Picasso: Peace and Freedom is not a balanced presentation of the work of Picasso, but then again it does not set out to be. It is selective, focusing on discussing his political involvement and interests. As such, it is an important exhibition that presents an alternative perspective to the "blue period, rose period, cubist, muse-inspired" Picasso, with which we are presented at most exhibitions and in the major galleries.
Sadly [but understandably], Guernica, Picasso's most famous political painting about the evils of war in general and of the Spanish Civil war in particular, does not form part of the exhibition. However it does cast its shadow over his work, most obviously in Charnal House (1944-45). Here Picasso's use of 'grisaille' is reminiscent of the newsreel reporting of the murder of a Spanish republican family in their kitchen that inspired him to create this piece.
A gallery of still-lifes shows how Picasso embraced political themes in more subtle way: The "Skull and Crossbones" (a symbol of the Spanish Republicans) and the Cockerel (a symbol of free French) are common images. Interestingly, Picasso explored the themes of confrontation and stand off when started painting "still-lifes" of lobsters (very much alive) and cats (feral) a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, .
In many ways the most interesting part of the exhibition chronicles Picasso's involvement in the post-war pacifist movement. In his drawings of the Dove of Peace, Picasso provided the most popular and lasting symbols that featured on posters and in newspapers alike, but his commitment went well beyond being resident artist. Despite being a member of the communist party - with all the opposition that brought from the establishment - Picasso was able to use his celebrity status to open doors and to bring publicity to the campaign, in a way that his colleagues were unable to do. A snapshot of Picasso's approach can be seen in the incident when the UK Government refused visas to many of the foreign delegates for the 1950 Peace Congress because of concerns over their communist leanings. It was Picasso, granted a visa because an exhibition of his work was opening in London, who went to Sheffield to inform those gathered their of its cancellation. In turn Picasso refused to attend the exhibition of his work in London saying:
"Picasso the artist and Picasso the fighter for peace are one and the same person."Picasso gave his financial support, name and talent to a range of political causes, producing artwork for the First Congress of Black Writers Paris (Sept 1956), Amnistia ("edite par le comite national d'aide aux victimes du Franquisme"), and Solidarity (sold to support families of imprisoned Spaniards).
The exhibition explores in depth a number of major pieces with underlying political and pacifist themes, most notably Las Meninas (1957). Here Picasso reworks Velázquez's masterpiece to produce a bitter satire and a cruel indictment of Franco's dictatorship. Ceiling bosses become grotesque hooks for the suspension of torture victims, the painter becomes a figure from the Inquisition and the maid in the foreground has Franco's moustache. Likewise, Picasso's reworking of Poussin's and David's Rape of the Sabines, executed at height of Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, portrays the classical scene in a new light: the Roman Empire, symbolic of all empires [USSR, US], is depicted as grotesque and barbaric.
Given that provincial galleries do not have the clout to attract the loans of significant pieces from the great collections in the way that major city retrospectives do, this was quite a remarkable piece of curation. Lynda Morris and Christoph Gruenberg are to be congratulated on putting together such a stimulating exhibition drawing on a Picasso's minor works.
Like all good exhibitions I left enlightened and informed, but also with a number of unanswered questions, - in this case they related to Picasso's relationship with the Nazis in occupied Paris; and the nature of his exile from his native Spain.
More information on the Tate Liverpool Picasso Peace and Freedom website.
The exhibition runs at Tate Liverpool until 28th August 2010. It can also be seen at:
The Albertina Vienna from 22nd September 2010 to 16th January 2011; and
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, from 11th February to 29th May 2011.