It could be seen as a blatant case of cultural appropriation before the expression came into use: the story of how Spanish artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso came to be one of the greatest artistic glories. from France.
In reality, everything was a little more complicated than that. For decades, since the Malagasy genius’ first visit to Paris at the start of the 20th century, the French authorities have been wary of him. He was placed under police surveillance, a file was opened on his activities and he never renounced his Spanish nationality. He did not apply for French nationality until 1940, on the eve of the Nazi occupation. However, his request was rejected. After World War II, France worked hard to come to terms with the creator of The Ladies of Avignon and Guernica, but by then Picasso had lost interest in acquiring French nationality.
“France reconquered Picasso at the last minute”, says historian Annie Cohen-Solal, author of the monumental essay A stranger named Picasso (or, A foreigner named Picasso, published in France by Fayard), and curator of the exhibition Picasso, the stranger (or, Picasso, the foreigner), which opened on November 4 at the National Museum of Immigration History in Paris. “The Picasso Museum was inaugurated in 1985 in the heart of Paris, a museum that erased everything that had happened before.”
What happened before forms the core of the book and the exhibition: Picasso’s personal journey as a foreigner and an immigrant in France. Official documents and works of art explain and contextualize his relationship with the country where he spent all his adult life but which, as Cohen-Solal demonstrates, only accepted and wanted to fully embrace it in his last years.
The exhibition and the book, although apparently dealing with the past, indirectly speak of contemporary France, torn by the debate on identity and where the extreme right has garnered political support. Anti-immigration rhetoric too often forgets that France would not be what it is without migrants and that some of its greatest artistic, scientific and literary figures, who are the pride of the nation today, were born outside the country . “France, like the United States, is a country of immigration, but immigration does not figure in the French national narrative as in that of the United States”, explains historian Pap Ndiaye, director of the National Museum of history of immigration. .
There are three key dates in the history of Paris and Picasso. The first date of June 18, 1901. Picasso, who was still based in Barcelona, was not yet definitively settled in the French capital, but he had stayed there. The Vollard Gallery has organized an exhibition of his work. A show review in the newspaper The newspaper drew the attention of a police commissioner named Rouquier, who opened a file on Picasso on June 18 with a report which, given the artist’s friendship with the Catalans living in Montmartre who had taken him under their wing, and the macabre themes of his work, concluded: “There are grounds for considering him an anarchist.”
As Cohen-Salal explains: “The anarchists and the Catalans handed Picasso the keys to Paris, but he was trapped: this report haunted him all his life and was fueled by new reports each time his name appeared. in the press. There were three reasons why he was considered a suspicious person: first, he was a foreigner; second, he was considered an anarchist; and third, he was avant-garde in a country which was horrified by the avant-garde because in France the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the most conservative in Europe, ruled the roost.
The second key date for Picasso in France was April 3, 1940. On that day, Picasso, with his characteristic calligraphy, signed an application to become a nationalized Frenchman. He was then a celebrity, the greatest artist of the twentieth century, acclaimed in Paris and New York, a multimillionaire who sided with the Spanish Republic and an avowed anti-fascist, a living legend. Picasso also had the support of various influential French public figures. But it was all in vain. In a four-page report, a deputy inspector general of the police headquarters named Émile Chevalier unearthed the false accusation of Picasso’s anarchist association of 1901 and embellished it with more rumors and slander, concluding: “This foreigner does not meet any of the requirements for naturalization; on the other hand, and according to what has been said, he must be regarded as suspect from a national point of view.
Why did Picasso want to take French nationality? “What motivated him was not to be French, but to have certain rights at a specific time,” explains Cohen-Salal. “It was the era of ‘degenerate art’ in Germany, Franco was in power in Spain and the Nazis were at the gates of Paris. He was afraid of ending up like [Federico] García Lorca, an expiatory victim. He did not care at all about nationalities: before anyone else, he had understood that he was a citizen of the world; he belonged to the Mediterranean sphere and engaged with art from all periods of history.
A few weeks after seeing his request for French nationality refused, Paris fell into the hands of Nazi Germany. France was occupied for four years, Inspector Chevalier held several positions of responsibility within the collaborationist regime of Vichy, and Picasso … well, he continued to paint. In October 1944, after the liberation of Paris, he found a new home: the Communist Party. And in 1947, he donated 10 works to French museums, which until then had largely ignored him. “Today, the divorce between France and genius is coming to an end”, rejoices Georges Salles, director of the Museums of France. In 1948, the French government granted Picasso a privileged residence permit “because of the personality of the person concerned”.
The 1901 outcast who was under police surveillance for years had “become a VIP”, the exhibition catalog reads. Cohen-Salal notes that in 1958, France finally offered citizenship to Picasso: he refused it. Ten years later he received the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest order of merit, which he also refused to accept. He did not attend a major exhibition of his work at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1966, nor did he visit the one the Louvre dedicated to him in 1971, although he was the first living artist of the history to be honored.
A real operation of seduction orchestrated among others by the writer André Malraux, author of The fate of man, who was Minister of Cultural Affairs from 1959 to 1969 under Charles de Gaulle. It was Malraux who, in 1968, promoted a law making it possible to defray inheritance taxes through the donation of works of art of value to the State. “He did it for Picasso, and his donation was his work,” Cohen-Salal explains. “And thanks to that, France received the legacy of Picasso.”
Picasso, who already had his own museum in Barcelona, was finally a French artist. “For me, it was part of French heritage, very Franco-French,” explains Benjamin Stora, former director of the museum and promoter of the exhibition, in the catalog. “When I found out later, I said to myself: ‘This is not possible! The most famous of all French painters is not French! ‘ “