Art, Love and War (and Guernica)

© Donald Richardson, August, 2006


The exhibition, 'Picasso: Love and War 1935-1945', is a remarkable coup for the National Gallery of Victoria. The 180 works that are on loan from the Musée Picasso, in Paris - paintings, drawings and writings by Picasso, photographs of Picasso by his lover at the time, the photographer, Dora Marr, and much informative and entertaining ephemera - have never been shown outside Paris before and probably never will again. Much of it was preserved by the reclusive Marr in her Paris apartment, unseen and unknown by the world, until her death in 1997 - a veritable time-capsule - and it has only recently been accessed to the museum itself.

The exhibition is a unique cultural event for Australia and many people are travelling to Melbourne to see it. They find they are richly rewarded for doing so.

All the works date from the ten-year period during which Picasso and Marr shared lives in Paris - lives shadowed by, first, the Spanish Civil War and, later, the Second World War, the Occupation and the Holocaust, and conducted within the intellectual and artistic ferment of the Paris of Surrealism, Fascism, Communism and Existentialism. Picasso was attracted to the talented and beautiful Marr, a surrealist groupie - and twenty-five years younger than him - when he observed her playing a kind of Russian roulette, masochistically dropping a knife between her fingers splayed out on a cafe table, sustaining minor wounds in the process. She invited him to her studio to take his portrait and the photographs from this session - many of them both insightful and remarkably innovative - are in the exhibition, some presented, surrealistically, in the negative. Picasso took his turn with the camera, and thus began their fruitful collaboration. Picasso was still married to his first wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and his mistress, Marie-Thérese Walter, had just borne him a daughter; but, in Marr, he apparently found an intellectual and creative equal. For the next decade they informed and stimulated each other's work, and the evidence is in this exhibition.

The early years of their association were dominated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso, a Spaniard self-exiled in Paris, was commissioned by the Republican Government to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion of the 1937 Paris World's Fair. He chose as his subject the unheralded and unprovoked obliteration, on 26 April in that year, of the un-defended and non-strategic Basque town of Guernica by German pilots operating for the fascist forces of General Franco. This rehearsal for the aerial carnage of the Second World War astonished Europe, and its mechanical and unfeeling brutality inspired Picasso to protest in the only way he knew. On May Day, he commenced what was to become perhaps the greatest example of modernist art - Guernica - on a canvas twice as tall as himself and eight metres wide. He devised confronting and highly expressive imagery - a woman incinerated in her home, a shrieking horse impaled by a lance, a mother lamenting over her dead infant and a dismembered corpse, all observed by a primally-brutal bull and under the mechanical glare of an electric globe - in a style developed from the cubist abstraction he had invented in the previous decades. This permitted expressive distortions and superimposition of images which told the story much more powerfully than photographic imagery could. Executed almost without colour, it is replete with metaphoric transformations - eyes represented as tear-drops, displaced nostrils, tongues that are daggers, a warrior's broken sword.

This imagery is apt both as an allegory of the eternal struggle between animal élan vital and human love and also as a symbol of the essence of Spain because it is a parallel universe to the bull-fight, with which Picasso - a passionate aficionado - was very familiar. Its gestation and development was anguished but rapid, driven by an all-consuming passion. Picasso worked by exploring and discovering possibilities as he drew, rather than following a pre-conceived scheme; thus, different versions were superimposed one over the other, The process is fascinating to see, and it was all documented photographically by Marr - the first time a masterpiece had ever been recorded in this way.

Unlike many of the other luminaries of Modernism (such as Dali and Duchamp), Picasso did not flee Paris when the Germans occupied France in 1940; instead he remained in his studio, documenting in synthetic cubist canvases the austerity of life under the Occupation. This was a brave thing to do because Picasso was known to have anti-fascist sympathies and his work had been condemned by Hitler as 'degenerate'; yet it seems that the Germans respected his genius and - despite keeping him under surveillance - did not inter or harm him. But the painting of Guernica inspired many related canvases in which he explored the horrors of the war and the Holocaust. Included in these is a series of portraits of weeping women - a subject on which Picasso was an authority, having caused sadness in all his lovers. In them he explored ways of expressing grief visually. Dora Maar was frequently the subject of these paintings, and there are several of them in the exhibition (her identity revealed by her trade-mark long, lacquered fingernails), although she later claimed that they were more Picasso than Maar.

The National Gallery of Victoria has possessed its own Picasso portrait of Maar since 1986, and the inclusion of its Weeping Woman (1937) in the exhibition places it in its historical context. This painting itself has an interesting history, having been stolen from the gallery a few months after its acquisition. Although the picture was later recovered (from a locker at Spencer Street railway station), the perpetrators never revealed themselves and it is hypothesized that the theft was actually a prank designed to highlight the poor security at the gallery. However this may be, it had the desired effect.

Meanwhile, Picasso's works continue to attract high prices. At a Sotheby's auction in New York in May, another portrait of Marr (Dora Marr au Chat), painted in 1941, realised $95 million US - nearly twice its estimated value.

Picasso: Love and War 1935-1945 runs in the National Gallery of Victoria until 4th October.