Has the Brooklyn Museum reached peak girlboss self-parody? Comedian Hannah Gadsby has a small exhibition criticizing the iconic Pablo Picasso called It’s Pablo-matic. It is sponsored by the Sacklers, one of America’s most brutally destructive capitalist families.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Picasso’s death, many are discussing his artistic career and personal life, especially his sexism. In addition to the Sackler-sponsored exhibit in Brooklyn, Claire Dederer’s recently released book, Monsters, also explores this terrain. (The best headline on this belongs to a review by Julie Phillips in 4Columns, taking off from the famous Modern Lovers song: “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, but Claire Dederer thinks it’s not too late to start.”)
The Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler-sponsored approach — e.g., simply refusing to take his work seriously — has plenty of critics, including in the New York Times. Picasso needs no defense from Jacobin — he surely was sexist and, in any case, he has long received plenty of global recognition, appreciative as well as moralistic, including exhibitions dedicated to his work at New York’s Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art, in Paris at Musée de l’Homme and Musée Picasso, and at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía.
But relatively little of the renewed Picasso discussion focuses on his politics. He was a committed anti-fascist and a communist. Those facts do not excuse Picasso for being a jerk, but they are worth noting. That they are so absent from discourse about an artist our elites can’t stop talking about seems a symptom of the ruling class’s capture of the cultural sphere.
In a time when the most visible art we consume is sponsored by horrific profiteers like the Sackler family, whose greed has fueled an opioid epidemic that has killed more than six hundred thousand Americans, Picasso’s communism should not be forgotten. To obscure his communism shortchanges the serious politics of much twentieth-century art, and also occludes feminist history, reducing it to personal grievances and rendering radical women artists and their movements invisible.
Picasso’s anti-fascist sympathies informed his first political work. He drew a series of satirical illustrations called The Dream and Lie of Franco, which were sold as postcards at the 1937 World’s Fair in order to raise money for the Spanish Republican cause. Art historian Patricia Failing told PBS that doing work for a political cause pushed Picasso in new directions creatively; in this world, he experiments with burlesque, caricature, and “obviousness,” elements “you don’t find in his other work.”
He also painted the much better known Guernica, a mesmerizing antiwar and anti-fascist painting, and an explosively angry response to Francisco Franco’s brutal bombing of the Basque village, for the same World’s Fair.
In 1944, Picasso told L’Humanité,
I have wished, by drawing and by colour, since those are my weapons, to reach ever further into an understanding of the world and of men, in order that this understanding might bring us each day an increase in liberation. . . . Yes, I am aware of having always struggled by means of my painting, like a genuine revolutionary. But I have come to understand, now, that that alone is not enough; these years of terrible oppression have shown me that I must fight not only through my art, but with all of myself. And so, I have come to the Communist Party without the least hesitation, since in reality I was with it all along.
After Guernica, he was asked to design an image of peace. His resulting 1949 painting, Dove of Peace, became the logo for the First International Peace Conference in Paris that year and was then adopted as an international communist symbol. The Soviet government recognized him with its national peace prize twice, in 1950 and 1962.
Picasso’s communist and antiwar commitments led him to oppose the US intervention in the Korean War and inspired his 1951 painting Massacre in Korea, which shows women (including pregnant women) and children facing men with guns.
Some of Picasso’s contemporaries doubted his politics. Salvador Dalí once said, “Pablo Picasso is a communist. Neither am I.” For his part, Joseph Stalin took a dim view of the lack of realism in Picasso’s cubist art. (While the Soviets held and cared for a vast collection of Picasso’s works, for years they did not display them to the public.)
His fellow communists didn’t grasp even his most political works. The French Communist Party found Massacre in Korea too ambiguous in assigning blame for the violence, and the Soviets reacted similarly to Guernica.
But Western authorities took Picasso’s communism seriously. Many in the United States considered Massacre in Korea a work of communist, anti-American propaganda, and the artist was intensively surveilled by the FBI. He was also spied upon by European governments; France refused his application for citizenship in 1940 because the secret police worried about his “extremist ideas evolving toward communism.” Due to similar anti-communist sentiment, Massacre in Korea was not shown in South Korea (despite some museums’ attempts for decades) until 2021.
The disappearance of Picasso’s communist, antiwar, and anti-fascist politics from our public discussions of him means that we aren’t fully considering his place in history. But Picasso isn’t the only artist who gets lost in this righteous hubbub. Women do too.
The New York Times review of Gadsby’s show argues that the focus on Picasso as “problematic” shortchanges the women artists in his orbit. The Times reviewer, although he does not point out Picasso’s politics, intriguingly notes in passing Picasso’s influence on Soviet women artists who “put Picasso’s breakdown of forms in the service of political revolution.” These Soviet avant-garde women were the subject of a Guggenheim exhibit called Amazons of the Avant-Garde in 2000. One of the most political of these artists was Varvara Stepanova, who explored materialism during the Bolshevik Revolution through a new art movement called constructivism (which under Stalin was supplanted by socialist realism).
This isn’t a matter of elevating “the political” over “the personal.” An insight of second-wave feminism is that the two are intertwined. Picasso’s personal life is of interest. But communism is part of that life and was deeply personal to him, as it was to most mid-century party members. As he explained to L’Humanité in 1944,
Is it not the Communist Party which works the hardest to know and to construct the world, to render the men of today and tomorrow clearer-headed, freer, happier? Is it not the Communists who have been the most courageous in France as in the USSR or in my own Spain? How could I have hesitated? For fear of committing myself? But on the contrary I have never felt freer, more complete!