On November 13, 1953, Bertolt Brecht wrote a short note to his “dear comrade” Pablo Picasso. In it he asked for the artist’s approval to use the “wonderful poster design” for the scarf of the French participants in the Berlin World Festival of Youth and Students in 1951 as an advertisement for his Berlin ensemble. On this occasion, Brecht also informed the addressee en passant that he had been showing a Picasso work in his house for a long time: “Let me also admit that we have been using your dove as a curtain sign since the theater was founded.”
The BE also traveled abroad with the curtain. In Paris of all places, Picasso’s adopted home, the theater management insisted on removing this political symbol, which Picasso used over and over again, before a performance of “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Brecht agreed to save the performance. The curtain can now be seen in the Cologne Museum Ludwig, along with a copy of the Brecht letter. It is not known whether Picasso ever received it. He only answered in exceptional cases anyway.
The exhibit is part of the exhibition “The Divided Picasso”, which illuminates the artist’s different perceptions in East and West Germany. The fact that his dove became such a political issue was due to a positioning of the Spaniard, which was suspected in the West during the Cold War, but was ultimately seen as a negligible pose – Werner Schmalenbach declared him “apolitical”, works like “Guernica” were “exceptions” “. During the last years of the Second World War, Picasso, classified as “degenerate” by the Nazis, stayed in Paris, although it would have been easy for the world star to travel to a safe country. It had thus become a symbol of artistic resistance. In 1944 he joined the French Communist Party – and remained a member after the war. He made donations, painted portraits of Stalin and even traveled in person a few times to events of the peace movement.
In the west people feared propaganda, in the east people concentrated on things that could be interpreted in an anti-fascist way
The Cologne show tries to trace Picasso’s appropriation through the capitalist and communist systems. The painting “Massacre in Korea” from 1951 serves as an example. In terms of composition, a clear quotation from Goya’s “Shooting of the Insurgents”, the title refers to the Korean War, which began in 1950. In the East it was interpreted as a criticism of American war crimes, although the picture itself, apart from the title, gives little indication of the place and time of the massacre depicted. At exhibitions in the West, however, concerns were raised as to whether this was not anti-Western propaganda.
The assertion by the exhibition organizers that this picture is far better known in East Germany than in the West can be proven, after all it hangs in the Musée Picasso in Paris. It is clear that in the GDR there was little access to the originals, which were already unaffordable at the time, and that reproduction and reception focused on what could be interpreted politically and anti-fascistically. An interesting secondary aspect here are the Picasso loans from the Cologne collection, which Peter Ludwig offered to the GDR painter and Volkskammer member Willi Sitte in the 1970s – an offer that was happily accepted.
The “communist” Picasso had himself chauffeured to his château
The topic could therefore be quite exciting, especially in such details. However, “The Divided Picasso” is not doing itself a favor just by presenting it. The architecture was designed by the artist Eran Schaerf. Untreated wood and partition walls that are not very visitor-friendly characterize the picture. On both sides of these walls, in addition to at least 40 originals, there is an abundance of facsimiles and documents. Anyone who has no serious academic interest in the subject is unlikely to be encouraged to study dispatches, magazine articles and catalog excerpts. The fact that a ceramic work such as the “Owl” from 1952 was included in the show and presented quite lonely in the center of a huge, flattened chipboard seems to owe more to the fact that it is part of the Ludwig collection than to its inherent political significance.
There are good reasons not to commit Pablo Picasso to a political stance. An artist who moved so effortlessly from style to style, who called himself a communist, but also had himself chauffeured to his château in Normandy in a limousine, can hardly ever be systemically captured. If you do it anyway – even if it is only by reproducing the view of others on him – it could be far less brittle, nonsensical and ultimately confusing than it is now at the Museum Ludwig.
The divided Picasso. The artist and his image in the FRG and the GDR. Cologne, Museum Ludwig. Until January 30th. The catalog costs 35 euros.