In the last week of my holidays I finally saw the touring Picasso exhibition in Melbourne. I have never really understood the fuss about Picasso. I have refused to buy into the (partly self-created) mystique that surrounds him, and I’m hardly the greatest fan of cubism. Still, a blockbuster exhibition is a blockbuster exhibition.
The first thing that struck me was Picasso’s nasty habit of breaking women’s hearts and moving from one torrid affair to another. The current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Picasso: Love & War 1935-1945, centres on his relationship with surrealist photographer Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover and muse from 1935-1944. Part of the content comes from the treasure-hoard hidden in her Paris apartment until her death in 1997. I could not but help thinking that Picasso’s distorted and often downright ugly representations of women, twisting the female form to the limits of recognition, reflected some kind of deep-seated and (given his rampant womanising) paradoxical hatred of women.
Picasso was prone to self-mythologising, often doing so literally in his works. He depicted himself as a faun or minotaur, variously giving chase to nymphs or suffering at their hands. Dora Maar as a bird is a simultaneously beautiful yet disturbing depiction of his lover as a harpy.
Along with numerous works by Picasso (sketches and prints predominate, with comparatively few paintings), the exhibition includes works by Dora Maar. Maar’s surreal portraits of Picasso from early in their relationship (developed as negatives) hint at the diabolical, with weirdly deformed or blank eyes. I was also struck by how many of the photographic portraits of Picasso depicted a man, who for all his genius and success, seemed to be uncomfortable with himself. He looked as if he was running from something. Maar’s naturalistic portraits show a man with a hostile stare and bitter face, most poignantly in the photographs Picasso standing under a cane arbour, where the shadows cast across the artist look like prison bars.
In light of this, the contrast present in the series of photographs Picasso painting Guernica is surprising. Picasso, working intensely upon his giant anti-war masterpiece, is a man transformed — his eyes are alight, his face animated, sometimes even smiling down at us from atop a ladder. Paintbrush in one hand, cigarette in the other, he is a torrent of creative energy, suddenly enlivened by the painting of this great political statement.
Guernica is one of Picasso’s best known and most acclaimed works, a giant canvas 3.5 metres tall and 7.76 metres long. The 27 square metres of monochromatic oil paint seek to express the pain, brutality and horror of the Spanish Civil War, and particularly the saturation bombing of the undefended town of Guernica on April 26, 1937. The bombing was conducted by German and Italian aircraft under orders from the leader of the Spanish fascist forces, General Franco. This was a deliberate attack on civilians — the bombing was on market day, and included strafing and the use of high explosive, shrapnel and incendiary bombs.
Picasso painted Guernica in 24 feverish days. Dora Maar photographed the evolution of the work, contributing to its creation (the photographs helped shape Picasso’s composition and shading) and providing us with a unique record of Picasso’s creative process. But the photographs are also portraits of Picasso, a different Picasso, fired by idealism and intent on communicating a message, voicing his pain, outrage and anguish (and that of his fellow Spaniards) as the country tore itself apart.
Art as propaganda is nothing new — from the triumphal arches of Rome, through equestrian statues of military leaders (think of Jacque Louis David’s iconic portrait of Napoleon, Bonaparte crossing the Alps) and the more recent exploitation of all artistic mediums by totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi films or Soviet socialist realist painting. But it feels wrong to call Guernica "propaganda", given that word’s negative connotations. Guernica is an example of art with a message, a message that appeals not to mere political beliefs, but to our very humanity. It says: this is the horror of war, man’s capacity to do evil to his fellow man — never forget this, and guard against it. A tapestry copy of Guernica hangs outside the entrance to the Security Council chamber in the UN’s New York headquarters. The original painting now hangs in a specially-built gallery in the Madrid. For many years it hung in New York before it was returned to a democratic Spain in 1981, in accordance with the artist’s will.
Much of the content of the Love and War exhibition is hardly cheerful stuff. Immediately following the Guernica display is a series of works from the Weeping women series (based on the figure of a crying mother in Guernica). While the sketches and other works exposing the evolution of the subject are interesting, the highlight remains the hometown heroine, the green 1937 Weeping woman — a painting of such power that even those lukewarm to cubism (like myself) cannot but be glad that it was speedily found (in a locker at Melbourne’s Spencer Street railway station, of all places) after its theft in 1986.
Picasso’s art still retains this ability to challenge the viewer. "Which side would you choose? What would you do if you were there?" it demands. This question haunted me as I walked past the sketches of weeping women. I thought long and hard, and it was most uncomfortable to think that had I lived in Europe in the 1930s, it is possible I may have sided with the fascists. Would I have been brave enough to speak out? I’d like to think so, but I cannot be sure.
As the chronology of the exhibition moves into the years of World War II, it grows darker still. Some of Picasso’s friends disappeared into death camps. Hitler had declared Picasso a "degenerate artist", but despite some harassment he worked from his Paris apartment throughout the German occupation. He used materials supplied by the Resistance, or sometimes even worked on newsprint. In the paintings and bronzes of the period, skull-visaged Death appears, and the symbolism of the guttering candles in a number of still life paintings is obvious. The final Head of a woman is the ultimate in deformity — a grey skeletal face with a nose like the gun on a tank, clad in a decidedly militaristic shade of green.
Given today’s troubled times, perhaps it is good that Picasso can challenge us, confront us with war’s ugliness and force us to question ourselves. The pain of Guernica is the pain of Beirut, the pain of Baghdad, the pain of every conflict. But hope remains. A still life, painted in the darkest years of World War II depicts a simple jug, kitchen pot and a candle, burning brightly (rather than guttering). The beautifully proportioned composition lends it a great serenity and quiet domestic optimism. It demonstrates humankind’s ability to create order (not just chaos) by finding balance.
Daniel Kinsey studies art history, international relations and law at the University of Melbourne.