Picasso: Peace and Freedom

Opening today at Tate Liverpool, “Picasso: Peace and Freedom” is a major exhibition examining Picasso’s work in the post-war period, situating many of his works in a polictical context relating to his nearly 30 year membership of the Communist party.

Several column inches have already been devoted to the exhibition before it opened and what surprises it may have in store, such as the Daily Telegraph’s claim of Picasso’s previously unknown support for feminism and the Guardian’s skepticism of the depth of his political beliefs.

Having previously written about Picasso’s later career and the efforts of different photographers to depict him and how they contributed to his legacy, I was incredibly curious to see how this exhibition would re-interpret his later works, traditionally given much less attention in critical scholarship than his earlier, more groundbreaking pieces and if it would radically revise the perceptions of him as an artist.

The exhibition opens on the ground floor with a timeline of major events in Picasso’s life and western history since World War II. Four screens show documentary footage of Picasso at work and news footage from different political events such as the Sheffield Peace Conference of 1950. Anticipating the work on display upstairs, it is presented in grey and white, though I thought some coloured text might have been useful to distinguish general historical events (such as the Suez Crisis) from ones Picasso was directly involved with, politically or personally.

Moving upstairs to the fourth floor, I would venture that more work by Picasso is on display than anywhere else aside from the museums dedicated to his work in France and Barecelona. It is impressively overwhelming. The Charnel House hangs in a smaller room to the left of the entrance. Though it never garnered the attention or reputation of Guernica, it remains a powerful work. If Guernica is a scream of anguish, The Charnel House is a silent post-mortem. The bodies lay twisted but quiet. I know Picasso was initially inspired by the images of a Spanish family killed during the war, but images of Holocaust victims and the way bodies were disposed of in concentration camps were all I could think of. I found the experience incredibly moving.

Still life and landscape paintings dominate the first room, with a couple of sculptures and portraits of Francoise Gilot and Sylvette David. Some paintings of the view from his home on the Cote d’Azure use a brighter palette, and I can’t help but recall his dialogue, both artistic and personal, with Matisse, who lived in the area until his death in 1954.

The gallery devoted to images of the famous ‘dove of peace’, chosen by Louis Aragon, not Picasso himself, leads to a larger space devoted to posters, newspaper front pages and photographs of Picasso with fellow Communists. He ignored Russian attempts to encourage him towards their sanctioned realism, and they rejected his portrait of Stalin as insufficiently life-like. Cards and posters he designed for different organisations and events certainly demonstrate his engagement and willingness to be publicly linked to these causes. One is a postcard to celebrate International Women’s Day in 1964. I don’t think this, combined with some of his later nudes in display can convincingly make the case for him as a feminist. His misogyny will remain a subject of debate for many years to come, but perhaps this will be one useful example in showing his commitment to freedom for all marginalised groups.

The last few galleries show series of paintings and prepatory sketches for Rape of the Sabines, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (after Manet) and (self)portraits in the guise of a 17th century muskateers. Certainly the more common reading of these paintings is that Picasso at this stage in his life was engaging with art and artists of the past to cement his place in the history of art as the equal of Manet, Rembrandt and Poussin. Situating these works in the context of contemporary events provides an intriguing counterpoint (his Women of Algiers after Delacroix, was painted during the conflict that would eventually lead to Algerian independence), but ultimately a political motivation or theme in these works is surely only one among many.

Making an exhibition around Picasso’s Communism twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall is an achievement in itself and illuminates another facet of his personality. Regardless of one’s political affiliations or opinion of Picasso, the fact that so much of his work has been gathered in one place makes the exhibition worth seeing.

The Guardian’s review

BBC Liverpool video

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