Death and life by Picasso in occupied Paris

Picasso sculpted Tête de Mort in occupied Paris in the desperately cold winter of 1941-42. Death was everywhere. Hitler had invaded Russia, massive deportations were leaving France. Does Tête de Mort reflect that terrible time?

Tete de mort

We can’t know, but Picasso’s biographer, Patrick O’Brian, observes, that although Picasso’s work is (like everybody’s?) a diary it mostly reflects private not public events. Guernica, perhaps his greatest work, might be an exception, but even as he painted it his two girlfriends, Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter, were fighting in his studio. Picasso was famously loathed (was terrified of?) death, although skulls occur throughout his work.

Tête de Mort is about a foot high and evokes death as powerfully as any other creation. It has no teeth, the skin is not all gone, and it has an ancient, primeval feel–like a skull found in mud after a thousand years.

O’Brian writes that the sculpture was “modelled with love” and describes it as: “Picasso’s most consummate piece of exorcism: he gave the spirit a shape and so, at least for the time, he broke free from it.”

Later in the war Picasso created life in the form of L’Homme au Mouton. I’ve seen this sculpture of a man eight feet tall carrying a sheep, and its power hit me, although I knew little of the history of its creation.  I knew that it had been made in one day, but I didn’t know that Picasso had made a hundred drawings before he began the sculpture. The drawings began in the summer of 1942 when the war was still looking bad and for the Allies, but he made the sculpture in one intense day in an orgy of creation in 1943 when it was clear the war had turned around (due in part to my father, Syd, fighting at El Alamein).

Homme au mouton

Picasso remained in Paris throughout the war, and the Germans made him tempting offers. (It’s odd that they didn’t see his art as degenerate because surely they would have done if anybody else had created it. A mark of respect?). But Picasso never succumbed to the offers and had close links with the communists, who were at the heart of the Resistance.

There is a marvellous but apocryphal story of the German ambassador visiting his studio and being given a postcard of Guernica. ““So you did that, Monsieur Picasso?” asked the ambassador. “No,” said Picasso, “you did.”




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