by Jeffrey Hatcher
Artists are exiles. Sometimes we’re exiles in a literal sense: Nabokov or Brecht, fleeing their homelands in a time of trouble; sometimes they’re exiles in a figurative sense: the long list of painters, poets, playwrights and novelists who have found a slice of bohemia inside the country of their birth. A few years ago, at the Tong Awards, a noted British theater director made an acceptance speech in which he said, “I
want to thank America, by which I mean New York, by which I mean Broadway.” His remarks were given a long cheer. Artists – and for the sake of argument I include myself in this group — identify with our own community far more than we do with the nations of our birth or the nations of our residence. We far prefer our own little world, even though the artistic community is probably the most borderless and treacherous nation of earth.
Pablo Picasso was an exile many times over. An exile from his family, from his social class, from Spain and – perhaps most important – he was an exile from various accepted ideas about painting. Paris was his natural home, but he never became a Frenchman. He was never really a Parisian either. And he certainly wasn’t much of a joiner when it came to artistic circles, organizations and causes. Picasso was the inhabitant of the
Nation of Picasso, with a citizenship of one. In that sense, he was the perfect Modern artist: self-involved, obsessed with form, and averse to politics.
And then he painted “Guernica.”
The story of the destruction of the city of Guernica by the Nazi air force is well known. But would we know the story of Guernica if we didn’t have Picasso’s “Guernica?” With that painting, Picasso re-entered the world, whether he realized it or not. Once he had created that huge mural in 1938, Picasso could no longer claim to live in a separate nation where politics and ideology didn’t matter. And when the Nazis occupied Paris, the one crime they could ascribe to Picasso was the creation of that painting. In more than one sense, Picasso now lived in their country.
Philip Roth once said, in discussing the role of art in Eastern Bloc nations versus that of the West: “Over there, nothing is allowed, and everything matters. Here, everything is allowed, and nothing matters.” Picasso lived for almost 60 years in a world with no rules about painting, politics and sex. And then the rules changed. In ways he never dreamed – and came to fear – he suddenly mattered.