The Problem of Pablo Picasso
by Hari Kumar
Picasso poses a problem for the supporters of Marxist-Leninist view of socialist art.
What ideology - both subjectively and objectively - did he represent? What are the advocates of realism in the arts to make of Picasso's love of gross anatomical distortions? How do most people react to his, perhaps most famous work - Guernica - and what does it signify? And finally, what was his relation to the Communist Party
We contend that Picasso's story is one of a gifted artist, who was situated at a major turning point in history, between the time of the 'pure, isolated individual' and a time that history was rushing forwards because of the consolidated action of masses.
At this time, artists (like everybody else) were confronted with a choice. Many took the wrong turn ' towards an isolationism, towards a 'renunciation of reality'.
One art historian explains this as the end of approximately 400 years of art history that had been till then, steadily moving towards a goal of more and better 'reality'. In its place was substituted a 'form of existence surpassing and incompatible with reality', an existence that is 'ugly':
The great reactionary movement of the century takes effect in the realm of art as a rejection of impressionism change which, in some respects, forms a deeper incision in the history of art than all the changes of style since the Renaissance, leaving the artistic tradition of naturalism fundamentally unaffected.
It is true that there had always been a swinging to and fro between formalism and anti-formalism, but the function of art being true to life and faithful to nature bad never been questioned in principle since the Middle Ages.
In this respect impressionism was the climax and the end of a development which had lasted more than four hundred years. Post-impressionist art is the first to renounce all illusion of reality on principle and to express its outlook on life by the deliberate deformation of natural objects.
Cubism, constructivism, futurism, expressionism, dadaism, and surrealism turn away with equal determination from nature-bound and reality-affirming impressionism.
But impressionism itself prepares the ground for this development in so far as it does not aspire to an integrating description of reality, to a confrontation of the subject with the objective world as a whole, but marks rather the beginning of that process which has been called the "annexation" of reality by art (Andre Malraux: Psychologie de l'art).
Post-impressionist art can no longer be called in any sense a reproduction of nature; its relationship to nature is one of violation. We can speak at most of a kind of magic naturalism, of the production of objects which exist alongside reality, but do not wish to take its place.
Confronted with the works of Braque, Chagall, Rouault, Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Salvador Dali, we always feel that, for all their differences, we are in a second world, a super-world which, however many features of ordinary reality it may still display, represents a form of existence surpassing and incompatible with this reality.
Modern art is, however, anti-impressionistic in yet another respect: it is a fundamentally "ugly" art, forgoing the euphony, the fascinating forms, tones and colours, of impressionism."1
We will argue that Picasso took the 'wrong turn" - rejecting realism - only to partially correct himself under the influence of a political realisation of the horrors of war ad capitalism.
Picasso forsook his earlier brilliance in works of a realistic nature, to 'invent' Cubism. Both Cubism, and other related art movements such as Surrealism, and Dadaism were pained attempts to come to terms with a rapidly changing society in the midst or the wake of the catastrophes of the First World War.
It was the expression of an intense "hopelessness" of man's possibility of changing anything, for example, averting the First World War. It was also explicitly anti-rational:
It arose from a mood of disillusionment engendered by the First World War, to which some artists reacted with irony, cynicism, and nihilisim.... the name (French for 'hobby-horse') was chosen by inserting a penknife at random in the pages of a dictionary, thus symbolizing the anti-rational stance of the movement.
Those involved in it emphasised the illogical and the absurd, and exaggerated the role of chance in artistic creation...... its techniques involving accident and chance were of great importance to the Surrealists and ... later Abstract Expressionists 2
In the 1918 Berlin Dada Manifesto for instance, life is characterised as where:
Life appears a simultaneous muddle of noises, colours, and spiritual rhythms, which is taken unmodified, with all the sensational screams and fevers of its reckless everyday psyche and with all its brutal reality 3
Dadaism involved a "nihilism" 4. The nihilism of these movements "not only questions the value of art but of the whole human situation. For, as it is stated in another of its manifestos, "measured by the standard of eternity, all human action is futile":
The historical importance of dadaism and surrealism (lies) in the fact that they draw attention to the blind alley at the end of the symbolist movement, to the sterility of a literary convention which no longer had any connection with real life ....
Mallarme and the symbolists thought that every idea that occurred to them was the expression of their innermost nature; it was a mystical belief in the "magic of the word" which made them poets.
The dadaists and the surrealists now doubt whether anything objective, external, formal, rationally organized is capable of expressing man at all, but they also doubt the value of such expression. It is really "inadmissible" - they think, that a man should leave a trace behind him. (Andre Breton: Les Pas perdus, 1924).
Dadaism, therefore, replaces the nihilism of aesthetic culture by a new nihilism, which not only questions the value of art but of the whole human situation. For, as it is stated in one of its manifestos,"measured by the standard of eternity, all human action is futile." (Tristan Tzara: Sept manifestes dada, 1920)."5
Paradoxically, contrasting to the Dadaists, at least in some ways, Picasso exalted the individual. One can also see in him the epitome of the bourgeois view of an artist as someone obsessed by not only "art", but of acting the part of "an artiste" - so that their life story is in itself a 'work of art'.
So Picasso said of artists that what was important was "who they are, not what they did":
It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. Cezanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jacquestmile Blanche, even if the apples he had painted had been ten times as beautiful.
What forces our interest is Cezanne's anxiety, that's Cezanne's lesson; the torments of Van Gogh - that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.'6
Berger perceptively places Picasso's exalted view of 'artistic creativity' - as a remnant of the Romantics of the 19th century, for whom 'art' was a 'way of life'. Berger goes on to show that this was a form of a reaction to the bourgeois, monied 'Midas' touch ' a touch that changes all relations including artistic relations ' to one of a mere commerce.
While this exaltation of 'creativity' was of value to the Romantics, in the 20th century nexus of individual versus masses, this self-centredness could be and was, hideously out of place:
Pablo Picasso ' Early Years
Picasso was born in Spain, but lived and worked most of his life in Paris. His artistic mediums included sculpture, graphic arts, ceramics, poster design, as well as fine art. He was probably the most famous and prolific artist of the 20th century.
As a son of a painter, he was a precocious master of line, even as a child. It is said that as a baby, is said to have been 'lapiz' - pencil. His work incorporated a number of styles, and he denied any logical sequence to his art development:
The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution, or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or future.
I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression, I haven't hesitated to adopt them. 7
At this early stage (1900-1904) Picasso expressed artistic sentiments on behalf of the under-priviliged. For example, during his "Blue Period", he painted several examples of a realistic and moving art:
he took his subjects from the poor and social outcasts, the predominant mood of his paintings was one of at bottom opposed to the irrationalist elements of slightly sentimentalized melancholy expressed through cold ethereal blue tones (La Vie, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1903).
He also did a number of powerful engravings in a similar vein (The Frugal Repast, d 1904)." 8
By 1904 Picasso now in Paris, was influenced by the Fauvist movement, as well as African sculpture and Cezanne's works. He began to distort anatomical forms, in order to "disregard any conventional idea of beauty" ("Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (MOMA, New York, 1906-7).
At that time, these results were not viewed favourably, and "d'Avignon" was not publicly exhibited until 1937. But it marked the start of Cubism, which Picasso began with Braque and Gris from 1907 up to the First World War.
So what was Cubism? It was a movement begun by Picasso with Braque, and later Gris, and was named after their tendency to use cubic motifs, as can be seen above:
Movement in painting and sculpture was originated by Picasso and Braque. They worked so closely during this period - 'roped together like mountaineers' in Braque's memorble phrase - that at times it is difficult to differentiate their hands. The movement was broadened by Juan Gris,
The name originated with the critic Louis Vauxcelles (following a mot by Matisse), who, in a review of the Braque exhibition in the paper Gil Blas, 14 November 1908, spoke of 'cubes' and later of 'bizarreries cubiques'. 9
The cubists rejected an "apparent" reality to be conveyed by normal rules of perspective and modelling. They aimed to show all sides of reality, by displaying a moving history of how objects look over time, and from simultaneously observed but differing, vantage points. It was a "cerebral" exercise therefore, and it rejected any simple notion of how "an object looked":
Cubism made a radical departure from the idea of art as the imitation of nature that had dominated European painting and sculpture since the Renaissance.
Picasso and Braque abandoned traditional notions of perspective, foreshortening, and modelling, and aimed to represent solidity and volume in a two-dimensional plane without converting the two-dimensional canvas illusionistically into a three-dimensional picture-space. In so far as they represented real objects, their aim was to depict them as they are known and not as they partially appear at a particular moment and place.
For this purpose many different aspects of the object might be depicted simultaneously; the forms of the object were analysed into geometrical planes and these were recomposed from various simultaneous points of view into a combination of forms.
To this extent Cubism was and claimed to be realistic, but it was a conceptual realism rather than an optical and Impressionistic realism. Cubism is the outcome of intellectualized rather than spontaneous vision.10
As a movement, following its' birth with "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", it rapidly evolved into other movements ' but it was one of the key sources of abstractionism in art:
The harbinger of the new style was Picasso's celebrated picture Les Demoiselles d`Avignon (MOMA, New York, 1907), with its angular and fractured forms.
It is customary to divide the Cubism of Picasso and Braque into two phases-Analytical' and 'Synthetic'. In the first and more austere phase, which lasted until 1912, forms were analysed into predominantly geometrical structures and colour was extremely subdued-usually virtually monochromatic - so as not to be a distraction.
In the second phase colour became much stronger and shapes more decorative, and elements such as stencilled lettering and pieces of newspaper were introduced into paintings ...
Cubism, as well as being one of the principal sources for abstract art, was infinitely adaptable, giving birth to numerous other movements, among them Futurism, Orphism, Purism, and Vorticism.11
But all these new movements propound a view of life that is "form-destroying". Picasso thus easily flips in and out of several art movements, all the time exploring ever more "un-real" and deconstructed forms.
At the same time, he is intent upon eroding any sense of a "unity" whether of personality, of styles, view of the world etc. All reflect the deep contradictions of 20th century capitalism:
Cubism and constructivism, on the one side, and expressionism and surrealism, on the other, embody strictly formal and form-destroying tendencies respectively which now appear for the first time side by side in such sharp contradiction. ...
Picasso, who shifts from one of the different stylistic tendencies to the other most abruptly, is at the same time the most representative artist of the present age. ...
Picasso's eclecticism signifies the deliberate destruction of the unity of the personality; his imitations are protests against the cult of originality; his deformation of reality, which is always clothing itself in new forms, in order the more forcibly to demonstrate their arbitrariness, is intended, above all, to confirm the thesis that "nature and art are two entirely dissimilar phenomena."Picasso turns himself into a conjurer, a juggler, a parodist, ...
And he disavows not only romanticism, but even the Renaissance, which, with its concept of genius and its idea of the unity of work and style, anticipates romanticism to some extent. He represents a complete break with individualism and subjectivism, the absolute denial of art as the expression of an unmistakable personality.
His works are notes and commentaries on reality; they make no claim to be regarded as a picture of a world and a totality, as a synthesis and epitome of existence. Picasso compromises the artistic means of expression by his indiscriminate use of the different artistic styles just as thoroughly and wilfully as do the surrealists by their renunciation of traditional forms.
The new century is full of such deep antagonisms, the unity of its outlook on life is so profoundly menaced, that the combination of the furthest extremes, the unification of the greatest contradictions, becomes the main theme, often the only theme, of its art.12
Since Picasso is so adept technically, he can continue to simply adopt and then drop styles as he pleases.
In 1917 Picasso went to Italy, where he was impressed by Classicism, and incorporated some features of so-called "Monumental Classicism" into the work of the 1920's (Mother and Child), but he also became involved with Surrealism, and with Andre Breton.
The surrealists were interested in "irrationalist elements, and exaltation of chance, and equally to the direct realistic reproduction of dream or subconscious material."13
During this time, he explored images of the Minotaur, the half man half beast drawn from Cretan mythology. Now, the Spanish Civil War erupted. This led to his most famous work, Guernica (Centro Cultural Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1937), which was produced for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1937 to express horror and revulsion at the destruction by bombing of the Basque capital Guernica during the civil war (1936-9).
By this time, Picasso had already become a very rich man already:
Picasso was rich. Dealers began to buy his work in 1906. By 1909 he employed an aide with apron and cap to wait at table.
In 1912, when he painted a picture on a whitewashed wall in Provence, his dealer thought it was worthwhile demolishing the wall and sending the whole painted piece intact to Paris to be remounted by experts on a wooden panel.
In 1919 Picasso moved into a large flat in one of the most fashionable quarters of Paris. In 1930 he bought the seventeenth-century Chateau de Boisgeloup as an alternative residence. From the age of twenty-eight Picasso was free from money worries. From the age of thirty-eight he was wealthy. From the age of sixty-five he has been a millionaire.'14
Guernica ' The Bombing
On 26 April 1937, the German air force was asked by General Franco to bomb the city of Guernica. This city was the ancient heart of the Basque nation, an oppressed nation within the multi-national state of Spain. It had resisted the Francoite fascists, and Franco was determined to subdue it. The city had no defences, and no military importance.
The correspondent of 'The Times' reported on the destruction:
Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders.
The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters did not cease unloading on the town bombs. And incendiary projectiles.
The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine gun those of the civil population who had taken refuge in the fields.
The whole of Guernica was soon in flames, except the historic Casa de Juntas, with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit.
The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya and in return received a promise of allegiance as suzerains with the democratic title of Senor, not Rey Vizcaya."15
Perhaps however the real measure of the horror is best given by the first eye-witness account, from a priest ' Father Alberto de Onaindia:
We reached the outskirts of Guernica just before five o'clock. The streets were busy with the traffic of market day. Suddenly we heard the siren, and trembled. People mere running about in all directions, abandoning everything they possessed, some hurrying into the shelters, others running into the hills.
Soon an enemy airplane appeared ... and when he was directly over the center he dropped three bombs. Immediately airwards we saw a squadron of seven planes, followed a little later by six more, and this in turn by a third squadron of five more. And Guernica was seized by a terrible panic.
I left the car by the side of the road and we took refuge in a storm drain. The water came up to our ankles. From our hiding place we could see everything that happened without being seen.
The airplanes came low, flying at two hundred meters. As soon as we could leave our shelter, we ran into the woods, hoping to put a safe distance between us and the enemy. But the airmen saw us and went after us.
The leaves hid us. As they did not know exactly where we were, they aimed their machineguns in the direction they thought we were traveling.
We heard the bullets ripping through branches and the sinister sound of splintering wood. The milicianos and I followed the flight patterns of the airplanes, and we made a crazy journey through the trees, trying to avoid them. Meanwhile, women, children, and old men were falling in heaps, like flies, and everywhere we saw lakes of blood.
I saw an old peasant standing alone in a field: a machine-gun bullet killed him. For more than an hour these planes, never more than a few hundred meters in altitude, dropped bomb after bomb on Guernica.
The sound of the explosions and of the crumbling houses cannot be imagined. Always they traced on the air the same tragic flight pattern, as they flew all over the streets of Guernica. Bombs fell by the thousands. Later we saw bomb craters. Some were sixteen meters in diameter and eight meters deep.
The airplanes left around seven o'clock, and then there came another wave of them, this time flying at an immense altitude. They were dropping incendiary bombs on our martyred city. The new bombardment lasted thirty-five minutes, sufficient to transform the town into an enormous furnace.
Even then I realized the terrible purpose of this new act of vandalism. They were dropping incendiary bombs to convince tie world that the Basques had torched their own city.
The destruction went on altogether for two hour. and forty-five minutes. When the bombing was over the people left their shelters. I saw no one crying. Stupor was written on all their faces. Eyes fixed on Guernica, we were completely incapable of believing what we saw."16
Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, commanded the Condor Legion, and planned that first blast bombs would destroy all city-centre buildings; then that the townspeople would be strafed with machine-gun fire; and finally, that incendiary bombs would set fire to the rubble. Four days later, he reported his success:
Gernika literally levelled to the ground. Attack carried out with 250-kilogram and incendiary bombs-about one-third of the latter. When the first Junker squadron arrived, there was smoke everywhere already [from von Moreau's first assault]; no, body could identify the targets of roads, bridge, and suburbs, and they just dropped everything right into the center. The 250s toppled houses and destroyed the water mains.
The incendiaries now could spread and become effective. The material of the houses: tile roofs, wooden porches, and half-timbering resulted in complete annihilation....
Bomb craters can still be seen in the streets, simply terrific. Town completely blocked off for at least 24 hours, perfect conditions for a great victory, if only the troops had followed through."17
Russell Martin points to the innovative strategy that was utlized of air-raid induced terror:
The three-hour campaign had been efficient, accurate, highly effective, and it was precisely what was proscribed in German military strategist M.K.L. Dertzen's Grundsdtze der Wehrpolitik, which had been published two years before and which von Richthofen had taken very much to heart:
If cities are destroyed by flames, if women and children are victims of suffocating gases, if the population in open cities far from the front perish due to bombs dropped from planes, it will be impossible for the enemy to continue the war. Its citizens will plead for an immediate end to hostilities."18
Guernica: The Painting
Picasso had not been especially political up to this time, although as a youth in Barcelona the vigorous anarchist movements there had influenced him. But with the onset of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso took sides. In May 1937 he made his position clear in a public statement:
The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death?
When the rebellion began, the legally elected and democratic republican government of Spain appointed me director of the Prado Museum, a post which I immediately accepted. In the panel on which I am working which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art,
I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death 19
No: painting is not there just to decorate the walls of a flat. It is a means of waging offensive and defensive war against the enemy. 20
He immediately did a pair of etchings entitled Sueho y mentira de Franco ('Dream and Lie of Franco) which he issued with an accompanying poem. In January 1937, the Republican elected Government, invited Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion in the International Exhibition of Paris in 1938.
Following the bombing of Guernica, Picasso worked in a frenzy completing the huge work in ten days.
Blunt describes the large canvas as follows:
The painting is on canvas and measures 11 ft. 6 in. by 25 ft. 8 in. It is almost monochrome, that is to say, it is executed in various shades of grey, varying from a completely neutral tint to slightly purplish and bluish greys at one extreme, and brownish greys at the other.
The scene takes place in darkness, in an open space surrounded by schematically indicated buildings, which presumably stand for a public square in the town of Guernica. At the top is a strange lamp in the form of an eye, with an electric bulb as the iris.
The actors in the scene fall into two groups. The active protagonists are three animals - the bull, the wounded horse, and the winged bird just visible in the left background-and two human beings, the dead soldier, and the woman above and to the right, who leans out of a window and holds out a lamp to illuminate the whole stage.
They are accompanied by a sort of Greek chorus of three women: the screaming mother carrying a dead baby on the left, the woman rushing in from the right, and above her one falling in a house which is collapsing in flames.
These figures - human and animal - and the symbolism attached to them were not evolved at a single blow but have a long and complicated history, not only in the work of Picasso himself but in European art of earlier periods.21
Apart from a general sense of horror -what does it all mean? What are the bull and the horse doing here so prominently?
As regards the meaning of the picture, Picasso has only supplied a slight clue about the central symbols. The horse, he said in an interview, represents the people, and the bull brutality and darkness. When pressed by his interlocutor to say whether he meant that the bull stood for Fascism, he refused to agree and stuck to his original statement. '
These indications are tantalizingly slender, but it is possible, by a study of Picasso's previous work, particularly in the 1930's, to deduce more about the symbols used in Guernica and about the artist's intentions in general. The central theme, the conflict between bull and horse, is one which has interested the artist all his life."22
Prior to Guernica, Picasso had long been depicting battles between good and evil, where the Minotaur takes a prominent place. But these symbolic interpretations are much less important than the overall first impact ' of the weeping women.
There can be little doubt that any spectator who is first shown this picture more likely reacts immediately to the wailing women one with an obviously dead child, one in a burning house, and the dead or gravely injured soldier holding a weapon who is being trampled by a terrified horse. The general effect is one of a terrible searing scene.
Moreover, an original draft had an equally potent image: a clenched fist:
In... the drawing of 9 May... the main interest is now focussed on the dead soldier, who fills the whole left-hand part of the foreground, lying with his head on the right, his left hand clasping a broken sword, his right arm raised and his fist clenched.
That is to say, Picasso has taken the theme of the raised arm with clenched fist, which in the drawing played a quite minor part in a corner of the composition, and has given it a completely new significance by attaching it to the central figure of the composition.
The arm of the soldier now forms a strong vertical, which is emphasized by the axis of the lamp, continued downwards in a line cutting across the body of the horse, and by another vertical line drawn arbitrarily to the left of the arm.
The vertical strip thus formed is made the basis of the geometrical scheme on which the composition is built up
However Picasso then removed the raised arm. Why? What we can be sure of is that at that time Picasso was not associated with the Communist party, and the symbol of the clenched fist was and is - an explicitly communist one. Therefore, the overall sense of the painting remains one of a horror ' and not that of a RESISTANCE to the hells of war.
And naturally, the "distortions of forms" ' the late Picasso speciality ' remains. But ' having said that - what impact has the painting had on the numerous people who have seen it or its reproduction? An interesting experience is to watch those who are looking at this gigantic painting ' they are mesmerised and yet, horrified at the same time.
There is absolutely no doubt that the picture has become iconic in its symbolic rejection of war and the brutal inhumanity of war.
For those who might still be sceptical of this viewpoint, it should be remembered that during the prelude to the inhumane, and illegal 2003 war against Iraq, a tapestry copy of Guernica that hangs in the foyer at the United Nations HQ at New York, was shrouded during televised interviews.
Why does it seem that this painting evokes such resonant feelings? After all, it is in its form-distortions ' anti-realistic. In fact "abstract" painting rarely evokes a "positive" audience reaction.
Recall for instance the furore as the "critics" - the servants of the capitalist classes waxed eloquent about the piles of bricks at the Tate ' the public roared its' incomprehension and its' disapproval. But this has not ever happened with "Guernica". Why?
It is possible that people have become simply more visually sophisticated than they used to be ' under the influence of mass printings. Or possibly the knowledge of what happened at Guernica is so widespread ' that people can make a quick connection between the intent of the painting ' despite the distortion of forms.
But, a third point has to be made. That is that perhaps despite the bias of the painter, whose loyalty to "form-distortion" was so deep ' it is in fact pretty "realistic". The horse screaming in agony is ' evidently just that. The women howling ' can be heard. The heat on the woman burning the bomber house ' is felt scorching us. The sounds of the horse trampling on the dead soldier ' are bone-jarringly "real".
Maybe Picasso was a "cubist". But he left his intellectualised system to one side when he painted this picture.
Picasso also made other great paintings that attacked war, [See "The Charnel House"; MOMA, New York, 1945] and the later Korean War [ "Korean women and children being butchered by white men - Massacre in Korea"]
All show marked 'form-distortion', but they nonetheless, do convey a clear message. In fact, the non-realistic pictures do resonate. The editors of the 'Oxford Dictionary', claim that:
In treating such themes Picasso universalized the emotional content by an elaboration of the techniques of expression which had been developed through his researches into Cubism. 23
Clearly, these works are not 'realist' in any usual meaning, but their meaning is surely explicit. So ' are these propagandist posters, or are they art? We would argue that they are more within the realm of progressive propaganda. But, the boundary line is certainly very narrow.
Impact of Picasso and Guernica on Russian Discussions Upon Socialist Realist Art
A mythology prevails, that there was no discussion - nor knowledge of Western art movements in the socialist years of the USSR (up to 1953). But this is patently false, as there is absolutely no doubt that the Russian artistic scene, was affected by currents in the West.
Indeed, the height of knowledge and sensible debates about these various movements is the lie to the general bourgeois line that "there was no debate" and "purely dictatorship" in the USSR. Artistic events in the West were treated very seriously and openly. Undoubtedly post-Second World War there was a renewed debate about the principles of 'Socialist Realism':
At the ninth plenum of the orgkomitet (Organising Committee of the Union of Soviet Artists) held May 1945, some of speakers from the floor brought up the question of innovation in painting, suggesting a new openness to questions of form....
Even court painters and official spokesmen of socialist realism appeared with new faces. The critic V Gaposhkin made a visit to Alexandr Gerasimov's studio and praised highly his unfinished painting of 'A Russian Communal Bath' - a major composition of female nudes with no ideological pretext (plate 230). ..
That the mood among some artists and critics, was distinctly rebellious may be may be gleaned from a lecture, entitled 'The Problem of the 'Impressionism & the problem of the Kartina', delivered by Nikolai Punin to the Leningrad artists' union on 13 April 1946 - and from the reaction to it.
Punin's address was an attempt to install impressionism as the basis for the work of Soviet painters; it amounted not only to a revision of the attitude to impressionism which had been imposed in the art press after the debates of 1939-40, but also to a rejection of some of the entrenched principles of socialist realism.
He stressed the variety apparent in the painting of the impressionists extolled them as 'honest' and 'contemporary'. He criticised the characterisation of impressionism as some kind of a system..'.24
Picasso and his evident partisanship, as expressed in 'Guernica' became a part of the debate in the USSR:
At the discussion on 26 April the artist Petr Mazepov pointed out that impressionism led to the formalist art of cubism and fauvism, in which 'there is no social struggle, the class soul, the party soul, the great soul of the people is absent'.
At this point Mazepov was interrupted from the floor: 'And Picasso?' 'And Cezanne?" And "Guernica, he's a Communist, a party member." A little later Mazepov was interrupted again: 'An artist doesn't have to take up a proletarian position to express his idea'.
Over the course of both days' debate, Punin received broad support from well-known Leningrad painters such as Pakulin and Traugot, and from voices from the floor. He summed up on 3 May: 'If we take cubism or futurism, if we take the work of Picasso, then I personally do not see any formalism in this'.'
Punin's denial of "formalism: in the works of cubism, or futurism - is untenable. Punin was using the works of the 1930's of Picasso, that had already mutated away from "non-realistic" painting. Actually, it is very telling that the argument "What about Guernica?"ould be used in the midst of this discussion.
Even the staunchest supporter of the principles of socialist realism in the USSR, simply had to concede that the painting had emotional power. But the use of Picasso's open allegiance, by various revisionist sections of the French Communist party even more blatantly.
Post Second World War - 'Becoming a communist, Picasso hoped to come out of exile'.
Already, his painting of Guernica had shown that Picasso was a republican. During the war years, he stayed in Nazi occupied Paris. On the liberation of Europe, Picasso was to show very publicly his allegiance to the Communist party:
On October 4 1944, less than six weeks after the liberation of Paris, Pablo Picasso, then 63, joined the French Communist party. To his surprise, the news covered more than half of the front page of the next day's L'Humanité, the party's official newspaper, overshadowing reports of the war..
Shortly after, in an interview for L'Humanité, Picasso claimed that he had always fought, through the weapons of his art, like a true revolutionary. But he also said that the experience of the second world war had taught him that it was not sufficient to manifest political sympathies under the veil of mythologising artistic expression.
I have become a communist because our party strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy. I have become a communist because the communists are the bravest in France, in the Soviet Union,as they are in my own country, Spain.
While I wait for the time when Spain can take me back again, the French Communist party is a fatherland for me. In it I find again all my friends - the great scientists Paul Langevin and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the great writers Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, and so many of the beautiful faces of the insurgents of Paris. I am again among brothers.
Five days after joining the party Picasso appeared at a ceremony at the Père Lachaise cemetery, organised as a joint memorial for those killed during the Commune of 1871 and in the Nazi occupation of Paris." 25
Elsewhere he rhetorically asked:
Have not the Communists been the bravest in France, in the Soviet Union, and in my own Spain? How could I have hesitated? The fear to commit myself? But on the contrary I have never felt freer, never felt more complete.
And then I have been so impatient to find a country again: I have always been an exile, now I am no longer one: whilst waiting for Spain to be able to welcome me back, the French Communist Party have opened their arms to me, and I have found there all whom I respect most, the greatest thinkers, the greatest poets, and all the faces of the Resistance fighters in Paris whom I saw and were so beautiful during those August days; again I am among my brothers.'26
His allegiance extended to numerous art-related activities. His efforts were recognised by a Stalin Prize, for his famous Poster for Peace, using the image of a dove.
He also presided over the infamous gathering of the Comité Directeur du Front National des Arts, which drew up the list of artists to be purged for collaborationist activities during the occupation.
In 1950 he was awarded the Stalin prize for his involvement in the Mouvement de la Paix, for which he had designed the emblem of a dove. The movement, was inaugurated in Wroclaw under the aegis of Andrey Zhdanov, secretary of the Soviet central committee'.27
In addition he was lavish with his money:
'he generously donated time and money to the FCP and associated organisations. He marched with the Front National des Intellectuels and the Front National Universitaire and accepted honorary positions on boards and in organisations.
His contributions mostly took the form of paintings donated for sale. In November 1956 alone, the dealer Kahnweiler wrote that he gave on Picasso's behalf a cheque for FFr3m for Christmas gifts for Enfants des Fusillés de la Résistance, FFr500,000 for the Comité de la Paix, FFr300,000 for the Patriote de Toulouse, FFr750,000 more for the children of war victims and FFr3m (half a million more than the previous year) for a yearly Communist party event.
(To give some perspective to these figures, Chrysler bought Picasso's Le Charnier in 1954 for FFr5m.) '28
So upon Stalin's death, it was not un-expected that he would be asked to paint his picture. He had pervasively been asked ' on Stalin's 70th birthday ' and refused. This time he agreed.
However an orchestrated campaign of vilification suggested that the portrait was 'an affront to Stalin' as it 'neglected to reflect the emotions of the people'. Picasso had wanted a portrait of 'a man of the people'.
The French Communist Party was of course under revisionist control at this time. As we have previously described, the revisionists wished to perpetuate a 'cult of personality'. Picasso had reverted to a 'realistic' style, at a most inconvenient time for them, and in a most inconvenient manner. He 'had to be rebuked':
'In 1953 'Stalin died on March 5. Aragon and editor Pierre Daix were preparing an issue of the communist journal 'Les Lettres Françaises' when the news broke. Aragon immediately sent a telegram to Picasso. .. requesting a drawing of Stalin.
Daix and Gilot knew that Picasso, who until then had successfully foiled any hope that he would paint a portrait of Stalin, could not refuse this time.The artist's homage for Stalin's 70th birthday in 1949 had been nothing more than a drawing of a glass raised to the dictator's health, which had shocked the party faithful with its breezy caption, "Staline à ta santé". '
He seems to have used old newspaper photographs as a reference. The portrait shows the young Stalin, face framed by thick, cropped hair, mouth partly hidden under a bushy moustache. The eyes under the strong eyebrows are those of a dreamer and offset by the prominent jawline.
Picasso told Geneviève Laporte that he had wanted to show Stalin as a man of the people, without his uniform and decorations. Aragon and Daix were relieved to find the portrait to their liking. Daix opted for the neutral caption "Staline par Pablo Picasso, March 8 1953".
The first negative reaction came from the employees of France Nouvelle and L'Humanité, the two papers that shared the same building as Les Lettres françaises, who were appalled by what they considered an affront to Stalin.
Daix suspected - correctly, as it turned out - that this was instigated by the party leaders, who saw publication of the portrait as an incursion against the personality cult, and by Auguste Lecur, hardline party secretary, who welcomed this opportunity to chastise Aragon and Les Lettres françaises for the relative independence they claimed...
From the moment the paper appeared at kiosks on March 12, the editorial offices were flooded with outraged calls. On March 18 1953, a damaging communiqué appeared in L'Humanité from the secretariat of the French Communist party, "categorically" disapproving publication of the portrait "by comrade Picasso".
Aragon was obliged to publish the communiqué in the following issue of Les Lettres françaises, as well as a self-criticism in L'Humanité. The major reproach was that the portrait neglected to reflect the emotions of the public - "the love that the working class feel for the regretted comrade Stalin and for the Soviet Union" - and that it did not do justice to the moral, spiritual, and intellectual personality of Stalin. 29
But Picasso refused to rise to the bait, and refused to attack the party.
Picasso, besieged by journalists eager to have him admit that his portrait sought to mock Stalin, refuted any such suggestion. nor did the attacks against him entice Picasso to disparage the party, as some had hoped.
Despite various reports that quoted Picasso as saying that one did not criticise the flowers that were sent to the funeral or the tears that were shed, Gilot [Picassos' then lover / editor] recalled a more detached attitude. According to her, Picasso replied that aesthetic matters were debatable, that therefore it was the party's right to criticise him and that he saw no need to politicise the issue.
"You've got the same situation in the party as in any big family," he said. "There is always some damn fool to stir up trouble, but you have to put up with him."30
In private, Picasso gave a rather amusing ' if somewhat coarse ' attack on the bureaucratic slavish mentality behind this imbroglio:
'In conversation with Daix, who was sent by Aragon to appease him, Picasso speculated:
Can you imagine if I had done the real Stalin, such as he has become, with his wrinkles, his pockets under the eyes, his warts. A portrait in the style of Cranach! Can you hear them scream? 'He has disfigured Stalin! He has aged Stalin!'"
He continued: "And then too, I said to myself, why not a Stalin in heroic nudity?... Yes, but, Stalin nude, and what about his virility? ... If you take the pecker of the classical sculptor... So small... But, come on, Stalin, he was a true male, a bull.
So then, if you give him the phallus of a bull, and you've got this little Stalin behind his big thing they'll cry: But you've made him into a sex maniac! A satyr!
Then if you are a true realist you take your tape measure and you measure it all properly. That's worse, you made Stalin into an ordinary man. And then, as you are ready to sacrifice yourself, you make a plaster cast of your own thing.
Well, it's even worse. What, you dare take yourself for Stalin! After all, Stalin, he must have had an erection all the time, just like the Greek statues... Tell me, you who knows, socialist realism, is that Stalin with an erection or without an erection? "
When in the summer of 1954 (after Stalin's death)
Picasso, thinking aloud, asked Daix: "Don't you think that soon they will find that my portrait is too nice?" On another occasion, he reflected: "Fortunately I drew the young Stalin. The old one never existed. Only for the official painters."31
What is even more interesting is that despite his 'saison en enfer' (season in hell) Picasso never recanted his allegiance to the party. Even with the social-imperialists attacks on both Hungary (1956) or Czechoslovakia (1968):
Picasso later called the year 1953 his "saison en enfer" his season in hell. He admitted to some friends how shaken he had been by the accusations and humiliations of the scandal. The year is widely believed to signal the end of Picasso's political commitment.
Yet while his cooperation with the party was never again as close as it had been in the years 1944-53, his commitment did not stop. He continued to produce drawings for the press and for poster designs, made supportive appearances at party events, and readily signed petitions and protest declarations initiated by the party. He also never discontinued his financial support.
While many left because of the party's attitude during the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Picasso reaffirmed his loyalty. In an interview with the art critic Carlton Lake in July 1957, he once again confirmed his belief in communism and his intention never to leave the party.
In 1962 he was awarded the Lenin prize. In August 1968, speaking with friends, he deplored the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, but failed to do so publicly. At the end of that year, he refused once again to speak out against his long-held political beliefs.'32
He clearly believed the lies of the revisionist Khruschev, given out at this so-called 'secret speech'. But he asked whether 'And the workers, are they still masters of their factories, and the peasants, the owners of their land?':
After Khrushchev's "secret speech" at the 20th congress of the Soviet Union's Communist party, in February 1956, in which he reported on the crimes of Stalin's tyranny, it became impossible for anybody to claim ignorance.
Picasso apparently was appalled: "While they asked you to do ever more for the happiness of men... they hung this one and tortured that one. And those were innocents. Will this change?
Picasso's response to detrimental news from the Soviet Union was: "And the workers, are they still masters of their factories, and the peasants, the owners of their land? Well then, everything else is secondary - the only thing that matters is to save the revolution'.33
His answer was the workers were still in charge. Of course he was tragically wrong. But then ' he was an artist, albeit a flawed one, always twisting away from reality. In the end he was somewhat 'straightened' by his late found political allegiance. But he was still only an artist - and not a political theorist or leader of the working classes.
What in an artist is excusable ' is inexcusable in those who claim to be 'leaders of the vanguard of the working class'. Therefore we will agree, if we are charged that we view Picasso with a benign eye. We would simply counter that this is the same 'benign eye' that Marx turned on artists in general, saying of the poet Ferdinand Freiligarth for instance:
Write Freiligarth a friendly letter. nor need you be over-careful of paying him compliments, for poets, even the best of them, are all plus au moins [more or less], courtisanes and il faut les cajoler, pour les faire chanter [one must cajole them to make them sing]....
A poet, whatever he may be as an homme (man), needs applause and ADMIRATION. This I believe , peculiar to the genre as such. you should not forget the difference between a "poet" and a "critic".34
Equally, we cannot accept the line of John Berger, who writes:
But as an artist with all his powers he was nevertheless wasted.
Oddly, Berger writes this despite having already pointed out that Picasso had renewed himself by joining the party:
As a result of Picasso's joining the Communist Party and taking part in the peace movement, his fame spread even wider than before. His name was quoted in all the socialist countries.
His poster of the peace dove was seen on millions of walls and expressed the hopes of all but a handful of the people of the world. The dove became a true symbol: not so much as a result of Picasso's power as an artist (the drawing of the dove is evocative but superficial), but rather as a result of the power of the movement which Picasso was serving. It needed a symbol and it claimed Picasso's drawing.
That this happened is something of which Picasso can be rightly proud. He contributed positively to the most important struggle of our time. He made further posters and drawings. He lent his name and reputation again and again to encourage others to protest against the threat of nuclear war.
He was in a position to use his art as a means of influencing people politically, and, in so far as he was able, he chose to do this consciously and intelligently. I cannot believe that he was in any way mistaken or that he chose the wrong political path.'35
Well, Picasso bloomed anew with the power of the peoples vision. How can Berger recognising this, then say that Picasso was wasted artistically? In the last period of his life, apart from the posters and the variations on the dove of peace he did, Picasso really only painted upon the ceramics made by others.
In contrast to Berger, we might suggest that it was his political artistic work, that kept him 'artistically alive'.
We argue that Picasso ultimately was on the side of the working classes. A "champagne socialist" he may have been but he did not need to do what he did.
As to the worth of his art - where he retained realist images and forms, he showed a power that people understood. But he was constantly reverting to decadent forms and images that placed at an immediate distance between the people and his art. At his best, he moved people.
And in that troubling work ' "Guernica" ' he undoubtedly, has moved and affected generations who have seen it. Again ' it is patently, not a piece of "socialist art" ' but despite its obvious anti-realist forms, it conveys a very real, and realistic message:
"Down With War!“
Used In this article
Berger, John.'The Success & Failure of Picasso'; New York; 1980
Blunt, Antony. "Picasso's Guernica"; Toronto; 1969.
Chilvers, I; H. Osborne, D. Farr. "Oxford Dictionary of Art"; Oxford; 1977;
Cork, Richard "A Bitter Truth ' Avant Garde Art & The Great War; London 1994;
Cullerne Bown, Matthew. "Socialist Realist Painting"; New Haven;1998
Hauser, Arnold. "The Social history of Art" ' Volume 4: 'Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age'"; New York; nd;
Martin, Russell. "Picasso's War. The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World"; 2002, New York.
Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, January 16, 1852. Volume 39: Collected Works; Moscow; 1983.
Utley, Gertje R. Picasso was one of the most valued members of the French Communist party - until a portrait of Stalin put him at the centre of an ideological row. October 21, 2000 The Guardian;
Utley Gertje R "Picasso: The Communist Years"; Yale University Press, 200
This article first appered on the ml-review Website. Reproduced with permission
1 Hauser, Arnold. "The Social history of Art" ' Volume 4: 'Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age'"; New York; p. 229-230.
2 I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. "Oxford Dictionary of Art"; Oxford; 1977; p.147.
3 Cork, Richard "A Bitter Truth ' Avant Garde Art & The Great War; London 1994; p.257.
4 "total rejection of current religious beliefs or morals.. A form of scepticism, involving the denial of all existence," "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary" Volume 2; Oxford 1973; ; p.1404.
5 Hauser, Arnold op cit p.232-233.
6 Berger, John.'The Success & Failure of Picasso'; New York; 1980; p.5; quoting Alfred H. Barr; 'Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art'; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946.
7 I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr op cit p. 431.
8 Ibid p. 431.
9 I.Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr op cit p. 144.
10 I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr op cit p. 144.
11 I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr op cit p. 144.
12 Hauser, Arnold op cit p.233-234.
13 I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr op cit p.431.
14 Berger, John op cit p.5.
15 Antony Blunt. "Picasso's Guernica"; Toronto; 1969; Oxford & Toronto, p.7-8.
16 In Martin, Russell. "Picasso's War. The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World"; 2002, New York; p. 40-42.
17 In Martin, Russell op cit p. 42-43.
18 In Martin, Russell op cit p. 42-43.
19 Barr, Alfred. "Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art"; New York; 1946; p.202; cited by Blunt A; Ibid; p. 9.
21 Blunt, Antony op cit p.13
22 Blunt, Antony op cit p.14.
23 I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr op cit p. 144.
24 Cullerne Bown, Matthew. 'Socialist Realist Painting'; New Haven;1998; p.223.
25 Gertje R Utley. Picasso was one of the most valued members of the French Communist party - until a portrait of Stalin put him at the centre of an ideological row. October 21, 2000 The Guardian;
26 Berger, John op cit p.173.
27 Gertje R Utley op cit
28 Gertje R Utley op cit
29 Gertje R Utley op cit
30 Gertje R Utley op cit
31 Gertje R Utley op cit
32 Gertje R Utley op cit
33 Gertje R Utley op cit
34 Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, January 16, 1852. Volume 39: Collected Works; Moscow; 1983; p.8. See also Marx and Engels on Art
35Berger, John op cit p.173-5.