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Picasso as political icon

Picasso - the Communist years. Gertje Utley, Yale University Press, £35.

Pablo Picasso, arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century, in his art stood for everything that Communist Parties were accustomed to denouncing.

Stalin and his henchman Zhdanov, imposed the doctrine of Socialist Realism in the early 1930s as the only acceptable style in the visual arts.

Picasso’s great adventure with George Braque in the years before World War I, however, produced an anti-naturalist style – Cubism. Together they sparked off an artistic movement which revolutionised the visual arts for the coming centuries.

A virtuoso in all styles of drawing, painting and sculpture, a master of Surrealism and other styles, Picasso developed Cubist principles of space and form throughout his artistic career.

His political masterpiece, Guernica, painted to support the Spanish revolution is a heroic fusion of the Cubist dislocation of space with Surrealist imagery.

The French Communist Party (PCF) from the 1930s adhered to Zhdanov’s dogma of Socialist Realism. It was clearly in opposition to the new styles developed by Picasso and others in the decades running up to World War II.

Therefore, when Picasso joined the French Communist Party in October 1944, many people were surprised.

Why did he join? And was his friend the poet Jean Cocteau right when he remarked that joining the PCF was the "first ever anti-revolutionary gesture by Picasso"? And, equally important, why did Picasso remain a loyal member until the end of his life, despite the sharp differences between him and the party that often surfaced? Gertje Utley’s book goes a long way to answering these questions.

Picasso’s commitment to communism is ignored in most of the innumerable writings about him. But in reality, his political beliefs were central to his very being. He took a strong stand against Fascism, militarism and war.

Before World War II, Picasso’s sympathies, backed up with generous donations, lay with the revolutionary left (FAI and POUM) rather than the Republican government when it came under Stalinist control, even though he created Guernica at the request of the Spanish Republic.

It was the decision to remain in Paris during the years of the German Occupation which drew Picasso closer into the circle of writers and artists which included Resistance fighters, Communist Party members and sympathisers.

Utley draws together a wealth of information and personal recollections showing how Picasso’s studio became a haven for anti-fascists, "where even members of the underground felt safe".

At the same time, staying in Paris separated Picasso from anti-Stalinist intellectuals, such as Surrealist leader André Breton, who could have provided a sympathetic communist alternative.

Picasso’s close friend, the poet Paul Eluard, re-joined the PCF in 1943 and many other French intellectuals followed. Picasso found in the PCF "a fatherland" where he could be among brothers and friends.

Eluard and a large group of artists and writers including Louis Aragon provided Picasso with a rationale which seemed to reconcile the anti-creative dogmas of Stalinism with his own modernist revolution in art.

Utley shows how, even as Eluard and Aragon wrote eulogies to Stalin, and paid lip service to "Socialist Realism" they sought at the same time to make Picasso’s art acceptable to the party.

Picasso was reduced to tears in 1948 while attending the Stalinist Congrès Mondial des Intellectuals pour la Paix in Wroclaw, Poland where he was criticised for the "decadent and bourgeois manner of his art". Nonetheless he remained a party member, donating innumerable works, large sums of money and appearing at many PCF and international events.

When Stalin died in 1953 a notorious scandal erupted over Picasso’s drawing of Stalin, which Aragon commissioned for the front page of PCF cultural journal Les Lettres Francaises. Denunciations of the portrait poured in.

But an elaborate network of cynical operators, from PCF Secretary General Maurice Thorez downwards, kept Picasso on board, apologising for the dogmas and crimes of Stalinism to make them less obnoxious to the artist.

Only a year later, the PCF was forced to acknowledge at least some of Stalin’s crimes and apologise for its attack on Picasso. He showed he had their measure when he said "Don’t you think that soon they will find that my portrait is too nice?"

Picasso refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but his painting Massacre in Korea was used by people in the streets of Warsaw to show their support for the victims of the tanks. This infuriated the PCF but secretly pleased Picasso. In private he deplored the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, but in public he remained silent.

Picasso needed the party as an intellectual home and as a way of reaching the masses. The PCF needed him as a popular figurehead and status symbol more than he needed them. This gave him a measure of independence denied to others.

Cocteau was right when he warned that there was a reactionary aspect to Picasso’s relationship to the PCF. His attempts to make his work acceptable to them tended to dull his creative edge and he could not repeat the powerful fusion of the symbolic and political which characterised Guernica.