wed 24/07/2024

Picasso Special - Picasso: Peace and Freedom, Tate Liverpool | reviews, news & interviews

Picasso Special - Picasso: Peace and Freedom, Tate Liverpool

Picasso Special - Picasso: Peace and Freedom, Tate Liverpool

Picasso the feminist? A sweeping survey puts the artist's politics under the spotlight

A metaphor for the Cuban Missile Crisis? Picasso's 'Lobster and Cat', 11 January, 1965

Picasso the genius, the sensualist, the womaniser, the priapic beast. This much we think we know of the great Spanish artist. But how about Picasso the political activist? Picasso the supporter of women’s causes? Picasso the… feminist? Oh, yes, that Picasso. In a landmark Liverpool exhibition focusing on the years 1944 to his death in 1973, and bringing together 150 works from around the globe, Picasso becomes all of these things.

And having meticulously gone through the Picasso archives, curator Lynda Morris reveals an interpretative layer that has previously been ignored – or rather, the far sexier stuff has always simply got in the way.

In 1944, just like many of his generation of writers, intellectuals and artists, Picasso joined the Communist party. He was seeking, he said, an intellectual home, “until Spain can at last welcome me back”. With Spain under the rule of Franco, he was not only to remain a life-long member, but a life-long exile. During the occupation of Paris, when the Nazi occupiers sought to bribe the great and the good with offers of food and coal, he defiantly declared that “a Spaniard is never cold". And although his work was banned in the Soviet Union for not adhering to the strictures of socialist realism, Picasso’s declaration of allegiance to the cause was considered a mighty Soviet coup.

Picasso.charnelhouseThere’s much that gives support to this previously unexplored side to the artist, not least the photos we see of Picasso tirelessly attending various international peace congresses across Europe. And, of course, there are his great anti-fascism paintings. We kick off with one of the most striking: The Charnel House,1945 (pictured right), depicting the massacre of a young family of Spanish Republicans in their kitchen. Limbs are trussed and twisted and bodies are tangled in a heap. Painted in the style of the powerful Guernica, 1937, which commemorated the destruction of the Basque capital by German and Italian bombers, the painting’s stark grey tones resemble newsprint.

Elsewhere, we see the trussed and twisted feet of a cockerel, strung up under a bulb, like a torture victim. And death, death is everywhere: human skulls, goat skulls, a lumpen bronze skull, a picture of an owl that looks part simian and part death’s head. Picasso feared death, the extinction of his own light, but the smell of death perpetrated by murderous tyrannies must have haunted him, too. At that time, of course, the murderous regime of the Soviet system had not yet been fully exposed.

And we don’t just find evidence of political commitment in the paintings and sculptures and a few congress photo-calls. In addition, there are telegrams from Castro, a drawing for a poster for an anti-racism campaign, a photo of him staring at a poster of a cheery Joe Stalin. We learn, too, that he donated millions of francs to striking miners and supported, through donations of his work, various women’s causes. On the question of Algerian independence, he was quick to declare his colours: we see a drawing of a young Algerian woman, accused by the French of being a terrorist bomber. Smiling prettily, she wears her hair in a fashionable Sixties bouffant. He certainly gave that particular cause its poster girl.

Picasso.FlyingDovePicasso also designed the posters for the various peace congresses with versions of his iconic peace dove, a motif that takes centre stage in this exhibition and adorns the exhibition catalogue. There are doves decorating ceramic plates, free-standing terracotta doves, prints, drawings (pictured left: Flying Dove,1950) and paintings of doves – though it’s amusing that Picasso himself says he never understood why the dove should be appropriated as a symbol of peace, since he always considered it to be a cruel, aggressive bird.

All this is well and good, but when it comes to interpreting individual works, Tate Liverpool’s thesis is only sometimes convincing, and occasionally absurdly tenuous. A humorous 1965 painting of a lobster and a cat (main picture) confronting one another in terror, is pushed as a metaphor for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but the curatorial material takes a far too didactic line, on this and other works.

And although we see that Picasso was certainly sympathetic to the Algerian cause, his four variations of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, (pictured below right: The Women of Algiers - Version J, 1955) are shown only in the light of a response to the1954 Algerian uprising. It seems more likely that he was responding to the very recent death of Matisse, the only living artist with whom he could converse. Picasso started the series in November 1954, the month Matisse died. Was it not more likely that Picasso was moved to start the series as a homage to his great friend? A sensual celebration of his colours and the decadent glory of his oriental women? As Picasso himself joked, “Matisse left me his odalisques”.

picasso.AlgiersThe exhibition also insists that Picasso’s variations on Velázquez’s Las Meninas must be seen as anti-Franco satire. Given the cartoonish natures of the paintings, this, in fact, seems plausible. However, the idea that his series after Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe is some kind of celebration of women’s lib – how? - is frankly pushing it. And what of his late, rather disturbing self-portraits as a musketeer in the last room? Painted in the last few years of his life, they presage his own death rather than show a “fear of empires, rascism and war”. They also, of course, show his love of Rembrandt.

Great artists are like magpies, and certainly Picasso was a magpie. And this complex and restless artist took inspiration where he could find it. Certainly layers can be peeled away to reveal an artist who absorbed everything and discarded almost nothing, including news of the horrifying events that were unfolding all around him, both in his native Spain and elsewhere.

And Picasso was passionate - about women, about life, about political causes. But it is his art that remained the greatest of all of his causes. This is an absorbing exhibition and we do get a side of Picasso that is not often explored (and much of the research is fascinating). But that doesn’t mean that we are entitled to completely overplay it.


Congratulations on a fantastic spread of pieces on Picasso. Does he deserve it? Yes, he does. Can't wait to get to the show.

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