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Picasso's image in East and West Germany

Stefan Dege
September 27, 2021

Communist activist or genius of contemporary art? Picasso was viewed through drastically different ideological lenses in former East and West Germany.

Picasso's mural War and Peace
Picasso's mural 'War and Peace' was interpreted differently in East and West GermanyImage: Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

Picasso (1881-1973) is a popular artist even today, 48 years after his death. Just this May, one of his works, Woman Sitting Near a Window, was auctioned for $103.4 million (€88.2 million).

In 2015, the artist's most expensive painting until then, The Women of Algiers, changed hands for $179.4 million (€153 million).

Beyond the fact that  Picasso's works are still in demand, seemingly everything has been said and written about the influential 20th-century artist and sculptor, whose full name was Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso.

Yet curators still find new angles to approach his works. 

An exhibition in Cologne's Museum Ludwig  entitled Picasso Shared and Divided: The Artist and His Image in East and West Germany, looks into the two countries' very different interpretations of the artist.

Theodor Huess and painter Arnold Bode discuss under a painting by Pablo Picasso.
German President Theodor Heuss (second from left) at the Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, 1955Image: dpa/picture alliance

Different views

The iron curtain, which divided the world for more than four decades into irreconcilable political blocs — socialism and capitalism — certainly played a strong role in how Picasso was perceived in the East and the West.

In 1944, Picasso joined the Communist Party of France. He called it "a logical step in my life, in my work." He participated in campaigns and traveled to peace conferences, for which he also created posters.

Picasso's painting Massacre in Korea
The exhibition features political works such as "Massacre in Korea"Image: Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

He created political works like The Charnel House, which depicted horrors of the Nazi regime, or Massacre in Korea, about American war crimes. One his most famous paintings is also as an anti-war work: Guernica, named after the Basque city that was bombed by German planes. His series of murals War and Peace were conceived for a chapel in the Communist-governed village of Vallauris, in southern France, aiming to create a "Temple of Peace."

Picasso also took on commissions like painting Josef Stalin on his birthday or making a sketch of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Stalin and peace?

But could a portrait of Stalin be reconciled with a Temple of Peace?

"In the post-war world, yes," says Cologne curator Julia Friedrich, "in any case for Picasso and other communists."

Many artists identified themselves during that period with the socialist movement for peace, for which Picasso created the ultimate motif: the dove.

A painting of a dove by Picasso
Picasso's doves were popular motifs in East GermanyImage: Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

Picasso's friend, the poet Louis Aragon, had chosen his Dove lithograph to illustrate the poster of the 1949 Paris Peace Congress. 

The painter, who even as a child made sketches of his father's doves, kept creating variations of the bird afterwards.

His doves were especially popular in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR). For instance, Picasso's drawings were featured on posters of peace movements and in school books.

As curator Friedrich speculates, they were "certainly more popular and perhaps even more widely circulated than the official national emblem of East Germany, the hammer and the compass surrounded by a wreath of rye."

Even though the artist was considered a model communist activist, there were hardly any Picasso exhibitions in the GDR's early years. His anti-realist style was rejected by East German authorities, as the masses were supposed to recognize themselves in art.

A cotton scarf designed by Picasso featuring a dove
A printed cotton scarf designed by Picasso for the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace in East Berlin in 1951Image: Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

The political artist — concealed

The approach was completely different in the West.

Picasso was greatly respected in West Germany as well, but here he was promoted as a pillar of contemporary art. All kinds of exhibitions presented him as a reviver of art, and worshiped him as a charismatic genius.

'Guernica' by Picasso, a painting showing abstract representations of injured men and women
'Guernica' comments on the crimes committed by German and Italian troops during the Spanish civil warImage: picture-alliance/G3online

In 1955, his Guernica was shown at the Munich art museum Haus der Kunst, but the Foreign Ministry in Berlin warned the curators against the "political leanings" of the work.

The political Picasso, says Cologne curator Friedrich, was largely concealed in the West.


Picasso Shared and Divided is on show at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne until January 30, 2022.


This article was translated from German.

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