Picasso: Peace and Freedom, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool

Picasso was a communist party member, but he would have been locked up for his art under Stalin

It's arguable that Pablo Picasso's most famous signature was appended not to the drawing of a minotaur or weeping woman but to a cheque, made payable for a million francs to a French miners' strike fund in 1948.

It's less the sum – around £50,000 in today's terms – that blows the mind than the timing. A year before, the Parti communiste français (PCF) had won most seats in the country's elections, an outcome so horrifying that the United States threatened to withdraw Marshall Aid. When, attended by Albert Camus, Picasso was sworn in as a party member in 1944, he delivered a short speech on the joys of communism. His special praise was kept for that beacon of liberty, Stalin's USSR. To describe his politics as vexed is only to tell the truth.

Which, as an exhibition at Tate Liverpool shows, is not the same thing as saying that Picasso was a Stalinist, or even a communist. As with the sad story of Anthony Blunt, we need to recall the context. By 1944, Picasso had lost not one homeland but two: his native Spain, overrun by Franco in 1936, and France, his adopted home, invaded by the Nazis in 1940. In both countries, communism offered the clearest focus for resistance, not just (or even principally) to the theories of fascism but to the horrors of its practice. Signing up to communism and being a communist were not necessarily the same thing, a paradox spelt out by the first work in this show.

Picasso began The Charnel House, on loan from MoMA in New York, shortly after taking the communist pledge. The work's ancestry obviously lies in Guernica, made seven years before. Like Guernica, The Charnel House shows the effects of war on ordinary people: it is taken from a photograph of a murdered Spanish Republican family. Like Guernica, too, The Charnel House is painted in shades of black and grey – not some abstruse Cubist experiment or reference to Netherlandish grisaille, but an echo of newsreel screens. "I am not a news photographer," Picasso would sniff, but he made work that looked like news photography even so. Whatever his aesthetic reasons for doing this, it is clear that he saw cinema as popular in a way that painting was not. The Charnel House is a depiction not just of the masses, but for the masses.

But does that make it communist, or even, in any useful sense, political? A thing that must be borne in mind as you walk around Picasso: Peace and Freedom is that there was a way of painting – Socialist Realism – that had, in 1932, been declared properly communist by no less influential a critic than Marshal Stalin. Had it toed the party line, The Charnel House would have been quite a different picture. As it was, Picasso harrumphed: "I don't teach the Russians about economics, so why should they teach me about painting?". And he carried on making the kind of formalist work that would almost certainly have had him sent to a gulag.

At the same time, he was, in the literal sense, a card-carrying communist. This left him with a moral conundrum. Picasso was, in 1944, well on the way to becoming the world's richest artist, one of his Harlequins selling for a stratospheric $12,000, more than covering the notorious miners' cheque. Being a communist sat uneasily with being a maker of luxury goods. And so Picasso, pre-empting his friend Coco Chanel, invented a diffusion range.

The works in this show run from the impossibly expensive – the canvas Woman in a Green Hat, say – to such insistently affordable objects as the posters and headscarves Picasso designed for the various peace congresses he attended. He also began to play around with modes of art-making seen as less elite, including ceramics and linocuts, and lithographs such as The Women of Algiers (1950). Along with chickens in their pots, the masses, or at least some of them, could have Picassos on their walls. One image in particular – the dove with the olive branch – became the property of the world.

But if Picasso's politics explain his fecundity, they also, by some Athenian irony, explain his wealth. The 48,000 objects he is known to have made may have let him sleep easier in his bed, but they made him ineluctably richer. And his communism? At Stalin's death in 1953, he drew a portrait of the deceased First General Secretary for the PCF's literary magazine, Les Lettres françaises, that was so obviously slapdash that it caused outrage among his fellow-members. The artist that emerges from Tate Liverpool's excellent show may be a sentimental socialist and certainly a humanitarian, but he is only ever an accidental communist. Thank goodness.

To 30 Aug (0151-702 7400)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent looks behind the plain brown wrapper of Tate Modern's peepshow, Exposed

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory