Picasso: peace and freedom

IssueJuly - August 2010
Feature by Roger Stephenson

I stand for life against death. I stand for peace against war! – Pablo Picasso

“Picasso Peace and Freedom” at the Tate Liverpool looks at Picasso’s work between 1944, when he joined the French Communist Party, and his death in 1973. It shows him as an artist who recorded the brutality of war and worked through his art, and in his life, for peace.

The exhibition, curated by Lynda Morris of Norwich University College of the Arts and Christoph Gruneberg, director of Tate Liverpool, grew out of research Morris has been doing at the Picasso Archive in Paris since 2002. She told me that it was also a continuation of her life-long commitment to pacifism.

Picasso’s political stance is made clear from the outset in quotes from the artist that are highlighted among the dates and events in the timeline.

“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is an offensive and defensive instrument of war against the enemy”

To begin we are confronted by The Charnel House (1944-45). This large canvas, a continuation of the style of Guernica, was based on newsreel footage showing a Spanish Republican family who had been murdered in their own home. The mutilated bodies are piled up next to the kitchen table. The paint is in sections of grey and black and, with areas of white untouched canvas, evokes the flickering shadows of a torch that has just discovered the victims. Picasso was mourning the Spaniards, his brothers and sisters, who had died for democracy and socialism.

The next room shows still lifes. Many of them include representations of a human skull – Picasso reflecting on the transience of life, the death of so many of his comrades during the Second World War. His most powerful images in this section are of a cockerel, symbol of the Free French which has been brutally slaughtered or tortured. Rooster on a Chair under a Lamp (1962) is a chilling scene of torture in a cellar. Echoing the composition of the Charnel House, the bird, trussed up on his back, stands for members of the French Resistance tortured by the Gestapo, but he also stands for all torture victims anywhere. He is alone in the harsh white light.

The next theme is The Doves of Peace. This is the heart of the exhibition. After the disturbing brutality of the war works I immediately felt a sense of peace. These are only images of doves – it’s amazing the power of a symbol.

Early in 1949 the poet Louis Aragon, who was editor of the Communist newspaper Les Lettres Français, went to Picasso’s studio to choose an image for the inaugural World Peace Congress in Paris. He picked out Picasso’s lithograph of a fantailed pigeon, which looked like a dove.

The dove had been a symbol of peace and hope in both the Christian and non-Christian world. In images of Christ’s baptism it represents the Holy Spirit, and in returning with an olive branch to bring Noah tidings of the end of the Flood, it is a messenger of hope.

The walls of the gallery are covered with Picasso’s peace posters and drawings of doves. With objects in display cabinets and copies of L’Humanite and Les Lettres Français it is almost a history of the peace movement in Europe in the 1960s.

There are four posters for the World Congress for General Disarmament and Peace in Moscow in July 1962 (in French, in Spanish, in German, and in English). Under a bright yellow sun a dove holding an olive branch in its beak is flying over a scrap heap of broken weapons. Most uplifting is the poster for the National Congress of the Peace Movement where the dove really flies out of the words.

Through the ephemera one can trace Picasso’s active involvement in peace politics: a photograph of him sitting on the panel of the 1950 World Peace Congress in Sheffield; scarves using his doves from the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace, Moscow, 1957, and one for the World festival of Youth in Vienna two years later; a postcard he designed for the Eighth World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship in Helsinki, 1962. It felt encouraging to see that so much was going on.

In the final part of the exhibition there are small sections on Picasso’s re-workings of Old Masters. He reinterprets, or gives a modern message to Delacroix, Velasquez, Manet, and David. In October 1962 the Cuban missile crisis, the confrontation between the USA and USSR over the siting of missiles, brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Bob Dylan wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” which he thought might be his last song. Picasso painted versions of The Rape of the Sabine Women, after David. Dylan’s song is a haunting and evocative lament. Picasso’s paintings are brutal. Women and children are butchered. A woman is attacked by a warrior on a horse. Surprisingly, though Picasso supported nuclear disarmament, these works do not comment on the nuclear nature of the threatened conflict.

I return to the Doves. I look at the book of poems by Paul Eluard with illustrations by Picasso in a display cabinet. It is open at a beautiful line drawing of a woman with a dove.

Topics: Culture