He stayed in Paris when the Nazis invaded, keeping his head down and prompting claims that he must have collaborated with Hitler's regime. But, covertly, Picasso played a "brave" role in supporting the French Resistance, according to previously unpublished letters revealed this weekend.
Professor Peter Read, head of the French department in the University of Kent at Canterbury, has gained access to a collection of letters proving that Picasso actively and courageously supported the Resistance activist Robert Desnos, who was arrested by the Gestapo on 22 February 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. He died in Terezin concenration camp, days after the camp's liberation, still speaking about the help he'd received from the founder of Cubism.
One of the most widely recognised figures of 20th-century art, Picasso was denounced as a "degenerate" artist by Hitler. According to Professor Read, Picasso sometimes helped his friends and fellow artists by getting them commissions, and agreed to provide the frontispiece illustration for a book of Desnos's poems called Contrée – which contained subversive, anti-fascist coding.
Concerned for his own safety after Desnos's arrest, Picasso pulled out of the commission, but was persuaded to change his mind by impassioned letters from the poet's wife, Youki. When publication went ahead, on 31 May 1944, Picasso was painfully aware of the potential perils.
"People think Picasso was very prudent during the war years, but nevertheless he stayed in Paris and refused to be intimidated," Professor Read said.
"He was never involved in overt Resistance activity, but his friends were anti-fascists and he used to help them by giving them art they could sell or getting them work – which he did with Desnos, getting him the job of writing a preface for an album reproducing 16 of his recent paintings, for 3,000 francs."
In the case of Desnos's book, Picasso was aware that he was at risk of angering the occupying Nazi regime. "With this particular book, Contrée, he made a conscious decision to allow publication to go ahead, at a time when poets were being arrested. It was a brave move."Reuse content