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Picasso the communist

June 17, 2010

The communists in Pablo Picasso's time had a love-hate relationship with his art, but that didn't shake his political convictions. A new exhibition in Britain explores Picasso the communist.

A man passes a replica of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" in the center of the Basque town of Guernica, Spain
Picasso's "Guernica" was replicated in a mural in the Basque city of the same nameImage: AP

Pablo Picasso has often been portrayed as an extroverted playboy and a womanizer. This summer, the British art gallery Tate Liverpool throws new light on another side of the artist. The current exhibition "Picasso: Peace and Freedom" pulls together 150 works from 1944 until his death in 1973 which all in some way make a political statement.

The painting "Dove of Peace" has become a universal peace symbol, and along with "Guernica" - Picasso's haunting painted response to the bombing of a Basque town during Spain's civil war - the dove is what first comes to mind when looking for political messages in Picasso's art.

Picasso was a member of the communist party until his death in 1973, and remained a political activist and campaigner for peace throughout his career, but his communist convictions combined with his cubist art evoked mixed responses on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Communists wanted realist art

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, pictured in 1948
Picasso in 1948Image: AP

"He was like a hero, he was a figurehead," said Grunenberg. "He was the greatest prize the French communist party but also the Soviet communist party could really claim. He was rolled out of course again and again as this great example of a western artist becoming committed to Soviet ideology."

Picasso became a regular contributor of illustrations to the French communist party's publications. But his portrait of Stalin in the weekly "Les lettres francaises" drew sharp criticism from the party for its lack of what it called "realist art." It wasn't the only one of Picasso's works which went down poorly with the apparatchik.

The 1945 painting "Charnel House," which forms the centerpiece of the Liverpool exhibition, depicts passive victims of state violence: a Spanish republican family murdered in their kitchen by the Fascist dictatorship. Like "Guernica," it is a cubist tangle of shapes - a far cry from Moscow's insistence on realist art praising the struggle for a communist utopia.

"His avant-garde painting was not something [the Soviets] could accept," said author and historian David Caute. "They regarded it as decadent and formalistic and influenced by Western capitalist aesthetics."

"The Charnel House" (1945) by Pablo Picasso
"The Charnel House" (1945) shows a Spanish family killed by FascistsImage: Succession Picasso/DACS 2009

Picasso stayed true to himself

The question, then, is why Picasso remained such a faithful communist if his comrades weren't interested in his art.

"The Spanish civil war was a very big factor," explained Caute, "and that's why you've got 'Guernica,' the great painting which reflects that; also gratitude towards the Soviet Union for its part in defeating Nazi Germany during the war, and the fact that in France the communists emerged from the resistance with the mantle of heroes."

Picasso's grand-daughter and art historian Diana Widmaier-Picasso, who was present at the opening of the Tate Liverpool exhibition, said she was always aware of her grandfather's political streak.

"I think his art is all about being involved in what is going on in the world, trying to fight against injustice, against war and trying to stand up for any cause," said Widmaier-Picasso. She added that Picasso "was not a man of compromise," so he remained firm in his beliefs, even when those who shared them rejected his art.

Finding similar political conviction could be more difficult these days, said Tate Liverpool Director Grunenberg.

"There was a time when not only Picasso but a whole generation was able to be committed and convinced by certain ideology," he said. "Our age is defined now by the lack of belief in great ideologies. And I think that makes it very hard these days to find the same kind of grand statements that were possible 30, 40 or 50 years ago."

"Still Life with Skulls, Leeks and Pitcher" (1945) by Pablo Picasso
"Still Life with Skulls, Leeks and Pitcher" was painted toward the end of World War IIImage: Succession Picasso/DACS 2009

The exhibition, "Picasso: Peace and Freedom," runs through August 30.

Author: Lars Bevanger

Editor: Kate Bowen