Tate Liverpool’s Picasso show throws a startling new light on the artist’s wartime work. What an old softie he was, says our critic
There are two areas of Picasso’s belief system in which he is held to be a liar. Or, at least, a dissembler. The first is his atheism. No matter how loudly Picasso insisted he did not believe in God, nobody fully accepted it. Even his second wife, Jacqueline, is said to have quipped: “Pablo is more Catholic than the Pope.” The second area of perpetual doubt concerns his politics. Although he joined the Communist party in 1944 and remained a member until his death in 1973, the feeling persists that his communism, like his atheism, was some sort of masquerade or sham. How can this notorious inhabitant of the Côte d’Azur, with his chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza and his taste for pretty girls, his playboy friends and his jet-set lifestyle, ever have considered himself a communist? It doesn’t add up.
And, of course, in conventional terms, it doesn’t. One thing Picasso never was and never could be is a dour, boiler-suited, joyless three-year-plan-maker: a conventional communist. However, the provocative new display at Tate Liverpool, which examines precisely this foggy terrain of Picasso’s political beliefs, makes clear from the off that thinking about his convictions in straightforward ways does not get you very far. The wild and egotistical brand of communism that Picasso evolved after the second world war allowed him to live in the South of France, eat sea urchins for breakfast — and still give fully of himself to the cause at large.It is this final point that is most surprising: Picasso, it seems, was a giver not a taker.
Guernica is absent. The most obviously political picture of his career is too huge and celebrated to be allowed out of Spain. In any case, Guernica falls outside the chronological boundaries of this event. The starting point here is the second world war. Picasso was the only significant modern artist to remain in Paris during the German occupation. While Matisse lounged about in Nice and popped up to make broadcasts on Vichy radio, while Breton and the surrealists fled to America, Picasso stayed behind and looked the Germans in the eye.
His presence in Paris was truly heroic. As the most notorious of all exponents of “decadent” art, he ran the daily risk of arrest or worse. Protected only by his fame, he was constantly under surveillance. We now know, too, that all the time he was in Paris he was secretly trying to help his Jewish friends by smuggling funds to them and pulling what strings he could. Whether it was actual bravery that kept him there, or extraordinary arrogance, is open to some debate. But it certainly resulted in some remarkable art.
The show opens with a series of dark and scary still lifes painted during these war years. Most feature a madly staring human skull: hungrily sizing up a plate of sea urchins; crazily grinning from the side of misshapen dice; lustily eyeing up a voluptuous jug. Because they are not obviously about the war, these great wartime still lifes have previously been misunderstood as displays of avoidance rather than confrontation. It is now clear they are symbolic ruminations upon human hopelessness, madness and mortality. And the skull, I fancy, is intended as a disguised self-portrait.
The scariest of them — and the most brilliant — is a bronze disfigurement, cast in 1943, so crude and lumpy that it cannot be read immediately as a human head. With its piggy eyes and cancerous missing nose, this dark blob of pessimism is surely among Picasso’s most effective sculptures.
The fact that it was made illegally, at a time when bronze casting was banned by the Germans and all spare metals in Paris were supposed to be reserved for armaments, gives it an extra frisson it hardly needs. Only a hardened atheist could have celebrated so little hope in death.
Picasso joined the Communist party straight after the liberation of Paris, in 1944. The fact that the communists had performed heroically in the resistance while the French right had capitulated pitifully was the crucial factor. Having sided with the republicans in the Spanish civil war — painting Guernica as a result — and having made clear his contempt for Franco in a series of scabrous artworks about the moustachioed Iberian crackpot, Picasso the political animal is, I reckon, best understood as an extreme antifascist rather than an extreme pro-communist. But the most surprising thing about his communism is the uncharacteristic amount of compliance it involved.
From 1944 to 1973, throughout the entire stretch of his card-carrying membership of the party, he was a soft touch for the heartstring-plucking leftist cause. The show’s catalogue — written, alas, in the style of a soviet agricultural tract — lists a dizzying array of groupings to which he contributed. Martin Luther King wrote to him. Jewish housewives in Israel wrote to him. Spanish refugees wrote to him. The hospitals that kept Spanish refugees alive wrote to him. Algerian freedom groups wrote to him. African liberationists wrote to him. And, remarkably often, Picasso responded favourably to their pleas — designing posters, signing petitions, attending conferences and donating huge amounts of money to their causes.
All of which is a revelation. Like everyone else, I had assumed that he was, at heart, a ruthless egotist. Yet he emerges here as a global softie, with no time for the oppressor and all the time in the world for the oppressed. The question is: how often did his appetite for good causes result in good art?
The show ahead is too bitty to be conclusive. As well as paintings and sculptures, there are copious posters, pamphlets, photos and texts. The famous dove of peace he designed for the global peace movement was a huge popular success, but its initial choice appears to have been an accident. The poet Aragon popped into Picasso’s studio looking for something to put on the poster for the inaugural World Peace Congress in Paris in 1949, and a handy pigeon happened to be leaning against the wall. Once chosen, though, the pigeon-turned-dove of peace quickly grew wings and multiplied, in typical Picasso fashion, until it formed a huge international cloud of mawkish
Try as he might, Picasso was not cut out to be a propagandist. Straight-talking was never one of his strengths. Throughout his career, he remained a devious and instinctive symbolist, clothing his meanings in heavy disguises and employing a secret artistic language that will never be fully decoded. It leaves lots of room for misunderstanding. And while the underlying political meaning of, say, his wartime still lifes is clearer now, large portions of the show ahead are eminently disputable.
Having successfully established that Picasso was motivated by politics more frequently than we usually realise, the organisers are on wobbly ground when they seek to identify the exact moments of his engagement. I found myself alternating between humphs of derision and sighs of revelation at the various suggestions put forward here. In 1962, in the weeks that the Cuban missile crisis erupted, he suddenly began a series of still lifes featuring the fight between a lobster and a cat. The show suggests he had in mind the standoff between the Americans and the Russians. And there is something plausibly emble-matic about the mad confrontation between the savage cat and the vicious lobster.
However, in the 1950s, when Picasso began going mano a mano with Velazquez’s great masterpiece Las Meninas, painting and repainting it, I find it difficult to believe that he was actively indulging in some republican royalty bashing and had Franco’s pro-monarchical pronouncements in mind. Even more far-fetched is the claim that the painted musketeers and nudes of his final years — which form one of the show’s most exciting stretches — should be understood in hippie terms as a rumination upon the dynamics of masculinity and femininity. One thing Picasso was definitely not was a
In its general thrust, however, in presenting a Picasso who was politically sentient and surprisingly engaged, the show makes a convincing case. And must be deemed one of the more revealing Picasso displays of recent years.