Of the making of Picasso exhibitions, there appears to be no end. Some years they come more frequently than the winter snows, and this is one of those years. At the moment, we have Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and next month we shall be treated to Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay –in other words, Picasso’s ceramics–at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I do not even want to think about what summer might bring.
Like certain soap operas that periodically introduce new faces while recounting the same old stories again and again, Picasso exhibitions now offer the museum-going public the comfortable familiarity of an oft-told tale. We don’t go to these exhibitions in a state of suspense. We already know the basic scenario: The hero, a seductive scoundrel, is more likely than not to behave badly, but he can nonetheless be expected to triumph in the end. It is not only that so many women succumb to his charms; all of society does likewise. Hardheaded intellectuals melt in his presence; Nazi Gauleiters show him every courtesy. No matter what his failings or offenses may be, in art or in life, Picasso will be forgiven everything in the name of genius and celebrity. That is the script, and we know it by heart.
By far the most interesting thing about the Picasso and the War Years exhibition at the Guggenheim isn’t the art it contains but the historical setting in which it was created. (Most of the art that is worth seeing in the show is work that many of us have seen many, many times before, and most of it doesn’t even come close to Picasso’s greatest work.) This is an exhibition in which context is, if not quite everything, damned important. And what confers a remarkable moral flavor on this historical context is the fact that the Nazi high brass that was resident in Paris during the German occupation of France in World War II responded to Picasso’s aura in exactly the same way that the museum-going public responds to it today. They surrendered. Awed by the sheer scale of his international celebrity, the Nazis exempted Picasso from the cruel treatment meted out to so many lesser souls whose misfortune it was to be less famous than this seductive scoundrel.
It helped, of course, that he wasn’t a Jew. But it wasn’t only the Jews that the Nazis and their eager French collaborators rounded up in Paris and sent to the camps. It didn’t even matter that Picasso was the world’s most celebrated practitioner of what Hitler had dubbed “degenerate art,” or that the Nazis had gone to immense trouble and expense to rid the fatherland of its every trace. What would have been a death sentence for others was, in Picasso’s case, transformed into a laissez-passer that guaranteed not only his survival but his right to live and work more or less as he pleased.
Still, life in Nazi-occupied Paris wasn’t without its problems even for Picasso. There was the future to worry about. How would his protected status during the Occupation come to be regarded when the Gauleiters were no longer there to protect him? Picasso solved this problem, as he had solved so many others, with breathtaking audacity. With the Gauleiters fleeing for their lives, he joined up with the commissars. He joined the Communist Party, which was in a position to guarantee that no questions would be asked about Picasso’s special status during the Occupation. And he proved to be as docile in responding to the Party’s needs as any proletarian dumbbell. He even produced a sweet little portrait drawing of Stalin himself when the bastard finally died in 1953.
It’s quite a story: The artist who, by giving the world Guernica in 1937, became an international symbol of the antifascist cause, somehow managed to secure the protection of both Hitler’s minions and Stalin’s. It was quite a trick, and it cost him nothing. He was, after all, Picasso.
All the same, it is in some respects an awkward story for an American art museum, especially one that bears a Jewish name, to tell in the last year of the 20th century. For a large part of the museum public today, World War II is movie entertainment. All that this public knows is that the Nazis were the bad guys, as anyone who has seen Casablanca a dozen or so times can hardly avoid remembering. How come Picasso was receiving these bad guys in his studio during the Occupation is a delicate subject. Still, he didn’t do any sweet little portrait drawing of Hitler, and Stalin became a wartime ally after Hitler invaded his country. So the Guggenheim, too, gives Picasso a laissez-passer .
As for the art to be seen in Picasso and the War Years , it is mostly second- and third-rate Picasso. There is one great painting: The Charnel House (1945-46), which most of the time can be seen six days a week in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. I think it’s a better painting than Guernica . But like so many things connected with Picasso, its meaning is highly ambiguous. Is it, as is often claimed, a memorial to the victims of Hitler’s death camps? If so, it’s extremely odd that the corpses depicted in this painting are located around a kitchen table. I think it was Dora Maar who said that the painting had actually been inspired by a photo of victims of the Spanish Civil War. That would make more sense, as The Charnel House was clearly identified in Picasso’s mind with Guernica . More typical of the kind of thing to be seen in the War Years exhibition is a picture like the Monument to the Spanish Who Died for France (1945-47), which is little more than a painted cartoon.
Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945 remains on view at the uptown Guggenheim, Fifth Avenue and 88th Street, through May 9.