Following on from 2008’s hugely successful Gustav Klimt show, Liverpool’s Tate Gallery is hoping to repeat the success of its stellar European Capital of Culture year with another exhibition concerning one of art’s premier league big hitters.

From 21 May, the Albert Dock gallery has been staging Picasso: Peace and Freedom. It’s an intriguing and highly original concept: the show brings together paintings and drawings related to Pablo’s ‘political’ work from 1944-73, alongside a wide range of letters, posters, ceramics and ephemera.

The ambitious aim of the exhibition is to make visitors revaluate Picasso and bring his alleged radical streak to the forefront of our minds and see his politics as the driving force behind much of his later work.

So does it succeed? Well, yes and no. Like I suspect many people, my view of Pablo Picasso is influenced by so many things. Obviously one cannot fail to see the political motivation of a famous work like Guernica but the image of Picasso as an ageing lothario, who as Jonathan Richman pointed out in his famous song, ‘could pick up girls and never get called an arsehole’ is equally prevalent.

These conflicting views pose a challenge to the curators and sometimes you feel they are looking for a link that’s just not there. A whole room full of Picasso’s late period nudes are described as being emblematic of the artists sympathy for women’s liberation, which seems a little rich considering the artist’s reputation as a womaniser. You suspect Pablo was a fan of women’s sexual freedom for one reason and one reason only.

Where the exhibition is far more successful is dealing with the fascinating post-war period when Picasso became a Bono-like figure, travelling the world and lending his voice, image and art for any manner of left-wing causes. Like Bono, we are left never really certain if this was merely an opportunity to fuel the ego and act the rock star in front of adoring and unquestioning crowds.

The sheer weight of the work displayed, though, does give the impression that Picasso meant it and seemed happy to be used as tool of the Communist Party. Many of the archive items reveal the artist was approached on an almost daily basis to donate work and cash which, on the whole, he did – creating many beautifully simple posters and adverts featuring his famous dove lithograph.

I particularly enjoyed the posters he produced for the November 1950 World Peace Congress, which saw the most famous living artist of the time make the unlikely journey to Sheffield where he declared: “I stand for life against death. I stand for peace against war!” Again, it’s hard not to think of Bono clicking his fingers and Chris Martin scrawling things on his hand.

The day after his trip to Yorkshire, Picasso returned to London, where he was detained by immigration officials, an experience that turned him forever against the British, never visiting our shores again and refusing to lend his art to UK galleries.

One of the most unusual items in the exhibition comes from these strange few days, and comprises the wall of a demolished London house on which Picasso scrawled a mural while attending a party. It is touches like this which make the exhibition come alive so vividly.

By the end of this strange but rewarding trip, you exit through the gift shop with its polite prints of Guernica and communist chic t-shirts and realise that perhaps Picasso’s willingness to allow his work to be used by the left was the artist just prefiguring his art’s later recuperation by more capitalist forces.

Still, even if the message is blurred and the aim untrue, this exhibition still displays many wonderful pieces of art, political or not, and for a left-leaning observer like myself it’s a pertinent reminder of an ideology that like Picasso himself has as much inherent brilliance as it has flaws.

Picasso: Peace and Freedom
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool
Until August 30

  • http://BrynGerard.com Bryn Gerard

    I had to ponder upon this article for a while in order to give it a response that is justified. It is certainly true that the likes of the Tate are ever inventive when it comes to “packaging” an artist for general consumption. This is not such a bad thing as it opens up an artists work and makes it accessible to those who perhaps don’t have the time or inclination to study art.

    Personally I thought they were “straining at the gnat” with some of the exhibits. Many of preparatory drawing were never meant to see the light of day but such is the insatiable desire to see and possess anything by the artist that trinkets are often rolled out under the guise of “giving you insight into the great mind” or the process of creativity. These pieces reveal nothing but perhaps an approach to technique.

    Picasso was of course a Master of synthesis and harmony, he also had a mind of Will and Power. These elements combine to produce what is referred to as “genius” in an advanced human being. And although having this genius he knew his shortcomings as an artist and did intense studies of the work of those who could teach him something. There is nothing new, you just do old things in a new way “DaVinci”.

    It seems impossible for anyone to write about Picasso without mentioning his fondness for female company. Why wouldn’t he be so inclined? He was a man who was naturally attracted to women which is by and large the norm. Because of his advanced status he was more liberated than most and less inclined to the sexual inhibitions that plague western societies. Obsessed with sex but terrified of it. People act as though it is in some way wrong to have sexual desire and actually follow through on it. This reflects an immaturity and moralistic binding that is best escaped from.

    For me the hi-lite was by far the “Green Paintings”. Green is a very difficult colour to wield and I learnt much from him. Constable presented some of his work to the Royal Academy and was told “take that Green thing Away!” If I go back, I imagine I will only spend time with the green ones.

  • http://outsidein-liverpool.blogspot.com/ Rachel

    Thanks for an interesting review. It’s the first time I’ve ever read Picasso and Bono’s names in the same sentence and the comparison might not be far off the mark.

    As questionable as the theoretical framework of the exhibition might be, it’s worth reflecting that it’s only now, 20-plus years after the end of the Cold War, Picasso’s political leanings can be the focus of a show on this scale.

    One minor quibble: though Picasso never visited Britain after the Sheffield Peace Conference, he certainly remained in close contact with a number of English critics and writers. One of them, Roland Penrose, organised a number of exhibitions of Picasso’s work at the Tate and the ICA throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. He also wrote extensively about Picasso, making frequent visits to the south of France until Picasso’s death.

  • Jamie

    Nice vid below featuring Jonathan Richman’s song and Pablo himself: