Picasso's red period - heading for Liverpool

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Pablo Picasso was the most celebrated artist of the 20th century when, living under Nazi occupation in exile in Paris, he stunned the world with the announcement that he had joined the French Communist Party.

The enlistment to the casue of perhaps the greatest living creative genius of the day was an incredible coup for Moscow and one which has divided scholars of art and politics ever since. Some cynics doubted his convictions, claiming they were merely typical of the fashionable views espoused in the intellectual leftist circles in which he mixed. Others believe his art was never to recover its former glories as the great showman and extrovert found himself enmeshed in the increasingly bitter propaganda battles of the Cold War.

Now British audiences will be given the chance to make up their own minds about Picasso's long red period as a member of the communist party, a relationship which survived the Hungarian uprising and Prague spring, keeping him loyal right up until his death in 1973. A major exhibition of more than 150 works by the Spanish painter will go on display at Tate Liverpool next year in a bid to throw new light on this controversial chapter in his extraordinarily productive career.

Among the stars of the show will be his monumental The Charnel House, not been seen in Britain for half a century, which was inspired by images of liberated concentration camps. The exhibition, being staged in collaboration with the Albertina in Vienna will feature The Rape of the Sabine Women, a variation on David's masterpiece painted at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. There will also be examples of The Dove of Peace, which went on to become the instantly recognisable symbol for the international peace movement.

Picasso: Peace and Freedom, which follows Tate Liverpool's blockbusting Gustav Klimt exhibition during the city's year as Capital of Culture, follows years of planning and painstaking research which took experts to the Picasso Institute in Paris where much of his correspondence is held.

Tate Liverpool director Christoph Grunenberg, hopes audiences will develop a more subtle appreciation of the artist in the years after 1945. "It is really looking at Picasso during the Cold War and driving away from this myth of him as a creative genius and playboy with this compulsive expressive talent, for a more nuanced view," he said. "People have tried to downplay Picasso's political involvement but he was a full party member and was clearly highly committed to the peace movement," Mr Grunenberg added.

One of the things that made Picasso and the communist's unlikely bedfellows was the party's official embrace of the Social Realist School and official opposition to the Modern movement of which the "decadent" Picasso was perhaps the greatest exponent.

But his long exile from his native Spain in opposition to the regime of General Franco coupled with the brutal experiences of life during the Nazi occupation of Paris, meant he saw communism and the ideal of peace as the key to a world free of fascism.

There was a severe backlash following Picasso's public unveiling as a communist. Protests by right-wing groups were held at exhibitions after liberation and he was barred from entry to the United States. But the artist began to travel widely, addressing public audiences for the first time, and giving donations to causes including a one million Franc gift to striking French coal miners. He joined protests against the Korean War, and the execution of Nikos Beloyannis, the Greek communist and resistance leader.

He went on to receive the Stalin Peace Prize and the World Peace Prize, which he shared with the American singer Paul Robeson and Chilean writer Pablo Neruda though later declined the Legion d'honneur.

But in 1953 following Stalin's death, Picasso's stylised portrait of the young dictator opened up a split with the French communists who objected to its lack of realism. Events in Hungary further cooled the relationship but Picasso would not desert the party despite growing reservations, preferring to express himself in the prodigious output that characterised the final decades of his life. Of course not everyone bought in to the idea of Picasso as the left wing figurehead. Salvador Dali famously remarked: "Picasso is a painter, so am I; Picasso is Spanish, so am I; Picasso is a communist, neither am I." But this view is unfair, believes Mr Grunenberg, who has seen a seismic shift in the appreciation of his later work since the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. "This does not wash any more. There are many fantastic pieces which will be part of the exhibition – he kept re-inventing himself and starting new themes of painting throughout. The work is actually fantastic," he said.

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