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
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis