Comrade Picasso: The man and the political myth

Pablo Picasso has long been hailed as an ardent member of the left and an advocate for peace. New research into his relationship to the Franco regime suggests the need for revision, and an examination of our motives.

One would expect a game of word association on a busy street to match many a ‘Picasso’ with ‘Guernica’. Commissioned for the Spanish Republican Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, Guernica took as its subject the aerial bombardment of the eponymous Basque town. Heinkel bombers flying for General Franco had razed it to the ground across three days earlier that year. The visual language Picasso wrought from that event gave form to human suffering with unparalleled potency.

But it also gave birth to a reputation. It is with Guernica that we are introduced to the defiant pacifist, the Picasso that would stand firm during the Occupation of Paris, and join the French Communist Party (PCF) upon its Liberation. The story goes something like this: exiled from Spain, and fully aware of the threat its Falangist occupiers posed to civilisation, Picasso joined ‘le famille communiste’ and became its most distinguished voice in the struggle against fascist and capitalist tyranny alike.      

The breast, at this point, is prompted to swell uncontrollably. After all, this tale boasts every trope of our most loved and recyclable yarns: the rustic warrior exiled from his homeland, the surging rebellion yearning a voice, and the depraved autocrat condemning it to silence. It telescopes Homer and Hemingway in equal measure. It is almost enough to make us forget that we are talking about a painter.

And yet the demands of history have a way of reasserting themselves. Such is the nature of research conducted by Genoveva Tusell Garcia, published earlier this year in The Burlington Magazine. Citing correspondence within the Franco government, Garcia makes an extraordinary claim. Although the regime’s prevailing attitude toward Picasso was one of hostility, certain of its members came to see an advantage in taming his reputation and sharing in his achievements. In 1957, they approached the painter to discuss the possibility of his work returning to Spanish collections, and even a retrospective.

What is extraordinary is not just that Picasso took part in these talks, but that he provisionally agreed to their terms. ‘I hope Franco lives longer than I do’, he said, before referring ‘with a mixture of stubbornness and sadness’ to his political stance as an obligation.

The regime’s representatives knew full well how Picasso’s ‘obligations’ would fare if their plans were enacted. The prospect on offer was nothing short of ‘killing the political myth of Picasso’. But for a leak of the ongoing talks, and some tactless hackery in the French press – erroneously claiming that Guernica itself would be making the trip to Spain – they might have succeeded.

Garcia’s evidence prompts serious questions about the way we write history – and not all of the kind that you might expect. It is not that we are required to doubt Picasso’s core beliefs, his hatred of fascism, or the sincerity of a picture like Guernica. Indeed, it is precisely the urge to do any of the above that these revelations most urgently address. That our idea of a figure should be so brittle underscores the very desire that first shaped the ‘political myth of Picasso’: that of subjecting thought – and political beings, in all their complexity – to party lines.

Allow me to explain. Post-Pétain, the conditions of French politics were ripe for cultivating heroes, and the hunger for them insatiable. The Stalinist PCF was busily mounting a mammoth PR exercise, designed to replace memories of Soviet capitulation to the Nazis with the immediate and emotive images supplied by la Résistance and la Libération. To this end, Picasso was a major coup. But unlike many of his comrades, Picasso was not easily accommodated by the strictures imported from Moscow over the following years. Zhdanovism – the policy that made a compulsory aesthetic of Socialist Realism – was not Picasso’s game.

Still wishing to profit from his fame, the PCF performed a neat two-step. It appropriated and endorsed public perceptions of Picasso – his supposed aesthetic ‘freedom’ and commitment to ‘peace’ – but not the art that shaped them. As John Berger observed, the Party ‘separated the man from his work… because he was the most famous artist in the world and a communist, he was exempt’. This would be a delicious enough example of the lapses in doctrine that underscored the pragmatism of post-war communism. It would, were it not for the fact that Picasso’s art was consequently judged as irrelevant to his politics, and his politics determined by affiliation to the Party and its prolific propaganda machine.

This fallacy has outlasted its original context, and warped our judgement. It has been repeatedly recycled by scholars wishing to extract Picasso’s art from a political context they deemed unpalatable, and blighted the contrary path taken in 2010 by Tate Liverpool’s Picasso: Peace and Freedom. That exhibition attempted to resolve the gap ‘separating the man from his work’ – but did so by bringing his work in line with the myth! Swallowing the Party’s attempt to cast Picasso as a credible cold warrior, it spuriously identified a partisan purpose to his late work in the form of allusions to global events and humanitarian causes. Picasso’s personal engagement with them is ‘proven’ by letters he received – and rarely even bothered to answer. 

What we are left with is a set of assumptions about Picasso that painfully reprise his treatment at the hands of the Party. Precious little nuance withstands the desire that myth cohere. But when nuance comes back with – ironically enough – a phalanx in support, its impact is all the more devastating.  

The revelatory proportions of Garcia’s evidence illustrate just how limited our generalisations about Picasso’s art and life have been. The former betrays a serious ambivalence toward party politics. The latter is far more complex than the paltry fact of affiliation can allow. Both far exceed the limits of this article – which is precisely why they merit further attention. Until our half-baked clichés at least reflect an account capable of accommodating dissent, unorthodoxy, and self-interest, all our work remains ahead.

Picasso's 'Guernica' on view at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. Photo: Getty
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
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Commons confidential: Away in Pret a Manger

Corbyn's lunch, a Keith "Vazz" hunch and the New Left Book club.

Comrade Corbyn, despite the pressures of leadership, remains the Anne of Green Gables of British politics, maintaining an almost childlike joy in everything he does. Pride of place in Jezza’s Westminster office is a Lorraine Kelly mug. Corbyn asked for the memento after appearing on the popular telly host’s ITV show – where the pair discussed his interest
in manhole covers.

There’s no record, as far as I can ascertain, of Kelly requesting a Corbyn mug. And yet the sustained abuse Corbyn receives from Labour critics, Conservative enemies and the Tory press isn’t generating hostility on the streets. People still clamour for selfies with the bearded lefty. My snout sat in awe in a Pret a Manger (Comrade Corbyn likes to pop out for his own sarnies, rather than dispatch a flunky) as the queue disintegrated, with punters hungry for snaps.

The Corbyn apparatchik and London City Hall escapee Neale Coleman said: “The one thing I learned from Boris Johnson was never say no to a selfie.” Corbyn must hope he absorbed more than that.

Perhaps the unlikeliest odd couple in parliament is Labour’s Warley Warrior John Spellar and the purple shirt Nigel Farage. Both went to the private Dulwich College in south London. Spellar, who spearheaded his party’s anti-Ukip campaign before the election, won a free scholarship and likes to remind Farage that the Kipper’s fees would now be £18,000 a year. “I passed the exam, too,” sniffs Farage, “but my father earned too much, so we had to pay.” One school, two backgrounds.

Trade unionists no longer regard attacks by the Tory press as just a badge of honour. Aslef’s president, Tosh McDonald, a train driver, wears a black T-shirt with the slogan “Hated by the Daily Mail” on it, after being denounced by Paul Dacre’s organ. I suspect Labour’s Keith Vaz is unlikely to revel in a message sprayed on the side of a van in Leicester. The fastidious chair of the home affairs committee is entitled to challenge at least one inaccuracy in the statement: “KEITH VAZZ IS A KNOB.”

“Any idiot in opposition who argues that government legislation can somehow be got through without programme motions should be taken out to the nearest lunatic asylum.” Who said that? Ken Livingstone? No, Kevan Jones. In June 2010. How times, and language, change.

To the launch of the new Left Book Club, where a director of the Corbynista reading circle, Anna Minton, waved a personalised glossy invitation to join the Institute of Directors. The Pall Mall bosses’ club’s direct mailing system is way off target.

I wonder: what could expelled Tory trickster Mark Clarke have on Grant Shapps?

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State