Here’s a favorite, possibly apocryphal, story of Pablo Picasso (who lived in Paris during the German Occupation) and his great painting, Guernica. The exchange is almost too good to be true, and perhaps nobody but Picasso could have gotten away with it. Whenever volume four of John Richardson’s biography of Picasso is finally released, I’ll be interested to see if this anecdote is mentioned, and where it might be sourced. The following comes from Simon Schama’s Power of Art:
In the winter of 1941, Pablo Picasso was living and working at the top of an old house in the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris. The Seine was a stone’s throw away. Hard northern light swept in over the rooftops. Pigeons perched on the sills. But Picasso’s Left Bank life during the Occupation was more bohemian than he would have wished. It was bitterly cold and the electricity was unreliable. Only an old-fashioned floor-to-ceiling stove, and his latest lover Dora Maar, kept him warm. His painting was becoming gloomily repetitive: jagged-headed women weeping tears like steel beads or thin spills of blood; flayed heads of sheep. And, unfortunately, he fancied himself as a Surrealist playwright.
There was a conspicuous absentee from the display kept around the studio: Guernica, the painting that had made him the most famous—or notorious—artist in the modern world. The Germans didn’t like it very much, the scream of pain at the barbarities inflicted by the Luftwaffe on the helpless civilians of a Basque town in the spring of 1937. But they couldn’t get to it. In the nick of time, in 1939, Guernica had been shipped off to New York on the SS Normandie, like a refugee, along with the violinists and psychiatrists from Vienna and Berlin. Installed in the Museum of Modern Art, it had become more than just a picture of horror. Guernica was a billboard of moral indignation; a site where people gathered to be reminded of what separated them from fascist cruelty. It was the good incendiary.
Thwarted from seizing the offending object, the Nazis in Paris gave Picasso the hardest time they could, short of actually arresting him. Collaborators attacked him in the Vichy press for corrupting the noble art of painting. Hints were dropped that he might be Jewish himself or that he was hiding Jewish artists. “Where is Lipchitz?” the French militia thugs yelled at him as they trashed the studio. But Picasso was not easily intimidated, and brazened out the attacks. He kept postcard reproductions of Guernica in his studio and enjoyed giving them to the intruding Gestapo and French police: “Go on, take on,” he would say impishly. “Souvenir!”
One day, so the story goes, a German officer, both bully and secret admirer, paid Picasso a visit. Pick up one of the Guernica postcards, he turned on the painter and asked him accusingly, “Did you do this?” “Oh no,” said the artist, “you did!” It’s a smart come-back, quick as a whip. But who really got the better of the legendary exchange? Picasso’s disingenuous deference to the difference between power and painting was actually a gesture of self-congratulation. He knew that as long as his picture was around, the world would remember the bombing of Gernika as an unspeakable atrocity. In this sense, at least, even though the painting had done nothing to defeat General Franco’s fascists in Spain, nor stopped a single act of massacre in any of the wars that followed, art had, at least, become testimony for the prosecution. But is that also a delusion, a salve for tender consciences while the brutality grinds on? Maybe it would be more honest for art, especially modern art, to drop the self-righteousness and just get on with what it does best: the delivery of pleasure? (354-355)