As both man and myth, Picasso seems inexhaustible. The past few years alone have witnessed exhibitions of his portraits, sculptures, prints and photography, as well as the completion of the first volume of John Richardson’s lengthy biography. His works have fetched record prices at auction (the 1997 Ganz collection sale), never-before-seen pieces recently came on the market (the sale of art from the estate of his lover Dora Maar in October) and his paintings were even victims of the recent Swiss Air crash. Yet, like a diva who refuses to die, Picasso keeps coming back.
If any period of Picasso’s life and work can be called under-researched, it is the time he spent secluded in Nazi-occupied Paris. This is the claim of “Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945” at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Co-curated by Steven Nash, chief curator of the Museum of Fine Arts and Robert Rosenblum of the Guggenheim museum in New York (the next venue for the exhibition), the exhibition presents a survey of eighty works which explore Picasso’s response to the historic events leading from the Spanish Civil War through the Nazi occupation of Paris and its liberation by Allied troops.
“I became interested in this period when the Museum of Fine Arts acquired Picasso’s 1945 ‘Still life with skull, leeks and pitcher’ in 1992,” said Mr Nash. “Once I started researching the painting, I realised there was a lot of conflicting information, or just misinformation about Picasso’s life during this time. The more I looked, the more I thought it would make an exciting exhibition, if not necessarily an easy one.”
Picasso’s relationship to the politics of this time is ambiguous. “Immediately after the War Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art tried to claim Picasso was a Resistance hero. This myth was debunked by Christian Zervos who was actually a member of the Resistance. Other people argued that he must have been a collaborator to have survived so seemingly undisturbed all that time. Still others find fault with his involvement with the Communist party after the War.”
However Picasso’s philosophy, maintains Nash, was to be a survivor. “Up until 1937, Picasso was apolitical. What we see during the war years is the dawning of a social and political consciousness in Picasso.” This did not translate literally into his art: except in the case of “Guernica”, and the “Dream and Lie of Franco”, Picasso did not paint aspects of actual historical fact. However, the creeping sensibility of war and Fascism made itself felt in Picasso’s sombre, claustrophobic canvases and recurrent images of weeping women, modelled on his lover Dora Maar.
Maar, an artist and photographer in her own right, became the painter’s muse and, argues Mr Nash, his alter ego. “She was the one woman in Picasso’s life who was on a similar emotional and intellectual plane. During these years, she became the intermediary between him and the world. In his depictions of her anguish, we can see his own emotions about the world coming out.”
Picasso’s rejection of Maar after the liberation may be read as his own liberation from the need for someone to sustain him emotionally and artistically during these years of privation. The now celebrated tragedy of her failure to recover from this relationship was made manifest in last month’s sale of Maar’s estate, which included Picasso paintings and memorabilia she had preserved from this period (The Art Newspaper, No.85, October 1998, p.50 and No.87, December 1998, p.52).
Still, the nagging question remains: how did Picasso escape all of the roundups of men for forced labour? How did he keep his studio in the rue des Grands Augustins even after the Spanish consulate branded Picasso an anti-fascist and tried to take possession of it immediately after the German occupation?
The situation is far from black and white, says Mr Nash. “It seems clear that people intervened on Picasso’s behalf. In his memoirs, Arno Breker (Hitler’s favourite sculptor) says that he helped Picasso during this time. It seems probable that, although the two did not associate with each other, Breker acted through a go-between such as Jean Cocteau, who wrote for the collaborationist press at the time.”
Picasso also spread rumours about himself which have subsequently been proven false. “He said he couldn’t exhibit in Paris during the war, but this was not true,” said Mr Nash, who notes that Picasso’s works were exhibited in Paris all through the war. In addition, secondary market paintings, especially the Cubist works, were bought at record prices at auction at Hôtel Drouot during the war. “The amount of artistic activity going on in Paris during this time was astounding.”
The current show is part of an effort by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to make twentieth century “classic” artists a key part of their exhibition and collecting policy. Last year’s well-attended Stanley Spencer show was another example. In 2000 the museum has scheduled shows of Francis Bacon and the California artist Wayne Thiebaud. Still, why should a museum with important historic and ethnographic collections tread this path when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) already has a strong twentieth-century collection?
“We have become increasingly active in twentieth-century art since I came ten years ago, and these shows have been very popular,” explained Mr Nash. He denied any suggestion of a rivalry with SFMoMA. “We’re interested in artists who could be called ‘Old Masters’ of the twentieth century rather than cutting-edge art, which we see as the territory of SFMoMA.”
Although Picasso seems like an obvious crowd-pleaser, the theme of war is a hard-hitting one. “A friend in Europe said we could never do such a show in America—it wouldn’t be uplifting enough. But he’s been proven wrong,” said Mr Nash, who has been surprised at how much more slowly people walk around this show than most, reading the labels rather than whizzing through. “There is something about this period—what with the Nazi war gold and all the recent war restitution cases—that captures the public imagination,” said Mr Nash.