Pablo Picasso, Taube
Paris, 4. Dezember 1942
Musée national Picasso-Paris, Schenkung Pablo Picasso, 1979, MP 1308
© Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Foto: © bpk / RMN – Grand Palais / Michèle Bellot
Pablo Picasso is perhaps the most famous artist of the 20th century. He is the epitome of an independent genius who always broke new ground in art. He was a champion of freedom and a pacifist who also designed the famous peace dove in 1949.
A look back: World War II ravaged Europe from 1939 to 1945. Germany’s occupation of France began in June 1940, when they established a zone in the northern and western part France, and continued when they expanded this in November 1942 to include the South, where Philippe Pétain was the chief of state in Vichy. In both zones, the Jewish population was persecuted without mercy. The Communist Party of France was working underground. There was a shortage of supplies, and food was scarce. How did Picasso live during those war years? What themes did he explore in his art? What did everyday life look like for the Spanish artist who had lived in France, primarily in Paris, for more than three decades by the time the war broke out? Did the horrors of those years leave a trace on his life and work?
Why do you think I date everything I make? Because it’s not enough to know an artist’s works. One must also know when he made them, why, how, under which circumstances.
The German Wehrmacht attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. France and Great Britain, who had pledged to protect Poland’s independence, declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939. As German troops overran Poland, nothing much occurred in the West, except for a few minor battles. A long period of uncertainty began that was called the phony war, or “drôle de guerre” in French.
Pablo Picasso lived in an apartment in Paris, where he also had a studio. Out of fear of German air raids, he left Paris already on August 29, 1939. He went to the small spa town of Royan on the Atlantic coast in southwestern France together with his lover Dora Maar, his secretary, and his driver.
Picasso’s daughter Maya and her mother Marie-Thérèse Walter were already in Royan. He rented several rooms in the villa Les Voiliers on the harbor, where he set up his studio.
Once settled in Royan, Picasso began to miss his familiar surroundings in Paris. He also began to run out of canvases and paint. However, the artist had a talent for making the most out of humble means. For example, he used wooden boards and insulation panels as picture supports, and he created miniatures out of everyday materials. He was able to use anything for his art, from empty cigarette packs and bottle caps, to packaging materials.
Entry of the German Wehrmacht June 1944
“Paris sous l’occupation allemande”
© The Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA)
Bry-sur-Marne, Frankreich, 2020
In June 1940, the German Wehrmacht finally launched a surprise attack on France, occupying Paris on June 14. After Royan was also occupied, Picasso moved back to the French capital on August 25, 1940. Surprisingly, his apartment and studio were undamaged because the embassy of the now fascist Spain had ensured they would be protected. Between September 1940 and January 1941, Picasso did not paint. He made only a few illustrations, and he also created his first play: “Le Désir attrapé par la queue” (Desire Caught by the Tail).
Picasso flees Paris and goes to Royan together with Dora Maar, his secretary Jaime Sabartés, and his chauffeur Marcel Boudin. Picasso’s daughter Maya and her mother Marie-Thérèse Walter are already there. Picasso and Maar stay at the Au Tigre hotel.
The German Wehrmacht invades Poland. As a result, France and Great Britain declare war against Germany. World War II begins.
While visiting Paris for a short time, Picasso places his works in the vault of the Banque nationale pour le commerce et l’industrie (BNCI) on boulevard des Italiens because he is afraid they might be confiscated.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York presents the major exhibition “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art,” curated by Alfred H. Barr. The exhibition tours several cities in the US.
Picasso sets up his studio in the rented rooms at the villa Les Voiliers in Royan.
The German Wehrmacht launches a Blitzkrieg attack and invades Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, and France. In the months of May and June, eight to ten million French citizens flee from the German troops toward southern France.
Picasso’s application for French citizenship, which he submitted in March, is denied.
German troops enter the French capital and meet no resistance. Paris is declared an “open city.”
The head of the French government Philippe Pétain asks for an armistice, which he signs together with Adolf Hitler in Compiègne on June 22.
Charles de Gaulle flees to London and calls on the French people to resist the occupation in a BBC radio broadcast on June 18.
German troops enter Royan.
Vichy is named the capital of the free zone in southern France and is ruled by Marshal Pétain. The northern zone, including the entire Atlantic coast, is occupied by Germany.
Picasso returns to Paris. He lives in his apartment on rue La Boétie and works in his studio on rue des Grands-Augustins. Dora Maar lives close by on rue de Savoie.
Picasso stops producing art, with a few exceptions.
The first ration stamps are issued.
Pétain passes the “Statut des Juifs” (the Statute on Jews), a set of laws regulating the lives of Jews in the country.
Picasso gives up his apartment and lives in his studio for the rest of the war.
Picasso writes his play “Desire Caught by the Tail.”
Picasso finds an apartment for his daughter Maya and her mother Marie-Thérèse Walter on boulevard Henri IV. Picasso usually visits them on Thursdays and Sundays.
Germany invades the Soviet Union.
A member of the German occupation forces is murdered by a communist. This is the first time such a thing has occurred, and the result is a wave of repression, including the systematic seizing of hostages.
Picasso’s 60th birthday.
Hitler announces Germany’s declaration of war against the US.
At the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, high-level German officials agree on the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” which means the deportation and murder of all Jews in Europe.
Picasso’s friend, the Spanish sculptor Julio González, dies in Arcueil. Picasso attends his funeral.
In the occupied zone, all Jews older than six must wear the yellow star.
During the Rafle du Vél’d’Hiv (Great Police Raid), more than 12,000 Jews are arrested and kept under extremely crowded conditions at the Vélodrome d’Hiver near the Seine.
The German writer Ernst Jünger, who is serving as a captain in the staff of the Military Commander in France, visits Picasso in his studio.
After the landing of the Allies in northern Africa, the German Wehrmacht invades the French free zone in November.
Picasso asks for his residence permit to be extended. Because of the Statute on Jews, he must declare that he is not a Jew. The deputy director of the police André-Louis Dubois helps him to acquire papers, so that he can avoid the administrative bureaucracy.
Hitler orders the deportation of all Jews from France.
Picasso meets the poet Léopold Senghor from Senegal after Senghor is released from a German prisoner of war camp. Senghor later becomes the first president of Senegal.
The Vichy government passes a law establishing the Service du travail obligatoire, allowing workers to be recruited for the German armaments industry. Because of this measure, many people join resistance groups, which Jean Moulin is working to unite under General de Gaulle’s command.
The German Jewish sculptor Otto Freundlich, who has been living in France since 1924, is arrested. He is murdered in the concentration and extermination camp Lublin-Majdanek, presumably on March 9, 1943.
Works by André Masson, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and Picasso are torn up and burned in the garden of the Jeu de Paume.
Picasso meets the painter Françoise Gilot at the Le Catalan restaurant.
The first monograph (with color plates) featuring Picasso’s works from the war years is published. It is titled “Picasso: seize peintures 1939–1943” and contains an essay written by the author Robert Desnos.
The writer Robert Desnos is arrested. He dies in the Theresienstadt concentration camp on June 8, 1945.
The poet Max Jacob is arrested. He dies in the Drancy internment camp on March 5.
The Allies bomb Paris. Altogether, 3,000 people die.
D-Day: The Allies land in Normandy.
There is heavy fighting on the streets of Paris between the French Resistance, the Vichy government, and the Germans.
Picasso stays with Marie-Thérèse Walter and Maya during the fighting. On the day of the liberation, he returns to his studio.
Paris is liberated with the help of Allied forces.
General de Gaulle, who becomes president of France in 1945, holds a speech for the people of Paris on the balcony of City Hall.
Picasso joins the Communist Party of France (PCF).
At the Salon d’Automne, which is also called Salon de la Libération, Picasso shows 79 works.
A right-wing group pulls Picasso’s paintings off the walls at the Salon d’Automne. From then on, the exhibition must be guarded by the police.
Royan is almost completely destroyed in an air raid.
The concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz is liberated by the Russian Army.
Hitler commits suicide.
Germany surrenders, World War II is over in Europe.
The people who removed his paintings from museum walls may have banned him from exhibiting in Paris, but they couldn’t keep him from painting.
Was it Picasso’s intention to ridicule the art policies of the Nazis with this picture? Despite their having stigmatized him as a so-called degenerate artist, Picasso painted thousands of works during World War II. Apart from a few months, when he produced hardly any works, he worked ceaselessly.
His paintings from this time, like “Boy with Lobster,” inspire many questions. Is this boy smiling because he’s happy, or is he taunting us? Is the lobster a trophy or a weapon? Is it a symbol of resistance against the occupiers? Or is it as a sexual innuendo? Does the boy’s distorted body reflect the terrors of war, or is it simply an expression of excessive vitality? Perhaps all of these interpretations are valid.
After Picasso left Royan and returned to Paris for good in August 1940, his life revolved mainly around the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In January 1941, he gave up his apartment on rue La Boétie because it was too far away from his studio on rue des Grands-Augustins. From then on, he both worked and lived in his studio. Dora Maar also lived in this area, which was close to the Seine, in the neighborhood Rive Gauche, as did Picasso’s daughter Maya and her mother Marie-Thérèse Walter. The artist would visit Maya and Marie-Thérèse every Thursday and Sunday. The Le Catalan restaurant was also close to his studio, and he often ate lunch there. Almost every evening, he went to the Café de Flore, which was about a ten-minute walk from his studio. The café was a “warm and friendly refuge,” as his friend the photographer Brassaï said, and a place where he would meet friends from the art and literature scene. Picasso lived in his studio in Paris throughout the entire occupation.
7 Rue des Grands-Augustins
Picasso kept his studio on rue des Grands-Augustins 7 from the end of 1936 to 1955. He also painted the picture “Guernica” there in 1937. After the war, he lived mostly in southern France and only used this studio when he stayed Paris. On the left of this photograph, you can see the plaster version of “Man with Lamb.”
Le Catalan restaurant
16 Rue des Grands-Augustins
Picasso liked to eat out regularly with Dora Maar at the Le Catalan restaurant. The couple also met friends there, like Nusch and Paul Éluard, and other writers. The restaurant’s owner bought food on the black market. The cherries shown here in a fruit bowl were a delicacy during the occupation. Due to the food shortage, meat was allowed only on certain days. Apparently, Picasso and his friends were caught once eating Chateaubriand (steak) at Le Catalan in November 1943 on a day when meat was not allowed. As a result, the owner had to pay a fine and the restaurant was closed for one month. Le Catalan was also where Picasso met the painter Françoise Gilot in 1943, who soon became his new lover.3
Dora Maar’s apartment
6 Rue de Savoie
Picasso got to know Dora Maar in 1935 through the poet Paul Éluard, who was also part of the Surrealist circle in Paris. Dora was a photographer and painter who started her career in fashion and advertising. She was also active in leftist politics and explored socially conscious street photography. After she became interested in Surrealist photography, she created some of the most impressive photographic works of the Surrealism movement. In 1937, she documented the creation of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Her relationship with Picasso lasted until 1943. During their time together, she gave up photography in favor of painting.
Apartment where Picasso’s daughter Maya and her mother Marie-Thérèse Walter lived from the spring of 1941 on
1, Boulevard Henri IV
In 1927, Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was seventeen years old, in the Galeries Lafayettes. She became his model and secret lover: Picasso was still living with his wife Olga Koklowa at the time. In 1935, their daughter Maya was born.
15 Place du Pont Neuf
Le Vert-Galant is a small park located on the island of Île de la Cité in the Seine. In the middle of the park is an equestrian statue of Henry IV, which you can see in this painting. Picasso often went for walks with his dog Kazbek in the park and along the banks of the Seine. These views inspired him to create many landscape scenes as oil paintings, drawings, and watercolors.
Close-up: Pablo Picasso, Le Vert-Galant
Paris, 25. Juni 1943
Schenkung Pablo Picasso, 1979
© Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Foto: © bpk / RMN-Grand Palais /
Musée national Picasso-Paris / Adrien Didierjean
Picasso could observe many different everyday scenes in the small park Le Vert-Galant on the northwestern tip of the Île de la Cité in Paris. He would capture these in sketches and paintings that reveal nothing of the gray Paris under German occupation as described by contemporary witnesses. The pictures also do not portray the shortage of food, the cold, or the feelings of threat and terror. Although, like other people, the artist wrote about this scarcity of goods and the daily trials and tribulations in his letters, in these works, life appears to be going on as usual in a cheerful atmosphere.
Pablo Picasso, Le Vert-Galant
Paris, 8. Februar 1944
Museum Ludwig Köln / Schenkung Sammlung Ludwig 2001
© Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Foto: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Rolf Zimmermann, rba_c013646
In this picture, we see a woman nursing her child. It is an image of calm and peace. Picasso drew this motif often, partially because he was probably inspired by the birth of his daughter Maya, and partially because the motif of the breastfeeding mother has a history that reaches back many centuries. The most famous version of this type of picture is the Madonna breastfeeding the infant Jesus. Picasso saw himself as following the tradition of the great painters, and he strove to further develop classic subjects like these.
Pablo Picasso did not live an isolated life in Paris. He liked to meet his friends and gallerists. He also corresponded with many people, including some who had gone into exile. In this way, he was able to keep up with how they were doing, or to stay informed, for example, about the major success of his exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized a major
retrospective of Picasso’s work, including “Guernica.” The show premiered in November 1939 and toured the United States.
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler became Picasso’s gallerist in 1911. Because he was Jewish,
he was forced to hide from the German occupiers in the town of Limoges. His wife’s sister, Louise Leiris, managed his gallery during this time. In 1957, the two of them opened an exhibition of Picasso’s works at a gallery on rue de Monceau that would continue to run until 2001.
Picasso’s publisher Christian Zervos published all 33 volumes of Picasso’s catalogue
of works. During the war years, he managed to complete the volumes that included Picasso’s works from the years 1906–1912 and 1912–1917.
The gallerist Berthe Weill also represented Picasso’s works. She had opened her gallery in
Paris all the way back in 1901 and was one of the first to exhibit Picasso’s works in 1902. She had to close her gallery due to financial difficulties in 1939. During the war, she lived in fear because she was Jewish, but she managed to avoid being arrested and deported. She survived the dark war years in her small apartment and was even able to sell several of Picasso’s works during this time.
The visual artist and singer Jeanne Freundlich was born Johanna Kloss in Glogau,
Silesia. In Paris in 1930, she got to know the German sculptor and painter Otto Freundlich, who had lived in the city from 1908 to 1914 and then moved back in 1924. They shared a studio, and they managed an art school together. When the war broke out, Otto was held prisoner in several French internment camps after being labeled a hostile foreigner, although as a Jew he faced certain persecution in Germany. In 1940, the couple tried to emigrate to the US but were unsuccessful. They then hid with a farmer and his family in the Pyrenees, which was in Vichy France. In February 1943, Otto was denounced as a Jew and deported with 1,000 other Jews to Poland, where he was murdered. After Paris was liberated, Jeanne returned to the city to find their studio and artworks unscathed, thanks to the help of Picasso and others.
Alfred Réty managed Picasso’s estate in Normandy, the Castle Boisgeloup, which was about
80 km from Paris. Picasso had bought the estate in 1930. Réty grew fresh vegetables and fruit there, which were very difficult to come by during the German occupation.
Roland Penrose was an artist, writer, and gallerist from London who moved to Paris
in 1922 to find out more about the Parisian art scene. He frequented the Surrealist circle, and when he moved back to London in 1936, he helped to establish Surrealism in the UK. He also became friends with Picasso, and in 1938, he arranged for Picasso’s painting “Guernia” to tour Great Britain. The year before, in 1937, he met the American photographer Lee Miller, who moved to London to be with him in 1939. In 1944, she documented the liberation of Paris as a war correspondent.
During the heavy fighting August 19–25 between the French Resistance and the Allied Forces on the one side and the German occupiers on the other, Picasso stayed with his daughter Maya and her mother Marie-Thérèse Walter, so that he could be close to them. On August 25, the day of the final liberation, he returned to his studio. His friend the war photographer Lee Miller and many other photographers rushed there to photograph him. Thanks to these photographs published in the French and international press, Picasso became an artistic icon of the liberation and the world-famous artist that he is today. He also contributed to this image of himself as a quintessential artist who had fought for freedom. Just days after the liberation, he presented works made during the war in his studio, which became a site of pilgrimage for members of the art world, Allied soldiers, and even tourists. Not long after, in October 1944, he also became a member of the French Communist Party. Finally, he was given his own room at the Salon d’Automne, also called Salon de la Libération, to show 74 paintings and five sculptures.
Picasso and Lee Miller in Picasso’s studio
after Paris was liberated August 1944
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2020. All rights reserved. Leemiller.co.uk
© Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done.
Terror and fear were not central elements of Picasso’s pictures. One exception was the painting “Guernica” from 1937 which shows German bombers destroying the Basque town of the same name during the Spanish civil war. The artist otherwise worked tirelessly on the classic genres that had always interested him, like nudes, portraits of women, and still lifes. Yet we still have to wonder: Did the war perhaps affect the forms and colors in his pictures after all? Are the objects in his still lifes (“natures mortes” in French) hints of the shortages due to the war? Are some objects perhaps even meant symbolically? Many interpretations of his impressive still lifes, nudes, and variations of women’s portraits are possible.
Dora Maar was the face of the war and the occupation years in Picasso’s work. The many distortions her face went through at the artist’s hands have been interpreted as expressions of both the terror of war and of someone apparently thought to have a difficult personality and to be given to hysterics. However, it would be unwise to read anything psychological or biographical about Dora Maar into these pictures. The distortions should be regarded as formal inventions rather than expressions of love, hate or terror, especially since Picasso gave these pictures such generic titles as “Head of a Woman” and Dora Maar’s name was not added until later. These paintings should therefore not be regarded as portraits, but as schematic representations that Picasso liked to return to again and again. Dora Maar, on the other hand, had a more drastic reaction to them, and said, “All portraits of me are lies. They’re Picassos. No one is Dora Maar.”
This female figure bears little resemblance to the human body. Geometric planes, sharp outlines, and an asymmetrical structure define the forms in which we can hardly identify limbs or body parts. Only the eyes, teeth, and nose are prominent. The colors are limited to gray and a few brown hues. Picasso had used this color palette before in his famous painting “Guernica” from 1937.
To make the woman’s head, Picasso combined Dora Maar’s face with the head of Kazbek, his beloved Afghan hound. Picasso’s friends said his lover and his dog were his only confidants at the time.
It would seem logical to regard such paintings by Picasso in the context of the war and the occupation. Although Picasso insisted that he did not paint the war, it nevertheless had an undeniable impact on his painting, which is verified by this work. The picture could also be regarded as a way of protesting against the art policies of the Nazis and the reactionary art criticism in France that had been reinforced by the invasion of the Germans.
Maria Benz was an actress and a model. She met the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard in 1930, and they were married in 1934. Under the name Nusch Éluard, she became one of the female icons of the Surrealistic circle in Paris. Starting in the mid-1930s, Picasso and Paul Éluard shared a friendship that also included Dora Maar and Nusch Éluard. In addition to several drawings, this painting is the last in a series of eight portraits Picasso created of Nusch Éluard.
Although Picasso usually depicted his female figures with distorted, harsh outlines during the war—as he did Nusch in other paintings—this rather naturalistic portrait radiates a great tenderness. The painting style reminds us of Picasso’s pictures of harlequins from his pink period. He presents the slim figure in pale, almost translucent hues of color, letting Nusch Éluard appear ethereal, even unreal. Indeed, she was a very delicate person in real life. She and her husband were active in the Résistance, and she was responsible for the distribution of Éluard’s subversive texts. Nusch Éluard died suddenly of a stroke in November 1946. She was only 40 years old.
In the late 1930s, Picasso returned often to the pictorial language of his Cubist phase, as this picture shows. One reason for this was surely because his publisher Christian Zervos was compiling a catalogue of Picasso’s works and was in the process of finalizing the volume for the years 1906–1912, when the artist developed analytical Cubism. The pointy, fragmented forms and the narrow pictorial space let the painting seem like an outcry against the horrors of war and occupation—against existential fear when faced with terror.
Almost like a corpse, the body lies in a way, where the head slipped to the side and the hands are cramped. The lower legs remind us of the agonized legs of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Reducing the colors to shades of grey and brown intensifies the impression of darkness and hopelessness. However, we should ask whether Picasso’s cubist paintings of Fernande Olivier – his partner during 1904 and 1912 – do not show the same characteristics in style and color?
Picasso’s pictures are complex, and they inspire us to think about things from many different perspectives. We asked a few museum visitors to share their views of Picasso’s works. These narratives represent the variety of possible interpretations and express either a personal or historical connection to the Second World War.
My grandmother spent the war years on Java in Indonesia, where her parents were missionaries. She grew up as part of a system in which people believed they were doing good for others, but in reality, they were helping to legitimize colonial exploitation. During the war, the Japanese occupiers established a German school on Java in the middle of a mountain lake, which my grandmother attended. After all, Japan was in a fascist alliance with Germany. The blue in this picture immediately reminded me of the color of that lake. My grandmother would sometimes talk about how beautiful and natural the lake was, and that she swam through it to get to school.
When I went there a few years ago, everything was covered in concrete: both the shore and the island in the middle of the lake. Seeing this picture reminded me that neither of these things are natural, both are made: both the glorified illusion of a paradise that was built on the backs of others, as well as the layers of concrete. What looks like a hat in the painting reminds me of the boots constantly going around in circles on the lake, which is a popular attraction for Indonesians today.
When I saw this picture, my first thought was of a Janus figure, the god with two faces. There is not just black and white, but also hues of gray. Many people, myself included, tend to see other people in pictures. I’ve read a lot about Kurt Blanke, who was the mayor of Celle. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross, and he served in the military administration in France 1940–1944. From 1942 on, he was one of those responsible for the confiscation of property, primarily the property of Jewish citizens. All of this reads like the clear-cut profile of a perpetrator, and justly so. This was a man who had filed official complaints protesting the pogroms in Berlin in 1938. His argument, which was obviously racist, had been that Germans were above such behavior.
His role in history was swept under the carpet for a long time, and he became a member of the city council in Celle in 1945. A street was named after him in 2006. What does this person have to do with Picasso, except that they both lived in Paris at the same time? I’m thinking of the term “inherent logic,” which means that it’s difficult to understand why someone acts a certain way. Instead of passing moral judgement in hindsight, I think it makes more sense to talk about responsibility. In France, a few cases in which property was confiscated have been dealt with, but it wasn’t until Chirac became president that people admitted that the French had also profited from it. Not enough has been done overall to find survivors or their descendants and to return their property. It’s a similar situation in Germany. Some cities are dealing with the issue and are at least opening parts of the files, but there are still other major cities like Düsseldorf that won’t release any information about what belonged to whom, and where it is located today. They claim the files can’t be accessed because they fall under a statute of limitations.
My parents came to the West as “Vertriebene” (expellees) from Silesia. They were ten and eleven years old when the war ended, and they met here when they older. In the last few years, I’ve read several books that have helped me to understand my personal history better, and to understand that there are about 100,000 similar stories. I’m talking about “Kriegsenkel,” or “grandchildren of the Second World War,” whose parents were children when the war ended. Sabine Bode, a journalist from Cologne, wrote that about one-third of all people who were children during the war never dealt with the trauma and fear they experienced during the war.
That was the case with my parents as well. Growing up, there was always a sense that everything had to function without emotion. There were also clear gender roles. My father worked in a factory, my mother was a homemaker, and I was in school. Everyone played their part perfectly to keep everything running smoothly. This is also reflected in this picture. It’s a human face created by a few fractures, but it’s not a portrait. Individuality is not important. I was also only perceived through my function, and I needed a long time to figure out why I’m here and what I want. This fits with the lack of color in the artwork. Children are bubbly and full of imagination if you let them be. The rough edges also remind me of something quiet, melancholic, or sorrowful. It was very important for me to understand that I wasn’t just unlucky, but there are many people who feel something similar. It’s a pattern that expresses itself differently for everyone.
I associate this picture with a part of my family history that I have been thinking a lot about for a long time now. My grandmother’s aunt had an affair with an SS officer during the war and got pregnant. Her family was against it, especially because they slaughtered animals illegally on their farm and were afraid the officer might denounce them. So she raised her child alone, until he died of leukemia at the age of nine.
How must this woman have felt with her child? The boy in the picture is wearing a velvet suit; he’s got rosy cheeks. At the same time, he seems miles away. There’s a lot going on inside him. He seems withdrawn, and there’s a heavy sadness there. To me, the doves on the empty chair symbolize a longing for peace. The austere room is a testimony to the poverty and hunger during the war. What is interesting is that he still looks well-fed, which reminds me of my family in Pakistan. They’re also rather poor, but the children are always well-fed. It’s all very ambivalent and not so clear. What always impressed me was that my great-aunt, who had been together with the SS officer, always accepted and supported my Pakistani father unconditionally. She even supported him financially, although he had entered Germany illegally, spoke no German, and was expecting a child with the youngest daughter in the family. My grandmother’s father, who had been a Wehrmacht solder in the war, treated him very differently.
This picture expresses the ambivalence that can be associated with the time during the war. It shows a completely normal scene that was likely to be found in many homes. We see a table; on it are objects that have probably always been there. At the same time, you notice that there isn’t much there—for example, there’s nothing to eat. To me, this captures the war years from 1939 to 1945 exactly. People had something, but not everything they needed. It wasn’t easy to get everyday necessities—you often had to get them secretly. And you guarded what you had.
We also don’t see anything dirty in the picture, nothing is broken. Many researchers nowadays are studying how war-time societies function on a daily basis. What’s interesting are questions like: “What is valuable to me?” When people suffer because they don’t have something they need, all of a sudden certain things become very valuable in a way that is hard to imagine when they’re doing well. The valuable-looking candleholder also evokes associations of “Aryanization.” During the Nazi regime, things were stolen after their rightful owners had been deported. Other people took the objects, and they showed them off. This is a form of exploitative society. For me, the simultaneous deprivation and the destruction wrought by the Germans merge in this picture.
I come from Congo-Brazzaville in Central Africa. When I think of war, I think of the First World War. My grandfather was a soldier who fought in Germany. That’s why I’m here today. For many years, Africans from many different French colonies were recruited to the Tirailleurs Sénégalais to fight for France. Europe and Africa are closely connected through their shared colonial history, although many people here don’t know that, or they don’t want to know it.
This is also obvious in Picasso’s pictures: He borrowed many forms from African objects. In Berlin in 1884, people from Europe divided Africa on a map, although they had never been there. People also often don’t talk about the fact that Charles de Gaulle held his famous freedom speech in 1944 at a conference in Brazzaville, where he was given a rooster, the symbol of France. For us, the rooster is a symbol of fighting strength. I think it’s important to look at this shared history. Continuing to be silent about it is painful. In my culture, we say “you have to write your own story, otherwise someone else will write it for you to their own advantage.” Picasso knew a lot about African traditions. While he was living in France, he discovered something that he wanted to reveal in his pictures subtly. He didn’t want any conflicts with politicians. I see the masks and other objects that were stolen from Africa in his pictures. A large number of them are still spread all over Europe. For example, the bronze Ife statues are gods to me, like Buddha. I recommend people watch the movie “Black Panther.” It deals a lot with identity, sculptures, and stolen art.