Picasso – art as a tool for activism

Posted: July 20, 2014 in Uncategorized
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When it came to Picasso’s art, he was serious as a pope. Towards the end of the second world war, he was goaded by an interviewer on the relationship between art and politics. He interrupted the interview to hurl himself on a piece of paper and scribble a statement, a mini-manifesto, so that he would not be misunderstood.

“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet – or even, if he’s a boxer, only some muscles? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How is it possible to be uninterested in other men and by virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself from the life that they supply so copiously? No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”

That flash of grandiloquence might be taken as the text for the 2010 exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Picasso: Peace and Freedom, which set out to explore the artist as a political being, through the causes he espoused, and above all through his commitment to the French Communist party (PCF), which he joined in 1944, with great fanfare, and never left.

Picasso always hoped to go on for ever, and he very nearly did. In the course of a long lifetime (1881-1973) he had seen it all, from the Spanish-American war of 1898 to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. He knew anarchists, bolshevists, socialists, communists, fascists, pacifists, falangists and Stalinists, to say nothing of cubists, futurists, dadaists, surrealists, suprematists, constructivists, destructivists and stridentists. He grew up with monarchism assailed by revolutionary anarchism; he grew old with republicanism served by monopoly capitalism. Ideologically, he had lived.

In the matter of the horrifying, he had form. Guernica (1937), then in the United States, was already a cause célèbre: “the Last Judgment of our age” or “Bolshevist art controlled by the hand of Moscow”, it was gaining in iconic status with each passing decade. At the time of his outburst on the role of the artist, he was working on the most powerful political painting he ever made, The Charnel House (1944-45), the pièce de résistance of the Tate exhibition. Picasso himself said that the work was affected by revelations of the real-life charnel houses of the holocaust. In this instance there is no reason to doubt him.

The pages of his newspaper, the Communist daily L’Humanité, were full of graphic accounts of the camps, complete with illustrations. An article on the crematoria at Natzweiler-Struthof, near Strasbourg, included the macabre detail that the executioners had tied the hands and feet of their victims, like the central motif of the painting, and the heaped corpses in the death zone that constitutes the lower part of the canvas are reminiscent of the first shock photos of the camps – and of Goya’s Disasters of War (1810-20), images at once unprintable and unforgettable. In the death zone, crucified innocence and clenched-fist defiance grapple with mass killing and dismemberment. The upper zone is less horrific, though no less eerie. Some elements of a contemporaneous still life enter in Pitcher, Candle and Casserole (1945) – the candle, symbol of hope, obliterated. The Charnel House is the offensive and defensive weapon deployed: memento mori, indictment, tribute to sacrifice, howl of despair, and proof positive of lyric poetry after Auschwitz.

Picasso: Peace and Freedom


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