Massacre in Korea – Picasso (Part 1: Introduction)

Okay, so. Picasso. Picasso is one of the world’s best loved artists and his work has commanded some of the highest prices ever paid at auction. He was also hugely prolific, leaving behind tens of thousands of works after his death.

I first took note of Picasso when I was around 7 years old but my interest was in his incredibly long name rather than his artistic output. Over the next decade and a half I became better acquainted with his works but grew no fonder or more interested in the man. It was only while flicking through a catalogue of various paintings that I found the piece which triggered months of research, countless trips to the library and lots of head/desk interaction and culminated in my undergraduate thesis. That work was Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951).

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

What was so great about Massacre in Korea? Absolutely nothing. That was the fascinating thing – it was unmistakeably a Picasso and clearly worth a (not so small) fortune but – to put it bluntly – it was horrible. Lifeless, un-engaging, static, tedious, hilarious. I was compelled to find out exactly how Picasso had gone so badly wrong.

This is clearly going to be way too long for a single blog post so I’ll spread it across a few. The remainder of this one will run through the necessary – but also fascinating – back story.

Part 1 – Introduction (below)
Part 2 – The painting
Part 3 – Versus Guernica
Part 4 – Critical reactions
Part 5 – Conclusion


Prior to 1945, Korea was a united country although under Japanese occupation. With the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II American and Soviet forces agreed a temporary occupation of the country with the Soviet Union taking control of the area to the north of the 38th parallel and US forces controlling the land to the south. After a five year trusteeship it was expected that the country would become fully independent and be ruled by a Korean government – all this despite opposition by Koreans themselves.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviets and Americans favoured different candidates and – after the complete breakdown of reunification negotiations in 1948 – the peninsula ended up permanently divided in two. From this point onward Stalin maintained awareness of North Korea’s political and military manoeuvring and intention but refused direct involvement to avoid conflict with the UN and US. The Korean War (25 June, 1950 – 27 July, 1953) ignited after the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) attempted to reunify the Korean Peninsula by force.

The Soviet media was openly supportive of North Korea’s position as a fellow communist regime, although the North Koreans were viewed as the aggressors by non-communists. US aid to the South and the resultant advance of South Korean and American troops back across the 38th parallel was decried by the Soviet press with reports of innocent civilians being massacred.

Communism and the arts

Since the late 1920s Stalin had effectively become the dictator of the Soviet Union having outmanoeuvred his political rivals. Under Stalin’s rule the Soviet Union was repressive and totalitarian. Nearly all aspects of society were subject to close scrutiny and Party involvement with the arts was no exception. The usefulness of intellectuals (a category which included artists) was measured according to their ability to glorify, inspire and further the communist cause.

The Communist Party was well aware of the value of art as a form of propaganda but had to reconcile this with conceptions of art as the domain of the bourgeois middle classes. It was the resolution of this problem which led to the formation of a Party aesthetic – socialist realism – in 1932 which set out to demonstrate communist ideals in a way which was accessible to the proletariat. The glorification of the struggle of the working classes was a key theme along with other subject matter supportive of Party doctrine and various political stances. Dead workers accompanied by weeping wives and children and suchlike.

The role of the artist became that of an interpreter of communism for the consumption of the masses and, as a result, the Party placed increasing pressure on artists to incorporate political messages into their work. Those who adhered to socialist realism were granted acceptance and acclaim whereas those who failed faced sanctions. In France, where Picasso was living, these would not be official state sanctions but artists could expect censure in the communist media, exclusion from exhibitions and isolation by other Party members.

Picasso and Communism

Picasso seems to have had no qualms about pledging his allegiance to the Communist Party in France (PCF). In fact he described his membership as “the logical conclusion of my whole life, of my whole work” in an interview with Pol Gaillard. This statement seems totally at odds with the high value he placed on freedom of artistic expression. Digging a little deeper, Picasso’s reasons for joining were most likely as follows:

  1. At the time the majority of French people considered the Soviet Union to be the force which had conquered Nazi Germany and (due to German involvement in the bombing of the Basque town Gernika under Franco) this would have endeared the Soviet Union to those who were opposed to Franco as Picasso was.
  2. In the Gaillard interview, Picasso describes how oppression had strengthened a desire to fight for some sort of liberty and greater understanding of the world through his art and how he believed that his official membership of the Party would enable him to accomplish this (“these years of terrible oppression have shown me that I must fight not only through my art, but with all of myself. And so, I have come to the Communist Party without the least hesitation”)
  3. The Party’s tendency to embrace and champion intellectual figures appealed to Picasso as an exile in a foreign land. Communism represented acceptance and finding a place where he could belong (“I have never felt freer, more complete!”).

Despite the apparent incompatibility of Picasso’s artistic output with socialist realism the Party accepted his membership gratefully. At this point Picasso’s most important function was to garner favourable prestige for the Party. The declaration of his communist loyalties became a celebrity endorsement and encouraged others to join the communist cause. As long as Picasso’s name and status could be used in this way, the incompatibility of his art tended to be glossed over. However, it could not have escaped the attention of the PCF that Picasso would be far more useful if his work could be adapted to fulfil the aims of socialist realism.

Looking at communist literature regarding Picasso’s work we see that staunch supporters of the Communist Party were scathing when discussing his art. Vladimir Kemenov, in an article for VOKS Bulletin, examined what he called “decadent bourgeois art” and denounced everything formalist and self-referential. Picasso was mentioned as a specific example and, while his political choices were applauded as part of the progressive struggle of democracy, his art was criticised for failing to express these sympathies and for indulging bourgeois falseness. All the while, socialist realism was held up as “a vital Soviet art, idealogically forward-looking and artistically wholesome”. [NB Having looked at a lot of socialist realist art for this thesis I can safely assure you that it is actually, in fact, turgid, patronising and tedious.]

In order to cope with this incongruity it became necessary to divorce Picasso as a man and a status symbol from his creative output (Kemenov helpfully describes the separation as a ‘yawning chasm’ [<3]) even though Picasso himself thought such separation to be impossible (“What do you think an artist is?… he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image”). As such his work was just about tolerated while his support on political matters was given credit.

Despite the criticisms Picasso remained loyal to the Party thoughtout his life, even making concessions in his art and in his lifestyle in accordance with recommendations from prominent Party members. He sought the approval and acceptance of leading communists; however, he could not quite bring himself to sacrifice his artistic freedom of expression since it was too closely related to his own identity. He did occasionally attempt to provide that which the Party desired, though, and Massacre in Korea represents one such effort. The Korean War was topical and provided a good opportunity to denounce the US – excellent for currying favour with the Communist Party embroiled as it was in the Cold War. ****** So there you go – not so painful and hugely interesting! Next up is an analysis of the painting itself…