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Picasso: Peace and Freedom

Picasso: Peace and Freedom

Tate Liverpool: until 30 August 2010

A major exhibition bringing together over 150 works by Picasso from his "communist" period

Reviewed by Jane Turner August 2010

This exhibition reveals a fascinating new insight into the artist's life as a political activist and campaigner for peace, challenging the view of Picasso as creative genius, playboy and compulsive extrovert. 

 

Introduction
I never really took much interest in Picasso; his most famous and revered works reminding me of something distorted I saw in the mirror after “one too many” the night before. However, several years ago during a trip to Barcelona, on a particularly hot day and in search of some air-conditioning, I wandered into the Museu Picasso and found on show a vast and varied collection of Picasso’s art displayed in chronological order, accompanied by the story of his life. It was then I realised that there was more to this artist than I had previously appreciated and saw just how creative and talented he actually was. 

 Pablo Picasso

 

He was born in Spain in 1881 into an artistic family with parents supportive of his early talent. Rejecting the formal rules of art he began experimenting with different ways of expressing how he perceived the world and held his first exhibition when he was 13 years of age. In order to be at the centre of the art world he moved to Paris where he continually invented new styles that used a vast array of materials. His art is categorised into periods; blue, rose, cubist etc. with much of it reflecting his state of mind, the influences on him and how he saw the world at each stage.

 

The Exhibition
The Tate Liverpool, home to the national collection of modern art in the North is exhibiting a vast collection of over 150 pieces of his work from his “communist” period which examine Picasso’s engagement with the Peace Movement.

 

It is the first exhibition to examine in depth the artist’s engagement with politics in the cold war era and is a study of his post-war political activity entitled “Peace and Freedom”. Given that he placed his talent in the service of Russian “communists” generally associated with ruthless suppression, the title is perhaps a little ironic?

 

For someone with genuine humanitarian concerns, who gave generously to many worthy causes and whose support for the Republican cause in Spain ultimately led to his life-long expulsion from the country of his birth, it is understandable that Picasso joined the Communist Party in 1944, in solidarity with those fighting fascism. What is more difficult to understand, given his sensitive artistic slant, is why he remained a member after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the atrocities committed in the name of communism that followed. Something to ponder as you admire his work perhaps?

 

Picasso was never really known for being a painter of political propaganda, his art being more poetic and symbolic, but many paintings in this exhibition reflect Picasso’s politics, particularly his painting of Guernica (the canvas expressing outrage at the fascist bombing of a Basque village). His painting of trussed cockerels lying on kitchen tables with their necks wrung or throats slit, was his comment on the suffering of France under the German occupation. And a painting of a bird on the seat of a chair under a hanging lamp alludes to interrogation, torture and the murder of an American communist couple, executed for espionage.

 

Guernica

Another rather obscure piece representing the massacre of a Spanish Republican family has their corpses represented by a jigsaw of interlocking curves and planes, with bits of body parts and a child’s head enmeshed among the angled pieces. It is a striking conceptual and cubist representation of the slaughter of innocent people, but engaging and absorbing as it is, because of it’s style, personally, I found it hard to make any emotional connection with what it is supposed to be depicting.

 

There is some excellent material in this ambitious exhibition, superb paintings reflecting Picasso’s vast talent and accompanied by a fascinating social history. The works are complemented by what to me, was a useful and necessary interpretation, although I appreciate that some like to read the art for themselves.

 

Also on display, and in no way connected, are a series of paintings Picasso made of old masters - worth a visit for the quality alone and where you really get to appreciate the range of his talent.

 

The City of Liverpool
When combined with a walk along the waterfront promenade of the Albert Dock, with a skyline that has often been compared to Manhattans, it is all-in-all not a bad day out.

 

Writing this for the Manchester Salon, and addressing many Mancunian readers (hopefully a few others too), it strikes me that this particular audience may not care to venture “over the border” into “scouse territory”. But it is well worth it, as Liverpool’s waterfront was not known as the “Gateway to Empire” for nothing; and remains a stunning landmark among the hotchpotch of more modern developments that have taken place in recent years. The Tate, with it’s light and airy modern interior set in the old and historic Albert Dock complex sits right on the banks of the Mersey, which runs straight into the Irish sea. What was once a thriving port providing much-needed employment and a gateway to a new world is now one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the UK.

 

Looking from the Albert Dock and towards the city, the landscape is dotted with cranes that appear to have become a permanent feature of the Liverpool horizon. The buzz created by the building of the “Liverpool One” shopping mall still rings loud. The development of apartments and the move towards city-centre living has reversed the decades of declining population and taken together give the impression of a city that is constantly changing and moving with the times. But look a little further beyond the city centre and the tourist trap of the Albert Dock, and you might wonder why the largest collection of Grade I listed buildings outside London still sit so uneasily alongside the many derelict buildings on worn-out streets that remain untouched and even now are blighted by the destruction of the 1980’s riots. The garden festival showpiece created by the then Minister for Merseyside Michael Heseltine in the aftermath is now an overgrown wasteland and there is little sign of progress in some of the city’s meanest streets where the embers still glow from so many years ago.

 

Ask the locals what they think and they will tell you that a lot of money has been spent on re-developing Liverpool, but that a lot of it has also been wasted. Perhaps city developers can learn a thing or two from the people who actually have to live in the cities they create?

 

So, as well as a visit to a unique Picasso exhibition at the Tate, take a stroll around the streets of Liverpool, hop on the “magical-mystery tour” bus, maybe take the ferry across the legendary Mersey immortalised in the song?  It is a city famously known for it’s two cathedrals, two football teams and historically divided by religion and politics and of course for it’s indigenous and notably witty “scouser” population. 

 

Whilst there you might want to reflect not only on the paintings of Picasso, but on what makes a great city in time for the next Manchester Salon discussion on Planning the city: market or state? in February 2011, with an introduction by Alan Hudson on the recent experience of city planning in China for the Expo.

 
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