the prism of Picasso’s art and politics.

A pronounced skull motif dominates the paintings and sculptures of the immediate post-war period, a time when the carnage of the Second World War remained fresh in the mind. While others left Europe to sit out the war in the relative safety of the Americas, Picasso chose to stay in his adopted home of France throughout the Occupation, turning down offers from the Nazis of extra food and coal. The artist told them simply: ‘A Spaniard is never cold.’

In Still Life with Skull, Leeks, and Pitcher (1945), the ubiquitous skull appears alongside vegetables and everyday household objects. It’s a timely reminder that life goes on, but death is never far behind; a clear metaphor for life in Occupied France where death, once a distant abstraction, moved glaringly into focus.

Tate Liverpool’s exhibition has as its centrepiece The Charnel House (1944-45), Picasso’s most explicitly political painting since Guernica (1937). The disturbing work depicts a crumpled mass of bodies, evoking the grisly images of the Holocaust. It was believed to be inspired by a film about a Spanish Republican family killed in the kitchen of the house where they were living just over the French border. However, the painting and its title are now widely thought to have been a response to photographs of liberated concentration camps, which were first published when the painting was nearing completion.

During this period the political content of his work came to the fore. His paintings frequently reference key historical moments, chronicling human conflict and war, but also a desire for peace.

Picasso’s embrace of Communism seems shockingly naive today, particularly to a world now fully aware of the extent of Stalin’s despotism.

He was no mere dilettante; he was an avowed, card carrying member of the Communist Party, which he joined in 1944. Nor was he averse to serving up propaganda; the cover art he provided for French Communist newspapers and pamphlets dominates the middle section of the exhibit. Yet he was also an ardent pacifist, and this sentiment informs some of his best-known, more commercial works.

Dove with an Olive Branch (1961) became a universal peace symbol and defining image of the late 1960s hippie movement. Picasso’s lithograph of the fan-tailed pigeon given to him by Matisse in 1948 was selected for the poster of the First International Peace Congress held in Paris in 1949.

Picasso provided variations on the dove for Congresses in Wroclaw, Stockholm, Sheffield, Vienna, Rome and Moscow.

The dove had a personal significance for Picasso invoking childhood memories of his father painting doves. In 1949 Picasso named his daughter Paloma – Spanish for ‘dove’ – born in the same month as the Peace Congress.

Picasso’s work from Cubism to Classicism and beyond can be seen as a precursor of psychedelia, changing perspectives through art as opposed to psychoactive drugs. Even so, Picasso eschews the spirit of Cubism in favour of a more realistic style in his lithograph Dove (1949), the featured image of the first International World Peace Congress’s promotional poster.

The Rape of the Sabine Women 1962, was painted at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Picasso uses the variation on David’s masterpiece to create a contemporary history painting, which illustrates the ancient Roman story and at the same time provides a direct comment on the very real threat of a Third World War and fear of a nuclear Armageddon.
Later sections of the exhibit focus on Picasso’s interpretations of old masters.

In a striking interpretation of Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas, Picasso combines sharp geometric shapes with sinister reds, blacks and greys to convey anti-Royal sentiments. The courtiers and attandents are rendered knifelike, sometimes bloodied, looming over the young princess Margarita. Are they protecting her, or is she their sacrificial lamb? It’s the ambiguity that makes this piece so thought-provoking.
This is a fascinating exhibition for students of art, politics and history alike.

It’s interesting to note that Picasso’s early experiments with Cubism, along with those of his contemporary Georges Braque, were intially met with bemusement and accusations of childishness.

His endurance sends an encouraging message to young artists everywhere. Picasso: Peace and Freedom is worth a visit for this reason alone.

And you are…?
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was arguably the most influential and prolific artist of the 20th century.
His real name was Pablo Ruiz. ‘Picasso’ was his mother’s maiden name.

He had four children from three wives.

During his life, he created around 20,000 works.

Born in Malaga, it is said Picasso’s first word was piz piz – short for lapiz – meaning pencil!

The world’s most expensive painting is a Picasso – sold in May for £70m. Nude, Green Leaves and Bust depicts Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter reclining and as a bust while Picasso’s profile can be seen in the blue background. It was sold to a private bidder.

An American student fell over and accidentally ripped the work An Actor in January. Oops! No substantial damage was caused.

Picasso died of a heart attack during a dinner party he was hosting with his wife Jacqueline at their home in Cannes.

Useful information
Picasso: Peace and Freedom is organised by Tate Liverpool in collaboration with the Albertina, Vienna.

It runs until August 30. Admission: £10 (£8 concessions)

Pablo Picasso: The Mediterranean years (1945-1961) is currently on at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London

For a brilliant website experience, check out www.picasso.fr