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“I haven’t painted the war,” said Picasso | Text by Josefina Alix

I was a boarder, too, for a time. I was a kid. The first evening I was very sad about being in a dormitory. Above my head was a shelf with books. I took one down, I opened it. A bedbug escaped from it. I hurled the book aside. I hid my head beneath the sheets. And I cried. It’s with a personal baggage like that, perhaps, that I painted Guernica. When I think of the people who envy me because my painting sells well! If only they knew what the real price of my pictures is, nobody would want to pay it.

                Genevieve Laporte, Un amour secret de Picasso, Éditions du Rocher, Monaco, 1989, p. 193

 

I haven’t painted the war, said Picasso after the Liberation, because I’m not that kind of painter, the kind who goes, like a photographer, in search of a subject. But there’s no doubt about the war existing in the pictures I did at the time. Later on, maybe, some historian will demonstrate that my painting changed under the influence of the war. Myself, I don’t know.

Antonina Vallentin, Picasso, Albin Michel, Paris, 1957, p. 355

 

These two reflections by Picasso illustrate, to a large degree, a crucial chapter in his life: the impact of the Spanish Civil War and the mark months of close contact with the people who worked on the genesis of the Spanish Pavilion in 1937 made on him.

What really cuts to the quick, Picasso is saying, forms the material of his painting. And here is the key: a part of his life is contained in each of his works. If such a trivial event as a bedbug leaping out of a book leads him to think of the origins of Guernica, this is precisely because the high price of his creations was always a part of his life: “each picture is a phial of my blood.”If this minor anecdote from his childhood left such a deep mark on him, we can only imagine what the Civil War, the creation of his own mural, and the magnetic ambiance around the pavilion could generate in him with the passing of time. The effect the 1937 Spanish Pavilion had on Picasso was of critical importance for his work of subsequent years, culminating in Massacre in Korea of 1951.

During those months in 1937, the people involved in organizing the pavilion established a camaraderie such as can only emerge when one considers oneself a participant in a thrilling and decisive enterprise within the framework of civil strife. For them it was not just a matter of participating in an international exhibition but became an act of war being fought on foreign soil. The work was hectic and pressing, the building work was way behind and they functioned as a perfect team, as a sort of clan. Only with such a state of mind can one understand the immense undertaking, which resulted in a mythical building successfully completed in just four months.

If at first, once a huge mural painting had been commissioned, Picasso was paralyzed, idea-less, not knowing which way to turn, in the end he behaved as one more individual in that electrifying team. He completed Guernica in thirty-three days and supervised the casting of his sculptures in cement, while working in his huge studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins, which he’d converted into a sort of center of operations. There, he received the continual visits of Spanish artists and intellectuals, who witnessed the evolution of Guernica and constantly urged him on, fearful that he’d never finish the huge canvas. Other friends also turned up, friends like André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Le Corbusier, and Henry Moore, thus creating a unique atmosphere around the creation and gestation of a great mural. In the evening, once work was over, all the Spaniards gathered in the Café de Flore in large and amicable social gatherings in which the recurring themes were Spain, the pavilion, and the war.

We can only imagine what, at the time, the continual, intense conviviality might produce among people such as José Luis Sert, Luis Lacasa, Alberto Sánchez, Josep Renau, Julio González, Miró, Calder, Larrea, Max Aub, Bergamín, José Gaos, and many others. The complicity with figures like an Alberto, vehement and creative, a Picasso devotee, and anecdotes like the one about what happened when Alberto, Sert, Lacasa, and Joan and Pilar Miró accompanied him to the sculpture atelier in Boisgeloup to choose the pieces that would be exhibited alongside Guernica. There, the two artists staged a parody with Alberto officiating as father confessor before a penitent Picasso, amidst gales of laughter and Spanish songs. This ambiance, where one was at ease and very much at home, together with emotions and feelings that were on edge with regard to the tragedy of Spain, marked the mind and the spirit of the painter for a long time to come.

From May 1937 until 1945, Picasso created a series of disturbing works which were obviously related to Guernica, to the oppressive atmosphere of the Spanish Civil War, the spread of Nazism in Europe, and the Second World War. Works like the heartrending Weeping Woman series, repeated to the point of exhaustion, and which he would continue painting all through 1937 and into the following year, have been amply analyzed. Also much studied are the dozens of works in which he distorts faces and figures to almost inhuman lengths, the coloring dark, the skulls, even such important pictures as Night Fishing in Antibes of 1939, or L’Aubade of 1942, to cite but these. It is also curious to observe how in his enormous collage Women at Their Toilette, from winter 1937-38, commissioned by Marie Cuttoli as a tapestry design, he goes back to using some of the wallpapers that he’d placed on the women in Guernica a few months before.

However, there is a group of oil paintings, drawings, and prints that have always caught the eye. This is a series of works, to all intents and purposes created in 1938, that some authors refer to as “cobwebs.” The subject matter has nothing to do with violence or with the war; they are portraits of Dora Maar, seated women, or bathers on the beach, but the surface is replete with violent straight lines that intersect at right or acute angles, in steps, in zigzags, in the shape of a net or of a spider’s web, thereby attaining an almost obsessive horror vacui. In other instances the lines become curves, like spirals, reminding one of the plaiting of raffia work. This involves works like Dora Maar Seated2, Bathers with Crab3, Seated Woman, Man with Straw Hat and Ice Cream, and Two Women with Parasol.

When we contemplate these paintings, our mind cannot help but think of the Spanish Pavilion, of the mounting of the Popular Arts Section by Alberto Sánchez, with its wicker baskets, its peasants’ hats that could be seen in Renau’s photomontages, and, above all, the weave of the jute matting that completely covered the building’s top two floors. Also playing their part were the oak and plaited string armchairs that the architect Josep Torres Clavé had designed in 1934 and which constituted the furniture of the awning-covered patio. In her memoirs Françoise Gilot recalled how “Pablo showed me the rattan armchairs and settees from the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of 1937, in which he’d exhibited Guernica. They were handcrafted by Catalan artisans and he’d liked them so much that when the exposition was dismounted they presented him with them as a memento.”7 And indeed in one of the photographs Edward Quinn took of Picasso playing with his children Claude and Paloma in his house in Vallauris, La Galloise, two of those armchairs with their seats and backs of plaited string are still visible.

The characteristic, obsessive zigzag crisscrossing of the jute matting in the pavilion also ended up in Picasso’s house. In a series of photos taken by Brassai in the Rue des Grands-Augustins atelier between 1939 and 1943, we can see how Picasso carpeted part of his studio with the leftovers from the pavilion. That is to say, for years he coexisted with part of all he’d experienced in 1937, including the big cutout photograph of a Catalan peasant that Alberto had used in his montages. And that whole symphony of braiding and zigzagging angles was engraved, in one form or another, on Picasso’s perception, impregnating the entire series of disturbing paintings with the look of a weave pattern.

And it is here that Picasso’s phrase takes on meaning: “Later on, perhaps, some historian will demonstrate that my painting changed under the influence of the war. Myself, I don’t know.” For we will never find a painting of war in his oeuvre, with the exception, perhaps, of Massacre in Korea, although more than a war this was a slaughter of the innocents, as in Guernica and The Charnel House. But Picasso bore both the war and Spain deep within him. It’s impossible to go looking for this or that element, in this or that painting, with him nothing is obvious, but the truth is that the impression the pavilion made on him was so deep that he was never able to rid himself of it. Ultimately, it was a part of bleeding Spain that he took home with him once the 1937 exposition had been dismantled.

 

Josefina Alix
Art historian
Curator of the exhibition “Pabellón Español:
Exposición Internacional de París 1937”,
Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (1987).

 

Published in Art Revolutionaires. Homepage to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic, 1937. Barcelona, 2016. Mayoral. p.237.

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