“Picasso: Peace and Freedom” opens at Tate Liverpool (UK)

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Exhibitions are dependent upon the loans available to galleries at the time. And Tate Liverpool is no different. Yet one omission from its summer blockbuster, Picasso: Peace and Freedom, renders what was a hugely anticipated show a huge anticlimax.

This is not to say that the exhibition does not bring together important paintings and sculptures or a large number of posters and documents, though. Indeed without the generosity and support of a large number of lenders – including those from Lichtenstein and Czech Republic as well as those in London and Cologne – an exhibition of the scale envisioned by co-curators Lynda Morris and Christoph Grunenberg would not have been possible. The Charnel House, the pièce de résistance of the Tate exhibition, is a case in point. Thanks to Ann Temkin of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the iconic painting is returning to the UK for the first time in half a century.

It must be said, however, that the curators assume too much historical knowledge on behalf of gallery-goers. The exhibition guides you fairly well through Picasso’s role in the Peace Movement during the Cold War: from 1944 when the Spanish-born modernist joined the French Communist Party (PCF) until his death in 1973. But for all the talk of the Communist poster-boy becoming its poster-designer, we are told nothing about how the selfish playboy of the 1920s metamorphosized into the selfless peacenik of the 1940s.

The Charnel House was based on a short documentary film about a Spanish Republican family who were killed in their kitchen and acts as a memorial to those killed in France during the Nazi Occupation and under the Vichy Government. Yet you need to purchase the overpriced accompanying guide to learn about the influence of Francisco Goya’s Ravages of War (from his series The Disasters of War of 1810 to 1814) or discover that Picasso’s 1944-5 work “is a clear continuation of the themes and style of Guernica 1937.”

His masterpiece shone light on the fascist slaughter at the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and was the point at which, says Simon Schama in his 2006 BBC series The Power of Art, “Picasso … got politics” and his Cubism a “conscience.” Picasso’s pacifist painting might have gone almost unnoticed at the 1937 Paris World Fair, as journalist Alastair Sooke reminds us in his 2010 BBC series Modern Masters. But this is no reason to not include a tapestry replica (like the 20ft long one at Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, for instance, on loan from the United Nations building in New York), since it would have contextualised what Picasso stood for.

Professor Morris and Dr Grunenberg say as much in the opening chapter of the 224-page edited catalogue: “It was the Spanish Civil War that contributed decisively to the politicisation of Picasso.” It is certainly true that the exhilaration experienced in the summer of 1944 with the Liberation of Paris acted as a catalyst for Picasso’s decision to join the Party later that fall. Yet any re-examination of the political nature of Picasso’s post-war art should include Guernica alongside, say, for example, the little-studied material labelled “Political Correspondence sent to Picasso” displayed at Liverpool and on loan from the artist’s papers held by the Picasso Archive at the Musée National Picasso in Paris.

According to the Tate website, the exhibition reveals a “fascinating new insight into the artist’s life as a tireless political activist and campaigner for peace.” Yet Picasso’s engagement with politics was examined, analysed and chronicled a decade ago.

If you are interested in Picasso’s commitment to the Communist Party and the Soviet cause more generally, then, my advice would be to purchase a copy of Gertie Utley’s Pablo Picasso: The Communist Years (2000). The artist’s political activism is recorded here and, according to one reviewer, makes “sense of a very murky period”. Morris, professor at Norwich University College of the Arts, may have approached Grunenberg, Director of Tate Liverpool, a decade ago with the idea for the exhibition, but Utley poured over the voluminous boxes of uncatalogued correspondence in the archives of Paris’s Musée two decades ago as a PhD student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

Talking of the mastermind behind the exhibition, however, it must be said that Morris mounts nothing if not a spirited defence of Picasso as a principled politico. One reviewer goes as far as to say Picasso: Peace and Freedom is “almost an apologia.”

Picasso’s commitment to the struggle against capitalism is understandable yet you cannot help question his silence in the face of Josef Stalin’s crimes; refusing to obey Communist calls for Socialist Realism and representing Stalin as something other than “the eternal father of the people” in Les Lettres Françaises was as loud as it got. I wonder, though, how a man who prided himself on being an anti-fascist would feel about the news that comrade Stalin blocked two attempts to kill Adolf Hitler in an effort to gain more influence in Eastern Europe. Pretty idiotic, I would say. But then again, Lenin did describe Soviet sympathisers in the West as “useful idiots” and, according to one reviewer, “few were more idiotic or more useful to the Soviet cause than Pablo Picasso.”

The artist once quipped: “I am proud to say that I’ve never looked upon painting as an art intended for mere pleasure or amusement.” This explains why I was neither pleasured nor amused by what was on show.

Picasso: Peace and Freedom is on display at Tate Liverpool from May 21 till August 30.

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