One of the marvels this amateur historian has found musing over intellectual trends through a long life is how concepts float back and forth, as often as not taking on new meaning about which their contemporary utilizers haven’t a clue.
An interesting example: Back in the early 1930s, worldwide Communism had a serious dilemma. It wanted to exploit well-known adherents, especially in the non-Soviet world. But some of these brightest stars were artists or intellectuals whose work was anathema to Josef Stalin, the monster who had taken over the Soviet Union. Zigzagging intellectually, with the Moscow Trials Stalin had finished off rivals as “saboteurs” and “foreign agents”. The incredible complexity of this travesty was best illustrated in Arthur Koestler’s roman a clé, Darkness at Noon, about victims who remained loyal to “the movement” to their bitter end.
During his long reign, Stalin’s slightest whim became the order of the day. His prejudices on any issue replaced the early revolutionaries’ wildly gyrating experimentation. That intellectual ferment was something; again, they had inherited, even from the tyrannical Tsars, but Stalin called a halt to anything but his “Party line”.
Still, a quintessential instance of Moscow’s problem was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz Picasso. A virtual lifelong émigré, especially after the defeat of his [adoptive] Catalan nationalist comrades, and their allies, the Republicans, in the Spanish Civil War [1936-39], Picasso dominated world plastic arts for a good part of the 20th century. But whatever else Picasso was, he was an incredible innovator. His unparalleled profusion [50,000 items or more] of painting, sculpture, ceramics, drawings and prints made him an enormous celebrity. But after an initial youthful period of “academic realism”, Picasso’s creations were anything but “realistic”.
Stalin, on the other hand, anointing himself as an art critic as well as the high panjameter of everything else, only accepted “realistic” painting, ironically the sort Americans were to honor in Norman Rockwell. So “Soviet realism” was the order of the day through his years as supremo.
Picasso, in Paris’ Bohemian art world, like so many other interwar artists and intellectuals, drifted into Communism. Whatever Moscow’s political “line”, no matter its incredible turns and inconsistencies, he remained a loyal member of the French Party.
Moscow’s conundrum was how to reconcile using this incredibly valuable weapon, Picasso’s popularity, in the war against Western democracy, particularly during the post-World War II Cold War, yet alongside Stalin’s “Soviet realism”? [That even reached into music where the Soviet’s most talented composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, “disappeared” for a time, a victim of Stalin’s ire against innovation.]
For the Communists, Picasso was too valuable a propaganda commodity to be trashed. Even when they wandered off the reservation with their work as did Picasso and other vedettes [for example, British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell], they followed the world Communist movement’s general instruction.
That’s how, in the fullness of time, one of the world’s most successful propaganda campaigns got a gigantic boost. Picasso’s father, José Ruiz Blasco, an art teacher and painter himself, was a passionate bird lover, particularly of doves and pigeons, and passed this sensitivity on to his son. So in 1949 after Picasso’s reputation as an artist – and a Communist – was long established, Louis Aragon, a more disciplined if inferior French Communist journalist and poet, went begging. He was looking for a symbol for one of the endless Communist “peace” conferences advocating unilateral Western disarmament. Picasso offered a lithograph of a Milano dove which the artist later simplified into a line drawing
That little dove became universally iconic, the Communist symbol for its on-and-off “peace campaign”. On and off, because after the 1939 Nazi attack resulting in the third Polish partition between the two totalitarian powers, World War II, was “an imperialist struggle” which good Communists should eschew. But when Hitler smashed the September 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact two years later attacking the Soviets with his Operation Barbarosa, the same war became a crusade to save “the Socialist motherland”
Meanwhile, Picasso, whatever his politics, had a certain artistic integrity. Of Aragon’s choice, he said: “The poor man! He doesn’t know anything about pigeons! And as for the gentle dove, what a myth that is! They’re very cruel. I had some here and they pecked a poor little pigeon to death because they didn’t like it. They pecked its eyes out, then pulled it to pieces. It was horrible. How’s that for a symbol of Peace? “
How, then, were the Communists to cover all these indiscretions, contradictions and outright lies? Always inventive, clandestinely swapping propaganda tricks with their arch-rival Hitler’s genius propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, Moscow came up with a dodge. Picasso – as with similar problematic stars of the Western Communist world – however much through their work or thought defying Stalin’s peccadilloes, were to be labeled acceptable. These luminaries became Communist tools. [Vladimir Lenin, Stalin’s predecessor and mentor, called them nash — “ours” — and others in the Italian Communist hierarchy called them “useful idiots”.] They were excused from the Party’s full panoply of “discipline”, dubbed by Moscow as “politically correct.” For whatever their indiscretions, they were loyal to “the cause”.