Early this morning When you knocked upon my door Early this morning, ooh When you knocked upon my door And I said “hello Satan I believe it’s time to go” [Robert Johnson Me and the Devil]
“When World War II began, Picasso chose to stick it out in his studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins. He was not allowed to exhibit, but he managed to have paintings sold, some of which were bought by Germans, and he lived far more comfortably than most people did. Hitler had declared him to be a ”degenerate” artist, and according to one document the German authorities ordered Picasso to report for a physical examination, a prelude to deportation to a labor camp. Although the document may have been a hoax, the evidence suggests that Picasso may well have believed it anyway.” [Michael Kimmelman on Picasso’s days in Paris during the war]
Many artists had left the city during the great exodus if they could. Others were not so lucky, they didn’t have the means or the connections to get out, and they had to survive any way that they could. For Picasso it was a bit different. He could have escaped and been welcomed anywhere, but he chose to stay. The most famous artist in the world had choices. Make no mistake – he must have understood the chance he was taking – any person with half a brain would. Fame may protect you for a while, but when you’ve been labeled as a “degenerate” by the leaders of a conquering army things might go sideways fast. Picasso remained and continued to work through this time, continued to be present in the Parisian art world, and when he could, tried to help his friends and colleagues.
“But not all of Picasso’s visitors were welcome ones. The Germans, of course, had forbidden anyone to exhibit his painting. In their eyes, he was a “degenerate” artist and, worse still, an enemy of the Franco government. They were always looking for pretexts to make more trouble for him. Every week or two a group of uniformed Germans would come and with an ominous air ask, “This is where Monsieur Lipchitz lives, isn’t it?”“Monsieur Picasso isn’t a Jew, by any chance?” “No,” Sabartés would say. “Oh, no. We know it’s Monsieur Lipchitz’s apartment.” “But, no,” Sabartés would insist. “This is Monsieur Picasso.” “Monsieur Picasso isn’t a Jew, by any chance?” “Of course not,” said Sabartés. And since one’s Aryan or non-Aryan status was established on the basis of one’s grandparents’ baptismal certificates, no one could say Picasso was Jewish. But they used to come, anyway, and say they were looking for the sculptor Lipchitz, knowing very well that he was in America at that moment, and that he had never lived there in the first place. But they would pretend they had to satisfy themselves that he wasn’t there, so they’d say, “We want to be sure. We’re coming in to search for papers.” Three or four of them would come in, with an extremely polite officer who spoke French. The disorder everywhere was an invitation to them and they would look around and behind everything.”” [Francois Gilot discussing Pablo during Occupied Paris]
Picasso, like Gide, was protected by fame from much danger of harassment. He and other anti-Nazis such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would never have dined with Germans. They formed a social circle around Paris’s Café de Flore. The world’s most famous artist told his companion, Françoise Gilot: “Oh, I am not looking for risks to take, but in a sort of passive way I do not care to yield to either force or terror.I want to stay here because I am here. The only kind of force that could make me leave would be the desire to leave. Staying on is not really a manifestation of courage; it is just a form of inertia.” [Max Hastings reviews “The Shameful Peace”]
Picasso’s work in occupied Paris became more and more about interiors, still lifes and portraits. The Return to Order was over – the classical past and the light and color of the Mediterranean were gone. The war time images come from his quotidian existence in locked down Paris – the clashes of personality with Dora Maar, life under curfew and Martial law, shortages of food, supplies, money and time, the constant surveillance and danger to his friends and family. His prodigious output wasn’t really diminished – he just had to refocus, use what was available – especially for sculptures. But it’s the paintings that show the collapse of his relationship with Dora. The crying, the arguing, the recriminations, and the pain of this break up – all of it happened under the pressures of the occupation.
How we confront misfortune is something we all will experience at some point in our lives. When faced with the horrible choice how will we react? Can art give us courage? Will it make us better? Can art save us in the face of cruelty, violence and death? These were some of the unsolvable conundrums that artists in Paris had to risk. The German occupation tore through any illusions artists may have had about themselves. Can you imagine having armed soldiers coming to your home and studio on a regular basis? What would you say, how would you feel as these enforcers went through your things or openly menaced you or your friends? I’m sure Picasso had a few German fans come by to meet the famous master, but they were not invited. They came as occupiers intent on using their power to indulge their whims. Every visit – whether from unexpected fans or foes – would have been a violation and a provocation. This seems like a fucking nightmare – No? So, how would you have handled this – could you have handled this?