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