Monday, May 17, 2010

Take a leaf out of Picasso's book

The view that, deep down, all that human beings are really interested is in looking after themselves is, commonplace and at the same time a truism. Yet it begs the question that in today’s society, individual interests and those of humanity as a whole also coincide.

Today’s correspondence of a super-heated and plundered planet with an explosive economic, financial and political crisis self-evidently cannot be solved on an individual basis, neither by the ruling classes nor by the rest of us.

But the more this becomes apparent, the more a view of humanity as simply creatures of greedy instincts is trundled out again and again. The purveyors of this jaded (but unscientific) notion perform a vital function. Hiding behind a facile cynicism, they conveniently naturally dismiss notions of revolutionary political change.

Previewing a pioneering exhibition opening this week at Tate Liverpool, Professor Alex Danchev (military historian of St Antony’s College who has turned to art history) is given space in that paper of organised cynicism, The Guardian, to conclude that “Pablo Picasso, a painter without peer, lived and died an egotist. A party of one was his ideal station”. Danchev misses no opportunity to stick the knife into the artist, accusing him of “gesture politics” and “posturing”.

Of course Picasso’s very persona was that of an extrovert showman who enjoyed throwing spanners into the works and making provocative and perplexing statements. But that in no way was in contradiction to his impassioned opposition to Fascism and Nazism, and his campaign against war, in particular nuclear war.

Picasso was the most controversial artist of the last century. Along with Georges Braque he revolutionised painting and the way we see the world. His view of the human body and the human condition continue to excite and intrigue. Due in part to the astronomical sums fetched by his work, his artistic prowess remains in the public eye.

But the curators of Picasso: Peace and Freedom have assembled a mass of evidence to show there was less well known side to the man – he was a political animal through and through. His painting Guernica, an outcry against the Fascist bombing of a village in the Basque country in 1937, retains its power to provoke and inspire. So much so that a replica of Guernica in the Security Council of the United Nations was covered up on the eve of the Iraq war as the United States and Britain lied their way to an illegal invasion in 2003.

Picasso joined the French Communist Party after the liberation of Paris in 1944, having lived through the dark years of the war and occupation. He stuck with the PCF despite, not because, of its Stalinist monstrosities. Almost unbelievably, Danchev portrays the artist as a “slavish” devotee of Stalinism when the opposite was the case. Picasso signed an open letter opposing the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

In staging this show, Lynda Morris and Christoph Grunenberg have thrown down a political gauntlet. They have assembled a mountain of evidence which challenges the view that Picasso’s politics were in some way secondary to his being as a person and an artist. The breadth and scope of his commitment to a host of causes, including racial equality, the campaign to prevent the execution of the Rosenbergs, against the death penalty and anti-Semitism is indisputable. Picasso has clearly come back to haunt those who seek to defend capitalism and its political institutions.

The depth of Picasso’s beliefs – and his conflicts with Stalinism - should inspire A World to Win’s Taking the Revolutionary Road conference this Saturday. In our Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions we appeal to creative workers of all kinds to help end the prison of capitalist social relations. The Cold War may be well and truly over, but “the battle for Picasso’s mind” as the CIA dubbed it, goes on.

Corinna Lotz


A World to Win

Picasso: Peace and Freedom is at the Tate Liverpool 21 May-30 August.

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