Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) began visiting Paris in the fall of 1900 and within a few months was being followed by the police. In Annie Cohen-Solal’s fascinating “Picasso The Foreigner,” we learn that the Spanish artist was surveilled for the rest of his life.
Cohen-Solal, a French historian and writer whose previous books include the lauded biographies of philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte and art dealer Leo Castelli, began her research in the archives of the Paris police. Picasso’s massive file included “reports; interrogation transcripts; residence permits; ID photos; fingerprints; rent receipts; naturalization requests; letters of transit; documents from various investigations; information on his wife, son, parents, and friends; testimonials about his moral character; summaries of his political views; a list of his addresses; and correspondence from not only police chiefs but high ranking politicians.” Dossiers had also been compiled in 1901, 1911 and 1932 “as waves of xenophobia swept across France.” There was no evidence of any crime. He was suspected of being an anarchist. And he was not French.
Picasso, who was born in Málaga, Spain moved to France permanently in 1904. He had been living in Barcelona with his family. If you think that there is nothing new to learn about Picasso, perhaps the prototypical art star, you may be wrong. Against the backdrop of nationalist France, Cohen-Solal examines how Picasso’s status as a foreigner may have shaped his development as an artist. With immigration still a hot political issue not only in this country, but in Europe, this book is disturbingly relevant.
One of Picasso’s earliest studios (and home) was in a place called Le Bateau-Lavoir—a run-down former piano factory in Montmartre that had been divided up into twenty small, unheated spaces. Eventually, and famously, Picasso would be championed by Leo Stein and Gertrude Stein and supported by art dealers—most notably Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who introduced him to Georges Braque (his partner in the invention of Cubism).
Picasso had started to make a living with his art, but in 1914 Germany and France declared war on each other. Kahnweiler, who was German-born, was forced into exile and all the works in his gallery were confiscated and later sold by the government at auction. This included hundreds of works by Picasso—a large chunk of his Cubist output. Kahnweiler was “transformed into the scapegoat of the country’s xenophobia and the expiatory victim of his jealous Parisian rivals.” Remarkably, Kahnweiler reopened a gallery in Paris and by 1923 he and Picasso began working together again.
They had both been through hell (Kahnweiler, a German Jew, would go through it again)—Picasso had not only lost years of work, he had lost his father in 1913 and his lover Eva Gouel, who died in 1915. He also lost his network: Picasso’s friends had left Paris, some to fight, some into exile.
Picasso met the poet Jean Cocteau, who connected him to a job creating sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. For that project, Picasso wrote up his own contract and went to Rome to research the set. “Despite his difficult situation, despite still being traumatized by the effects of war on his networks and status, the artist insists upon maintaining control of his own work,” writes Cohen-Solal. “Despite all the setbacks he had suffered, Picasso achieved something extraordinary: he replaced the international success of avant garde art with the international success of the Ballets Russes, a troupe that had been highly fashionable in bourgeois Parisian circles since 1909.” He was able to reinvent himself and “emerge from the isolation that had beset him since 1914.”
In the summers of 1924 and 1927, new laws were decreed “reminding Picasso that what the texts of these laws described was some sort of terrible affliction—his foreignness. And yet, during those years, no one among his friends, colleagues or admirers even thought about it.”
Picasso was apolitical, steering clear of the arguments between factions of surrealists, anarchists, communists until the Spanish Civil War, and the rise of fascism, when he sided with the Spanish republicans. He painted the anti-war masterpiece “Guernica” in 1937. The French police noted this as suspicious. By 1939, Picasso was summoned by the police chief in the small town of Royan where he had a studio, and was told he could not travel without a letter of transit for every journey. When German troops marched past his studio, Picasso packed up and moved back to Paris where he had powerful friends who would protect him. He was rich and famous, but was also vulnerable.
The French police imposed “a minefield of bureaucracy” on Picasso. “So many appointments given, so many fingerprints taken, so many mugshots of him looking like an ex-con—and yet he seems to have submitted to these visits without protest,” writes Cohen-Solal. “Internationally renowned but stigmatized within his country of residence he found himself in a paradoxical situation. In the world of French galleries and critics, he was idolized, while among official institutions he remained invisible, and in the eyes of French law and order he was considered with suspicion.”
How did he stand it? That question seems to be largely what motivated Cohen-Solal to comb through the “dense, disorienting jungle of police archives,” as well as the extensive archive of the Musée Picasso (the artist threw nothing out).
“Picasso the Foreigner” is rich in detail and beautifully written. Read it with a laptop nearby as you’ll want to pause periodically to look up paintings mentioned and pictures of his various lovers. In the end, Picasso made a ton of money, reinvented himself as a potter, and lived out his years in the south of France. After reading this book, you’ll only be happy for him.
“Picasso The Foreigner: An Artist in France, 1900-1973”
By Annie Cohen-Solal
Translated by Sam Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux