Pablo Picasso: A Political Life

Pablo Picasso is one of the pre-eminent artists of the twentieth century, having mastered various art forms such as painting, sculpting, print-making, ceramic-making and stage designing. Alongside Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp, Picasso is considered to have revolutionized plastic arts in the early part of the twentieth century. He is also credited with co-founding the Cubist movement and constructed sculpture. The invention of collage is also attributed to him. Although Picasso is a house-hold name across the world, his political views and affiliations are not as well-known as his artistic accomplishments. His political commitments have been one of the most underexplored areas of his life and work. (Kiaer, 2003, p.395) But new scholarship and evidence from exhibitions identify the political facet of Pablo Picasso. This essay will argue that though not much publicized or documented Picasso held strong political beliefs. This is evident from the events of his personal life and the content of his artistic works.

Although art critics often suggest that art should transcend politics, this assertion does not always holds true. The most important event in Picasso’s life, which betrays his strong political sympathies, is his joining the French Communist Party in 1944. Picasso’s contribution to the party came via his three drawings of Maurice Thorez in 1945. He also gifted to the Communist town of Vallauris, his sculpture L’homme au mouton. The painting ‘The Peace Dove’, produced in the aftermath of the the Second World War is further evidence for the link between the aesthetics and politics of the great painter. Picasso’s deep involvement with Leftist politics is made obvious through his 1953 portrait of Stalin. But Picasso was far from stereotypical in his representation of Stalin, for he showcased a “youthful Stalin: joyous, naive, with a thick head of hair and an equally impressive moustache!” (Gavronsky, 2001, p.47) It should also be noted that Picasso was never shy of expressing his independent views even if it crossed party doctrine. In what he called ‘Free and Revolutionary Art’,
“he maintained an aesthetic distance from the views of the party though he repeatedly expressed his horror of war as one can see in his Guernica, Guerre et Paix, and Massacres en Coree. Thus a Picasso of peace rather than a Communist painter, who, nevertheless, never forgot his “Stalin” as he demonstrated in a sketch in November 1949: “A ta sante, Staline.” (Gavronsky, 2001, p.47)

Hence, what we see is a complex development of Picasso’s politics, that does not lend itself to convenient stereotypes and categorization.
In the exhibition Musee National Picasso held in Paris recently, more evidence of Picasso’s political engagement has emerged. In an obscure little file labeled ‘Political Correspondence sent to Picasso’, many erstwhile unknown facts about the great artist are revealed. We learn that Picasso sent “generous donations to African, Muslim and Jewish causes, as well as his support for the refugees of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, striking miners in northern France, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in the US for passing on atomic secrets to the USSR.” (Gavronsky, 2001, p.47) But what politicized Picasso the most was his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. At the Tate Liverpool exhibition, one is reacquainted with the political side of Picasso through paintings such as Guernica (1937) and The Charnel House (1945), the latter based upon a short documentary film about a Spanish Republican family slaughtered in their kitchen.

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