War Paint

Sue Hubbard explores the politics of the 20th century's greatest artist

Picasso: Peace and Freedom

This fascinating exhibition attempts to present Picasso as a politically engaged artist. Until now, his political commitments have been one of the most underexplored areas of his life and work, but new scholarship, based on a little-studied file labelled "Political Correspondence sent to Picasso" held at the Musée National Picasso in Paris, has yielded a rich vein of material. Revealed are his generous donations to African, Muslim and Jewish causes, as well as his support for the refugees of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, striking miners in northern France, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in the US for passing on atomic secrets to the USSR.

It was the Spanish civil war that politicised Picasso. In the 1920s, his close friend and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler described him as "the most apolitical man I have ever known", but by 1944 he had joined the French Communist Party and remained a member until his death in 1973.

At Tate Liverpool, Picasso is reframed as a "history painter". After the success of Guernica in 1937 came The Charnel House (1945), based on a short documentary film about a Spanish Republican family slaughtered in their kitchen. The austere use of grisaille (monochromatic tones of grey, black and white) emulates the grainy newsreel and newspaper photographs of the period. Still lifes executed during the last years of the Second World War are filled with animal skulls and that harbinger of death, the owl, to evoke traditional forms of vanitas and memento mori paintings.

Other series, such as the War and Peace murals, reflect Picasso's attitude to the cold war. His Las Meninas series (1957) viciously satirises - in the tradition of Goya - the Spanish monarchy and Franco's bid to instal the young exiled prince Don Juan as his puppet.

The critic Robert Hughes once chastised Picasso for his political affiliations, claiming that he "gave enthusiastic endorsement to Joseph Stalin . . . and scarcely received a word of criticism for it, even in cold war America". Politically naive, an idealist or simply a pragmatist? It's hard to say. But then mixing politics and art is a tricky business.

Picasso: Peace and Freedom runs until 30 August. More details: tate.org.uk/liverpool