Search View Archive

Picasso as Anti-Fascist

Ed.’s note: The following talk was delivered at “Modernism-Fascism-Postmodernism,” a conference held at the University of New Mexico this past September.

Portrait of Picasso by Man Ray. (1934, Silver-gelatin) © 2006 Man Ray Trust/Artist rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris.
Portrait of Picasso by Man Ray. (1934, Silver-gelatin) © 2006 Man Ray Trust/Artist rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris.

In mid-August of 2006, a new word in Bush’s newspeak appeared—Fascist. It doesn’t take an Orwell or Karl Kraus or George Steiner, all of whom addressed the issue of the debasement of language in modern history, to figure out that the Decider’s handlers are running short of smoke. On the other hand, I take note of this conference’s interest in something they call “post-fascism.” This forces the question of definition, which, as a belle-lettrist, is not my forte. I will accept what theoreticians call “generic” fascism as a useful distinction, and I will bow to Robert O. Paxton when he says: “Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travellers.” Paxton also goes on to deplore the overuse of the word fascism, pointing out that “everyone is someone’s fascist.”

During the period between the wars in Europe, and to some extent in the U.S., one could say that everyone was someone’s antifascist. In the artistic community, individuals appeared who did not hesitate to call themselves antifascists, by which they more or less meant the following: “I’m not a political theorist, nor a practicing ‘ist’ of any kind, but I smell a rat. By intuition, cultural formation and generally hypersensitive antennae, I have become immensely uneasy.” Some of the cues that aroused their anxiety included visual images, such as that of Hitler making grand entrances in a zooming new model Mercedes, or seen hopping agilely from a range of newly manufactured airplanes like Richthofen himself. Simple visual imagery often suffices to make artists uneasy. Who can forget Bush faking his victory on an aircraft carrier?

In general, the press in both Europe and the United States—that is, the so-called journals of record—was singularly immune to the alarms the artistic and literary groupings increasingly sounded between the wars. For example, the Berlin bureau chief of the New York Times wrote as late as 1936 that there was “not the slightest evidence of religious, political or racial prejudice” in Nazi Germany’s Olympic display and it would surely “send foreigners home with excellent opinions of the effects of dictatorship and wish that democracy might sometime show itself similarly showmanlike.” As Tom Reiss points out in his recent book The Orientalist, even Walter Lippmann, “probably the most influential Jewish writer in America at that time,” warned readers of his nationally syndicated column that to judge Nazi Germany by its concentration camps was to judge “Protestantism by the Ku Klux Klan or the Jews by their parvenus.”

Now, to Picasso as anti-fascist: I will start with a defense of Picasso’s prescience. Why defense? Because more than once his assiduous biographers and critics, including John Berger, have suggested that poor Picasso was a pawn whose political statements had to be written for him. So I am offering a late, rather than an early, instance of his profound anti-fascist passion. I will preface it with a quotation from Malraux’s postwar book, La Tete Obsedienne—one of the accounts in the book in which he carefully used the phrase “and I quote,” where Picasso discusses Goya’s “The Shootings of May 3, 1808”:

The black sky isn’t a sky, it’s blackness. As for lightening, there are two types. One that we don’t understand. It illumines everything like moonlight: the sierra, the belfry, and the man shooting, who should not be lighted from behind. But it sheds far more light than the moon. It hasn’t the same color. Then there’s the huge lantern on the ground, right in the middle. And what does that illumine? The guy raising his arms, the martyr. If you look at it carefully, you’ll see that it sheds light only on him. The lantern is Death. Why? No one knows. Not even Goya. But what Goya knew was that it had to be just like that.

Years later, when a vicious fascist regime in Greece executed the partisan Beloyannis, Picasso responded with deep distress. Claude Roy reported on March 31, 1952, that when he arrived to visit, Picasso greeted him by saying: “It’s as horrible as in the picture by Goya.” Then, Roy said, the painter went to his studio and composed a brief text. Roy called it “cry.” Here is the text:

The gleam of the oil-lanterns illuminating the May night of Madrid, the noble faces of the people being shot by the rapacious foreigner in the painting by Goya, has the same grain of horror sown in handfuls by the headlights on the open chest of Greece… An immense white dove sprinkles the wrath of its mourning over the earth.

I wrote to my old friend, Vassilis Vassilikos, to ask about Picasso’s portrait of Beloyannis. Vassilikos thought Picasso had probably seen Beloyannis’s photograph in L’Humanité in 1952, the time of his arrest, and again shortly after when he was executed. As a footnote: he said that Simone Signoret had Picasso’s sketch of Beloyannis on her mirror.

Now, I don’t need to tell you that Picasso was a deeply intelligent man who thought about things, including fascism. In addition, all his closest friends that I interviewed many years ago, told me he was an inveterate newspaper reader and not only of L’Humanité, the communist organ. It was not difficult to imagine what he talked about with his intellectual friends, many of whom were poets, during the period between the wars, when they were profoundly and constantly alarmed. Picasso, always Spanish, was a child of the great Baroque period in Spain, who completely understood Calderón’s thought: “En esta vida todo es verdad y todo mentira” (In this life everything is true and everything is false). To be an antifascist between the wars was simply to pick one’s way in a dangerous minefield of propaganda and look for one’s own truth. Picasso was quite capable of that.

There are a few things to bear in mind about Picasso and his friends between the wars. Almost immediately after the First World War a great uneasiness came over more thoughtful Europeans. At one time I did my homework, reading widely in European journals, and discovered the word crisis drumming its way through commentary from around 1921 to a climax in 1938. For instance, the popular writer Paul Morand, in an autobiographical essay, “Mes Débuts,” wrote:

If the word inquietude has a sense, it is more so in 1933 than in 1920… It is the generation of the crisis…[stemming from] 1932, the failure of the Geneva disarmament conference.

As early as 1924, uneasiness, later gathered up in the new locution, antifascist, was noted by Marcel Arland in the French journal NRF:

There is distrust of words, methods of investigation and knowledge, distrust of intelligence as well as of sensitivity and personality.

Ten years later the NRF published Trotsky’s article “What is National Socialism?”:

The nation of Hitler is the mythological shadow of the petit bourgeoisie itself, a pathetic delirium the shows it its millenary realm on earth… Fascism has elevated the lower depths of society to the political.

I cite these quotations only to suggest the climate of thought amongst Picasso’s intimate friends, almost all of whom were ensconced in the higher levels of the literary and artistic world. One of them, the Surrealist Georges Hugnet wrote in October 1935 in Cahiers d’Art: “Picasso knows, we know, that we will be among the first victims of fascism, of French Hitlerism—we do not underestimate this.”

And Picasso himself? Here is an important fact to bear in mind: He was, all his life, an alien, living in the country that invented the word chauvinism. In 1901 a police file, kept until his death, was opened in Paris because he was living with the anarchist art dealer from Barcelona, Pere Manach. When, shortly before the Nazi occupation, Picasso applied for French citizenship, he was turned down on the advice of the police intelligence branch who saw him as an extremist “evolving towards Communism.” As you know, in the post-World War II period, he could never get a visa to come to the United States, on the same grounds. In view of the political turmoil and extremes of the 1930s in France, Picasso had good reason to be circumspect politically. Had he been deported to Spain, Franco could easily have had him murdered.

Another thing to bear in mind: All through the period of crisis Picasso maintained relations with Spaniards; he was always ready to receive anyone from his old days in Barcelona, and he read journals from Spanish-speaking countries. Long before the Civil War, he was informed about the turbulence and swift changes in Spain leading up to it: the horrible war in North Africa which ultimately gave Franco his opportunity. Arturo Barea, a moderate socialist, who as a young boy served in that war, describes Franco as seen by one of his educated legionnaires:

Believe me, its sticky going with Franco. You’ll get whatever is due you… but as to the treatment you get… He simply looks blankly at a fellow, with very big and serious eyes, and says: ‘Execute him’ and walks away just like that.

That was around 1922. In 1923 Prim de Rivera seized the government, called it a Directorium, and suspended all constitutional rights. In 1931 the Second Republic was born, but it, too, was sorely tried, and in 1934, a much-publicized strike by the Asturian miners in October followed a general strike and uprisings in all the main cities of Spain, that were fighting to keep Gil Robles and his fascist followers from seizing the government. The armed rising of the miners, suppressed gruesomely by Franco and his Legionnaires from North Africa, led to violent oppressive measures that lasted almost until the Civil War—the two years known as the Bienio Negro. In February 1936, however, in the elections, the Frente Popular won, and a large exhibition of Picasso’s works went to Barcelona, Bilbao, and in May, to Madrid where it was opened with homages from Garcia Lorca, Rafael Seferti and Jose Bergamen.

Throughout the period, Picasso was kept informed, and continued to see Spanish-speaking friends, such as the vociferous Vicente Huidobro, poet and essayist whose antifascist sentiments were well broadcast, as were those of the poet Rafael Alberti, whom Picasso met in 1933. All of Picasso’s old friends knew of his passion for Catalunya, and his frequent allusions to his formative years in Barcelona. His fellow student and faithful friend Julio Gonzalez published an homage in Cahiers d’Art in 1935:

I have known Picasso for more than thirty years, and whenever I have seen and talked to him—which has happened often—we have talked about Catalans, and he has spoken nostalgically of Barcelona… He is ‘ours.’ A ribbon-size Catalan flag which he keeps religiously in his pocket will convey to you the profound love he feels for the Catalan country, for the country of his youth.

Picasso’s nostalgia bought him back to Spain in the summer of 1933 and again in the summer of 1934. We know from Spanish accounts that he looked up friends he had known in his youth; that he presided over warm terulias with them; that he caught up with important events, both artistic and political, with them, and that in Barcelona, in 1934, he visited the newly established Catalan Museum—one of the last cultural achievements of the Republic, before the Bienio Negro—and renewed his admiration of the distinctive Catalan frescoes installed there.

While I have set out to talk about Picasso as antifascist, in a way it seems ridiculous to have to speak about it. He was a born antifascist; it was in his blood. He was, as the poet Rene Ohar said, “furiously subversive.” Most of the commentary about him, and most especially about his activism from the moment the Civil War broke out, seems to suggest that this political action was unusual. I will not rehearse the immensely documented creation of his painting Guernica here. But I will remind you that some of his most esteemed friends from Spain had arrived in Paris, above all Jose Bergamin, who Picasso trusted and admired and who, even years after, when he was asked political questions would counter: “What does Bergamin think?” You can be sure that long before the tragedy of the Basque town he was kept in an alarmed state by the Republicans in Paris. Picasso’s first denunciation of the Franco insurrection occurred when he heard about the humiliation of Miguel Unamuno (whom he had published in his first journal Arte Joven, while a student in Madrid in 1901). A Legionnaire General, Millan Astray, had leapt up while Unamuro was lecturing in Salamanca, pointed a revolver at him and roared: “Abajo la inteligencia! Viva la muerte!” (Down with intelligence, long live death!).

As you know, the Germans had used saturation bombing from the outset. To remind you, here is Barea again talking about the 7th of August, 1936:

[T]he neighbors told us that a plane had flown low over Madrid from north to south, dropping bombs all along its course. It had left a trail of blood from the Puerta de Toledo to Cuatro Caminos. By accident, or because the pilot guided himself by the open spaces, most of the bombs had fallen in public squares and many children had been hit.

By October 30th, he reported:

The air raids became an almost daily occurrence. On October 30th, a single aircraft killed fifty little children in the Getafe. (These were German Junkers).

The siege of Madrid began in the night of the 7th of November, 1936, and ended as, Barea records, two years, four months and three weeks later. Picasso was kept well informed by Republican friends at the Embassy, and he did not suddenly and overnight embark on his anti-Franco campaign, as so many art historians seem to think. His “Dream and Lie of Franco,” intended to raise funds for the Loyalists, arrived after his concourse with Republican Spaniards in Paris that had intensified as the news turned darker each day. Moreover, his most intimate friends, above all Paul Eluard, were Communist sympathizers, and close to sources of news, including L’Humanité, coming from Spain. What do you think they talked about? Well, of course, they talked about the usual things, mutual friends and gossip, but they would not have failed to discuss the crucial war in Spain and its implications for Europe, and even though the press was singularly delinquent about the Civil War, by mid-1936, eyewitnesses, who were friends of Eluard’s and Picasso, turned up in Paris.

I hope I don’t need to remind you that Picasso’s commitment to Republican Spain was total, and proved not only by the great icon Guernica, but by dozens of deeds that are scarcely discussed, since he himself was always discreet. The Argentine photographer Roberto Otero in his writing about Picasso offers the following conversation in 1968, when Picasso remarked:

At the end of the Civil War I went to visit a hospital the Republican exiles had in Toulouse.

Otero remarks:

What is really incredible is that the Varsovie hospital, which Picasso financed with his own money, in his memory was only “a hospital the Republican exiles had in Toulouse.” Some people never change.

As I said, I will not discuss the making of the pre-eminent antifascist work of art, Guernica. But I would like to remind you that like Joe Hill, that painting’s power has never died. I’m a traveler and have seen evidence in many parts of the world of its presence in countries where the struggle against fascism goes on. And on, even in my own country. I go on the peace marches, and have done so for fifty years, and I assure you that I have never been to one of those marches where reproductions or details of Guernica were not visible. But perhaps the real power of Picasso’s antifascist visual manifesto, was best displayed on February 5, 2003, when Colin Powell made his case at the United Nations—which we now know to be totally duplicitous—for going to war against Iraq. Maureen Dowd announced in the Times that day that the U.N. “plans to throw a blue cover over Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece, Guernica.” She was referring to a large tapestry reproduction that had hung for years at the entrance of the U.N. Security Council. A U.N. spokesman, she wrote, explained: “Tomorrow it will be covered and we will put Security Council flags in front of it.” As Dowd remarked: “Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.”

The Spanish Civil War, epitomized by Picasso’s masterpiece, remained in memory for many future antifascists all over the world, and partly through Picasso’s unforgettable image. The late 20th-century convulsions in Latin America—one fascist regime after another—were accompanied by critiques in which artists openly alluded to Picasso’s antifascist works. Some had seen Guernica when it traveled to South America. Some had had contact with Rafael Alberti, in exile in Argentina, who in 1941 wrote of Picasso: “Never before had a man, a Spaniard, so far away from home, been more deeply shaken to the roots.”

The 1960s were turbulent years all over Latin America. The Yankee project, “The Alliance for Progress” was pitted against the idea of revolution. Events in Cuba were watched. The issues were between “desarrollo” (development) and “revolución.” The intellectuals increasingly chose revolution. In journals and books of the period, debates about politics and political art, versus modernist abstraction, often alluded to Guernica, which for many was the sole example possible for a political art. The Guernica, in Latin America, was recognized as a grand moral gesture. There were no longer the Picassistas that Lezama Lima had so deftly derided. That is, the formal innovations of Picasso were no longer diminishing the creative powers aroused by so many dismal political events in Latin America. Picasso, for them, exercised an influence of a moral rather than formal character. And it was powerful. Marta Traba, a pre-eminent critic in Latin America during its most turbulent years, again and again remarked on the tremendous weight Picasso’s stance had on the lives of artists there, stressing his moral probity.

I began this cursory talk quoting Paxton, “everyone is someone’s fascist.” I would like to close with a bit of curiosa: When I was a student I heard the phrase: “Premature anti-fascist.” Recently I remembered it and wondered where such a mawkish phrase originated. It seems that when the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade returned to the U.S.—the few who did—some of them wanted to enlist to fight the fascists in the Second World War. The armed forces rejected them, calling them “premature anti-fascists.” No doubt Picasso’s voluminous FBI file contains something very like a description of a premature antifascist.


Dore Ashton


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2006

All Issues