Massacre in Korea – Picasso (Part 4: Reactions)

Okay, so we’ve established that Massacre in Korea was no Guernica but Picasso was clearly making a conscious effort to modify his output in accordance with Communist Party guidelines. Why, then, did it still not endear him to the Party? And why, given that even the most humble doodle from his hand can fetch astronomical sums at auction, has this painting not received better attention in more recent publications?

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

Taking an overview of the criticisms levelled at Massacre in Korea by the party you would be forgiven for thinking it  was nothing but a superficially communist creation but (having become claustrophobically familiar with the work) I would argue that it stands out as an obvious and direct response to Picasso’s membership of the PCF and reveals a surprising compromise between his views on artistic freedom and the Communist Party’s aesthetic and political tenets. Unfortunately for Picasso, compromising in this way did not appear to bring him closer to acceptance within the party.

Picasso had to contend with criticisms both of his style and the content. Taking a broad view of his output we can see that Picasso had moved closer to realism with Massacre in Korea but the painting still falls short of what was acceptable to the Communist Party. The figures are still angular and some retain the facial distortions of Picasso’s earlier formalist works which had been widely denounced by the communist press. Content-wise, Picasso has also blundered, chosing to use a scene common to Party literature but not suitable for propaganda. The Party was keen not to show North Korea as the antagonists in the conflict but it was also unthinkable to show fellow communists as helpless victims. Unfortunately these are the only representations to choose from in Massacre in Korea.

This new rejection after Picasso had compromised himself considerably as an artist was disappointing. He is quoted as realising that he was being criticised for not painting another Guernica: “[Massacre in Korea] threw people, and did not appeal. But I myself have begun to see it for what it is, and I know why it met with surprise: I had not done Guernica over again – which was what people were expecting,” although he was never quite able to accept the painting’s lack of success.

Picasso later sought guidance while working on the murals of War and Peace at Vallauris in 1952 in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes. This alerts us to the fact that Picasso was very much conscious of the effect his artistic creations on his continued membership of the Party. After all, in spite of the reaction Massacre in Korea and other works received, Picasso still craved Party acceptance and remained a loyal supporter of communism.

It seems that the Communist party was right to be concerned by the ambiguity of message in Massacre in Korea. In 1956 a reproduction of the work, framed by a black shroud, was exhibited on the streets of Warsaw as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary – not exactly what the Communist Party would have been hoping for. Indeed, the fact that the demonstration in Poland represented anti-Soviet and therefore anti-communist views means that Picasso had inadvertently provided critics of communism with a weapon against the Party by attempting to do the opposite. No wonder the Party was so keen on overtly didactic work. According to Penrose:

At the time it was first exhibited in the Salon de Mai of 1951 the communists made free use of it for their cause, but five years later in Warsaw a large reproduction of it was set up in the streets as a symbolic protest against the action of the Soviet armies in Hungary.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel that this protest highlights a positive about the work – although it had little success as it was originally intended, using it to denounce an invasion (particularly one where the Soviet armed forces were being sent to quash what was essentially a civilian uprising) demonstrates that Massacre in Korea possesses at least some political potential. “The Massacre transcended its own limitations and realised its subversive potential when reincarnated as a vehicle of protest by Polish citizens.”

So what about the many papers and books devoted to Picasso? Is Massacre in Korea referred to with any great frequency in the literature? The short answer is ‘no’.  From its omission from brief summaries of the artist’s creative output (just check The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists or The Oxford Companion to Art) we can see that the work is – and was – hardly viewed as pivotal. In more expanded accounts of Picasso’s life and works, such as that by Roland Penrose, we find that such works are given cursory mention. For Penrose Massacre in Korea was important as a sign that Picasso was not compromising his integrity but he refrains from giving any opinion on the merits of its execution and style.

Elsewhere we find open criticism. Daix writes that “apart from its limpidity of composition, the painting contains almost none of the internal signatures that give Guernica or le Charnier their strength” and James Lord refers to it as “Aesthetically and dramatically a poor production despite vague reminiscences of Goya, it was also found wanting by the Communist Party, and I, too, disliked it.” Van Hensenbergen is far more forceful in his criticism stating that it is “trite, wooden, almost a caricature” before going on to announce “It is the one canvas that you wish Picasso had never painted.” He also disagrees with Penrose’s assertion that Picasso is not a propagandist: “you get what you see, hackneyed Communist propaganda”. John Richardson, Picasso’s recent biographer, appears to concur with van Hensenbergen’s view of the work as he describes it briefly thus: “[Picasso] makes the mistake of trying to ginger up a trite image with magic fire from Goya’s The Third of May.”

We can see from these examples that opinions as to the success of Massacre in Korea as a political work are varied but that most seem to agree that, as an artwork it was a disappointment. This idea is supported by the fact that the Musée Picasso in Paris, which currently houses the work, placed the work in storage to make way for an exhibition on Picasso and Dora Maar. You can’t imagine the more favoured Picasso works being given similar treatment.

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