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Exhibition provides insight into the work of Pablo Picasso during the Second World War
Installation view of "Pablo Picasso. War Years 1939–1945", K20, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 2020. Photo: Achim Kukulies.


DUSSELDORF.- The exhibition Pablo Picasso. War Years 1939–1945 provides insight into the work of the Spanish artist (1881–1973) during the Second World War. The nearly seventy works on display, including paintings, sculptures, papiers déchirés, and illustrations, tell of Picasso as a person, as well as of his work and the contradictions of everyday life during this period. In chronological order, the exhibition in the Grabbe Halle of K20 features a suite of rooms representing the war years from 1939 to 1945. In addition, contemporary documents, reproductions of photographs depicting Picasso and his works from this period, and book projects provide historical insight.

During the Second World War, Picasso spent his time in the cities of Royan and Paris and experienced France during the so-called Black Years under German occupation between June 1940 and August 1944. The works created during these years mark an internal cohesion through the circumstances and effects during the German occupation of France during the Second World War. The Spanish artist had already experienced the civil war in his home country as a humanitarian crisis. In 1937, he painted the monumental Guernica as a direct reaction to the bombing of the Basque city. In the years to come, he would never again take a position as unambiguously as in this work.

In his numerous works from the years of the Second World War, Picasso reacted to the threats of the time. Nevertheless, he dealt only indirectly with the subject of war itself. In the foreground are the classical genres and themes of painting in the form of still life motifs, portraits, and nudes. In several works, Picasso took up the stylistic means of his Cubist period, such as in Grand Nu couché/Large Reclining Nude (September 30, 1942). This nude from the Museum Berggruen is only being shown in an exhibition for the second time since its purchase by Heinz Berggruen in 1997.

Picasso withdrew into private life. He often portrayed his partner, the painter and photographer Dora Maar. His paintings, book projects, and correspondence reveal with whom Picasso was in contact during these years. In the exhibition, the places of his immediate Parisian surroundings become visible: his studio, for example, in Fenêtre d'atelier/Studio Window (July 3, 1943), the neighboring park in Le Vert-Galant as a painting and in drawings (June 23, 1943 / February 1944), and the restaurant that can be seen in two versions in the exhibition: Le buffet du Catalan/The Buffet ‘Catalan’ (May 30, 1943). Nevertheless, the deformations of the bodies and the gloomy colors that appear in many of the works, as well as the human and animal skulls of those years can be seen as a reflection on the war. This is particularly evident in the work from the collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, which is also on display in the exhibition: Nature morte au crâne de boeuf/Still Life with Bull's Skull (April 5, 1942).

Profoundly human contradictions shape both Picasso’s biography and his work created during the war. Although, as a “degenerate” artist, he was banned from exhibiting his works by the German occupying forces, he fared better than many of his colleagues due to his fame. The exhibition shows this in an exemplary fashion, for Picasso’s work was nearly unhindered—the catalogue raisonné of his works from 1937 to 1945 lists roughly 2,200 paintings. Since Picasso generally dated his works to the day of execution, the exhibition follows the chronology of events.

“Why do you think I date everything I make? Because it’s not enough to know an artist’s works. One must also know when he made them, why, how, under what circumstances. No doubt there will some day be a science, called the ‘science of man,’ perhaps, which will seek above all to get a deeper understanding of man via man—the creator. I often think of that science, and I want the documentation I leave to posterity to be as complete as possible.” Picasso to Brassaï, December 6, 1943.

In a dedicated room, the exhibition offers the opportunity to gain more comprehensive insight into the life of the famous artist during the Second World War through contemporary documents. Selected original documents such as personal and official letters, invoices, and photographs are available to visitors and are intended to shed light on the historical context of the works. Picasso’s private archive material comes mainly from the Musée national Picasso-Paris, where it is maintained and stored.

Curator: Kathrin Beßen






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