A museum show in Paris explores the Spanish artist’s time in France, where his connections and celebrity made him a suspect in the eyes of officials.
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PARIS — In 1900, a young Pablo Picasso left Barcelona, Spain, for Paris with dreams of triumph. Poor, talented and with the arrogance of youth, he worked tirelessly, lived boldly, experimented with nearly every medium in art and upended French academism. In his lifetime, he gained fame and fortune, and redefined art in the 20th century.
Yet, for more than 40 years, his Catalan connections, his communist leanings and his celebrity made him a suspect in the eyes of the French police and intelligence services. His request for naturalization was denied. He was the target of xenophobia and identity politics.
“Picasso came to Paris to be part of an art scene where the Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, and other modern movements were fighting the strict rigors of the Académie des Beaux-Arts,” Annie Cohen-Solal, a French cultural historian and biographer, said in an interview.
“He was put under surveillance based on neighborhood gossip collected by police informants that he associated with anarchists and was a ‘modern’ painter of dubious merit,” Ms. Cohen-Solal said.
In 2015, Ms. Cohen-Solal decided to embark on a research project to examine 40 years of police files that she cross-referenced on a chronological timeline with the artist’s personal records from the vast archives of the Picasso Museum in Paris, to produce a comprehensive account of the Spanish-born artist’s life as an expatriate in France until his death in 1973.
Her findings are the subject of an art exhibition she curated, titled “Picasso, l’Étranger” (Picasso, the Foreigner), set to open on Nov. 4 in Paris at the National Museum of the History of Immigration, in partnership with the Picasso Museums of Paris, Barcelona and Antibes, France.
Through about 200 artworks as well as film and archival documents that include police reports, the artist’s residency applications, his citizenship petition, and selections from the abundant correspondence with his mother and other personal records, the show examines Picasso’s life and artistic evolution as a suspect in exile.
The catalog of the exhibition is the book by Ms. Cohen-Solal titled “Un Étranger Nommé Picasso,” which is more than 700 pages long and reads like a pulsating thriller, and expands the scope of “Pablo Picasso: Dossiers de la Préfecture de Police 1901-1940,” published in 2003, that had examined the same police files. An English translation of her book is due in 2023.
“I have always been interested in the experiences of expatriates in the art world because of the unique understanding that the perspective of art and immigration offers on societal issues,” she said. Ms. Cohen-Solal has also written biographies of the gallerist Leo Castelli and the artist Mark Rothko, both immigrants in America.
The National Museum of the History of Immigration, opened in 2007 and inaugurated in 2014, is a site laden with symbols of France’s complicated legacy of colonization. It is housed in an imposing Art Deco structure known as the Palais de la Porte Dorée, built for the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931, where France’s vast colonial possessions were put on display.
“At the inauguration, a curator said that a vocation of the museum was to showcase immigrant stories of celebrities like Picasso,” Ms. Cohen-Solal said. “I felt compelled to look at his police dossier.”
When Picasso settled in Montmartre among other Catalan expatriates, political instability in France — in the wake of the scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair and the assassination in 1894 of President Sadi Carnot by an Italian anarchist — had fueled a wave of xenophobia and intolerance.
“In 1901, Picasso’s first show at the Vollard gallery gave him celebrity status among the city’s artists and intellectuals,” Ms. Cohen-Solal said.
“But the attention he attracted made him a suspect in the eyes of police,” she added. “They noted his association with other Catalans, and the fact that he did not speak French, came home late, read the foreign press and painted poor women begging in the streets.”
His talent was celebrated abroad.
In 1937, Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, acquired Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) for the museum. It was exhibited along with “Guernica” (1937), a masterpiece that decried the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, in MoMA’s 1939 retrospective, “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art.”
On April 3, 1940, weeks before France’s capitulation to Germany in World War II, Picasso’s petition for French citizenship was denied.
“Picasso was in a precarious situation during the war,” said Marie-Laure Bernadac, who was a curator at the Picasso Museum in Paris from 1980 to 1992. “He was afraid of being deported. As an antifascist, he could not return to Spain, and life as a foreigner was difficult under the nationalistic Vichy regime.”
Still, tax records obtained by Ms. Cohen-Solal show that in 1947, Picasso was slapped with a “National Solidarity” tax bill for 1.2 million francs, to contribute to France’s postwar reconstruction effort.
France revised its assessment of the artist well into the postwar years. “In 1958, when he was offered citizenship by the French state, Picasso was no longer interested,” Ms. Cohen-Solal said. In 1967, he also refused France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honor.
The museum show will allow visitors to draw their own conclusions as to whether Picasso’s work was affected by his experience as an immigrant.
“Picasso’s art clearly bears the marks of his experience in exile, but not of his status as a foreigner,” Ms. Bernadac said. “The inspiration for his work came from more complex sources, like the history of art, his life, his encounters, and his personal genius.”
“In Paris, he was continuously confronted with new ideas from the avant-garde artists of his time,” she added. “He would not have become a great artist if he hadn’t lived in France.”
After his death, two principal donations to the French state by his heirs in 1979, and by the heirs of his second wife, Jacqueline, in 1990, helped to constitute the collections of the Picasso Museum here in Paris, with more than 5,000 artworks.
“Picasso was an actor of his own destiny who forged ahead with confidence in his own genius,” Ms. Cohen-Solal said.
“He loved France and chose to live here,” she said. “He transformed this country profoundly and France owes him a debt of gratitude.”