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How Political Was Picasso?

November 9, 2010

John Richardson in The New York Review of Books:

Picasso’s work abounds in paradox, as did his religious and political beliefs, not to mention his love life. All the more reason to look skeptically at the exhibition “Picasso: Peace and Freedom,” which started out at the Tate Gallery’s Liverpool branch, is currently at the Albertina in Vienna, and will end up at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. Lynda Morris, who has masterminded the show, makes much of the period following World War II when Picasso, who had joined the Communist Party in 1944, painted works that reflected Party propaganda. But as the art historian Gertje Utley has shown, many of the works in the exhibition, such as The Rape of the Sabines, are not “programmatic statements,” as the exhibition catalog claims, but testify to Picasso’s “life-long fear and horror of armed conflict.” (…)

The outbreak of war coincided with Picasso’s hate-filled separation from his neurasthenic Russian wife, Olga, which set off a major midlife crisis in the form of a temporary switch from painting to poetry. The war would also exacerbate Picasso’s fear of the French authorities. In their paranoia about Spanish anarchists, the police had always kept him under surveillance. (…)

In no time, Picasso became celebrated, along with Louis Aragon and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, as one of the Communist Party’s Three Musketeers. Much as he loathed foreign travel and public appearances, he allowed himself to be trotted out as a figurehead at peace conferences in Sheffield, Rome, and Wrocław. At the same time, he made no secret of his distaste for Marxist theory and factional squabbling. Paradox kept him balanced, he once said. When Aragon chose his lithograph of a dove as the Party’s emblem of world peace, Picasso could not resist pointing out that he kept these vicious birds in separate cages, otherwise they would peck each other to bits. Still, he named his daughter Paloma after them.

Although he had turned a blind eye, like Sartre and Beauvoir and many other French intellectuals, to Soviet brutality in Eastern Europe, Picasso’s faith in communism had already begun to falter when, in March 1953, Aragon commissioned him to do a portrait in commemoration of Stalin’s death forLes Lettres Françaises, the Party’s literary journal. [More]

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