After World War II, the myth spread that Pablo Picasso, while living in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, had stood up valiantly to the Germans and served as a rallying point for the Resistance. In truth, Picasso had had nothing whatsoever to do with the Resistance. On the contrary, he’d frequently welcomed German officers to his studio on the rue des Grand-Augustins, where he hosted them with warmth and hospitality.
But if Picasso was, in a relatively small way, a useful stooge for Adolf Hitler, he went on to become a truly big-time stooge for the other great dictator of the day – Josef Stalin. Soon after the 1944 liberation of Paris, Picasso joined the French Communist Party. He explained this move in “Why I Became a Communist,” a 1945 essay for The New Masses. “My joining the Communist Party,” he wrote, “is a logical step in my life, my work and gives them their meaning.” While he had sought to serve man through his art, the Occupation had taught him that he “had to fight now only with painting but with my whole being.” He had joined the Party because it “strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”
None of this bilge satisfied his friend James Lord, the American writer, who in 1947 asked Picasso to explain why he’d joined the Party. Lord recorded Picasso’s curious reply in his 1994 memoir Picasso and Dora: “Everybody has to belong to something, he said, to have some tie, to accept a loyalty. One party being as good as another, he had joined the party of his friends, who were Communists.” Lord was troubled by this reply: “I had heard of Siberian concentration camps and ubiquitous secret police and the reign of terror, had read Darkness at Noon. And if I knew anything, Picasso must have known more, must have known especially of the murderous treacheries perpetrated in the name of the Party during the Civil War in his homeland. Could the painter of Guernica” – Lord’s reference, of course, is to Picasso’s 1937 antiwar painting inspired by the Spanish Civil War – “have failed to learn of all that?”
In the years that followed, Picasso became both the symbol of and primary source of funding for the French Communist Party. Lord wryly describes the painter’s “Communist Party hangers-on who often arrived just at lunchtime with fanatic appetites, ready to rant all afternoon against American perfidy and bourgeois evil, then ask Picasso for a hefty contribution before departing.” During these years, as Alex Danchev has written, “the conscience-wrenching dramas of the cold war seemed to pass him by. When Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and the Prague spring in 1968, he had nothing to say.” In a 1956 open letter, indeed, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz upbraided Picasso for his silence on the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
James Lord, too, addressed an open letter to Picasso that year. Noting that the Spanish artist had often attested to his belief in the “spirit of freedom” and to his “disgust for tyrants and assassins,” Lord asked him how he could possibly continue to identify freedom with the Soviet Union. “Today,” wrote Lord, “the hands of your comrades, those you have so often clasped, are dripping with blood; they have written once and for all in letters of iron and fire what Communism is….Can the painter of Guernica remain indifferent to the martyrdom of Hungary?” Lord urged Picasso to heed “the obligation which weighs upon artists, trustees of civilization” and to “repudiate the errors of your political sympathies.”
Picasso’s reply? First, he had a mutual friend phone Lord and give him hell: “How dare you write that way to Picasso?” Second, Picasso and several other Communists issued a statement in which they reaffirmed their unqualified devotion to the Party.
To sum up: he may have been the greatest artist of the twentieth century. But he was also, at best, a moral fool who befriended the functionaries of one monstrous dictatorship, and then – after only a few weeks of post-Liberation freedom – became a proud vassal and poster boy for another. Artistic genius does not guarantee either political wisdom or moral courage.