Pablo Picasso may be the greatest of modern painters. He founded the Cubist movement, creating a new way of seeing the world.
Yet his best-known painting, “Guernica”, was created nearly thirty years later, when he was already internationally famous.
That great mural expressed—with enormous emotional power—Picasso’s horror at the destruction of the ancient Basque capital and the brutality of Franco’s conquest of Spain in the civil war of 1936–39.
As this brilliant exhibition shows, it was after the war that Picasso’s name, reputation and artistic skills were placed at the service of a political movement.
He had spent the war in Paris, living a private life and avoiding conflict.
But when he began to paint “The Charnel House” in 1945 (right), he returned to the theme of “Guernica”— the savagery of war and the massacre of innocents.
Based on newsreel footage of the bombing of a Spanish family home, it showed the twisted bodies of ordinary people beneath unfinished sketches of the content of their table—to dramatise how cruelly their lives had been destroyed in a moment.
From “The Charnel House” the exhibition leads you through a series of rooms that explore Picasso’s growing political awareness in the post-war years.
The still lifes might seem removed from any political purpose but, like the 16th century Dutch “vanitas” paintings, the skull on the table is a reminder of how fragile human life is.
The dove Picasso drew in 1948 was probably finished in a few hours, but it was adopted by a world peace movement in which Picasso was a central figure.
The Labour government reluctantly let him attend a peace festival in Sheffield in 1950, the first of many such events he appeared at.
The peace movement was to become a key instrument in winning people to supporting Russia in the Cold War confrontation between Washington and Moscow.
In 1944 Picasso had joined the French Communist Party (CP). And while he was certainly a useful public face for the CP, to his credit he resisted the pressures to paint propaganda—just as he had in 1937 when he painted “Guernica”.
“I don’t tell the Russians how to run the economy,” he said, “so they shouldn’t tell me how to paint.”
But the themes that emerge again and again in the 150 works painstakingly gathered in the Tate Liverpool are a yearning for peace, a horror of violence and the brutal exercise of power.
This was a time in which, in his more public work, he revisited the great paintings of the past and made his own versions of them.
Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers”—a portrait of the members of a harem and their maid—became more erotic and sensual in Picasso’s version.
The suggestion that the work was an expression of solidarity with the Algerian freedom struggle, however, is not very convincing.
But the curator’s argument that Picasso’s reworking of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” is a satire on Franco’s imperial ambitions is more persuasive.
When Picasso reinterprets “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” it is to draw out the hidden sexual tensions in Manet’s original painting.
And “The rape of the Sabines” relocates Poussin’s 17th century original in the world of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Lynda Morris, the curator whose dedication has made the exhibition possible, is clear about its importance. Until now, she says, the interpretation of Picasso’s work was in the hands of North American galleries who nervously suppress Picasso’s political commitment.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it is time to rediscover the artist as a peace activist who saw war as the charnel house where all that is human is destroyed.
Where better to say that than in Liverpool, with its long socialist tradition.
This is a historic exhibition, rich in meanings and revelations. It may only be one aspect of this extraordinary and prolific artist, but it is one that deserves to be acknowledged.
And for those who turn away from reality to look for a refuge in art, the message is that art and politics, in the broadest sense, are never far apart.
Picasso: Peace and Freedom is at the Tate Liverpool from May 21 to August 30. Entry is £10 (£8 concession). For tickets or information visit » www.tate.org.uk/liverpool