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Tate Liverpool exhibition to explode myth that Picasso was ‘ a playboy extrovert’. Photograph: Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images

Picasso’s cold war career as a highly political painter, peace campaigner and tireless fundraiser for leftwing causes will be revealed in an exhibition at Tate Liverpool next spring that will include letters from world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Ho Chi Minh, as well as a telegram from Fidel Castro congratulating the artist on being awarded the Soviet Union’s international peace prize.

Christoph Grunenberg, the gallery’s director, said the exhibition would explode the myth that Picasso was “a playboy extrovert … more concerned with chasing women than world politics”.

Picasso himself said: “I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt war is in these paintings.”

The exhibition begins in 1944, the year he joined the French communist party. He remained a member until his death in 1973, and Lynda Morris, the curator, said the legend that he was the party’s largest individual donor is probably true.

He rarely gave money, but gave innumerable works to be reproduced as fund raising calendars, Christmas cards, silk scarves or limited edition prints, so many that the Communist journal l’Humanité had a full time staff member working with him on producing them.

She found dozens of boxes of political correspondence in the archives of the Picasso Museum in Paris, showing that he was in constant touch with peace groups, refugee aid schemes and women’s groups, in Europe, north and south America, and Israel. He also supported hospitals and homes in France sheltering refugees from the Spanish civil war.


Maev Kennedy


Unspeakable lusts … Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

There isn’t enough sex in the arts today. Look back at the 20th century and the whole point of modernism was to liberate the carnal. DH Lawrence, priest of love, competed to shock the last survivors of the Victorian age with James Joyce, who rambled uninhibited to detail Leopold Bloom’s underwear fantasies. In art, Picasso introduced the modern age with his brothel scene Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and the surrealists confessed to unspeakable lusts. Even in classical music, there was a sense of orgasmic release, as is recognised by Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore in their striking comic book Lost Girls, which portrays a riotous erotic encounter at the first night of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

I’m not saying that no one has ever got it on to Philip Glass or been tempted to have a quickie in one of the more remote corners of a Richard Serra installation, but isn’t the avant garde in our time a bit sexless compared with its modernist forebears?

There is a reason for this. In the 1920s, sex was just starting to escape from the confines of Victorianism. Today it is merchandised, advertised, the stuff of small talk. For the first modernists, the erotic was self-evidently subversive. Today, it’s hard to believe liberation or aesthetic renewal can lie in something so banal.

Until you try it for yourself. Sex is just as much fun today as it was in Picasso’s time. All those atheists are always going on about God, putting adverts on buses to declaim their lack of belief – but why don’t they just point out that sex is more satisfying than prayer? And holier?

Critics worry about why people would rather see a terrible film than a great play, why they’d rather read a trashy magazine than a book, and why the most god-awful dance music sells more than Steve Reich. It’s because of the sex, stupid. If high art wants our attention, it needs to turn us on.

Jonathan Jones

No show in Europe at the moment bids to be more spectacular, or ends up being more exasperating, than “Picasso and the Masters,” sprawling here through the Grand Palais. If there’s good news to the financial meltdown, it’s that maybe bloated blockbusters like this one should become harder to organize.

Not that anyone in Paris seems discontented with the exhibition. From morning to night, long lines inch through the front doors to pay obeisance to this endlessly popular Spaniard, who was ahead of his time not least in churning out so many works to satisfy what has become the cultural industrial complex of the early 21st century.

Next door, a fine show of Emil Nolde hardly attracts a soul, sadly. FIAC, the art fair that shared quarters in the Grand Palais these last several days, was populated by shell-shocked dealers murmuring worriedly amongst themselves about the bygone customers whom not so long ago they had blithely turned away or gave five minutes to decide whether to buy a picture.

Picasso, in such straitened times, remains at least a reliable brand for exhibition organizers, who especially seem to love these compare-and-contrast affairs because they guarantee boffo box office. Just a couple of years ago, Madrid had a pair of such shows, the Guggenheim in New York yet another.

The Grand Palais, never mind the accompanying displays at Orsay (Picasso and Manet) and the Louvre (Picasso and Delacroix), trumps those events, gathering together hundreds of Picassos along with far-flung trophies that inspired or ostensibly inspired him: pictures by Cranach and Titian, Poussin and Ribera, Chardin and Zurburan, El Greco and Courbet, Degas and le Douanier Rousseau. The list goes on…

Let it first be said that Picasso, having taken on history as if fated to do so from childhood, embraced such extravagant comparisons — which isn’t to say he survives the competition altogether intact. “Art is not the application of a canon of beauty,” he once said, “but what instinct and the brain imagine quite apart from the canon.”

The canon, in other words, remained his starting point but increasingly became his crutch. His achievements were Promethean and unparalleled in the last century, but having said that, as the show proves almost despite itself, Picasso ended up often mired in vain, backward-looking riffs on grander achievements.

Perhaps it’s as the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once put it, talking about Picasso’s failure to appreciate Bonnard. “Picasso had no heart,” he said. That’s pretty harsh.

On the other hand, there are his copies of Velazquez’s “Méninas.” From the 1950s, they tinker with variations on his familiar devices — the fractured, faux-childish faces; the swift, sketchy brushwork; the primary colors set often against black; the clattery scaffolding of faceted planes and accordion space — to produce what looks clever but finally cartoonish when considered against the grave dignity and humanity of the original. Granted, comparing anything with “Las Méninas” is unfair, but then, Picasso invited the comparison, and from it one gets Cartier-Bresson’s point.

Even that remark about the canon, as it happens, recalls what a century before one of Picasso’s canonical heroes, Delacroix, wrote: That great art derives both from humility before the past and a conviction that “what has already been said is not enough.”

Picasso’s later career, you might say, was a one-man wrestling match with the limits of his own enormous genius in relation to history, and his failures were, humanly speaking, as compelling as his accomplishments, but that interpretation requires from an exhibition not blind hero worship but, as Delacroix had it, a little humility. The show here lacks this altogether, substituting swagger for judgment, bluster for nuance, and in art, as in politics and finance, we’ve had enough of that approach already.

It is as if the traveling of priceless art from far-flung places and the clout that made it happen were enough — that we are supposed to feel grateful for what’s over-the-top about “Picasso and the Masters” — whereas the show’s excess is exactly what gets in the way of our standing peaceably and intimately before a picture.

The best blockbusters make you forget their blockbuster-ness. The Louvre happens to have an Andrea Mantegna show that’s big and marvelous and includes other artists on whom Mantegna depended or whom he influenced, some of them mediocre, some great. Crowds look closely and slowly. The show promotes that. The art rewards it.

At one point at the Grand Palais, I braved the throng and plunged as if into a strong headwind, anchoring myself before a late Picasso portrait. Against a bright orange and red backdrop, a bearded figure with large, hooded, almond eyes and what looks like a long blond wig, returned my gaze. He’s the picture of a proud, weary man with a slight identity crisis. The work appears to have been done in a flash. The date was July 31, 1971. It’s catchy, electric.

But something was missing. It will become clear, I thought, with a little more time, before a tsunami of fellow visitors swept clean the gallery.

We tend to judge exhibitions as we do one another, according to their regard for individuals. We’re awed by flash and fame. But we’re really looking to make some deeper connection, even just one, beyond the bluster and hype, that feels lasting and true.

It was those almond eyes, I realized later on the street outside, thinking back on that portrait. They were hollow.

Michael Kimmelman
New York Times