Pablo Picasso, Taube

Art During the War

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.

Between Paris and Royan

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.

Pablo Picasso, Sitzende Frau

Entry of the German Wehrmacht June 1944

Living and Working Under
the German Occupation

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).

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.

Pablo Picasso, Junge mit Languste

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.

Picasso’s Daily Life in Paris

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.

  • 1

    Picasso’s studio

    7 Rue des Grands-Augustins

    Pablo Picasso’s studio, 1944, Henri Cartier-Bresson

    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.”

  • 2

    Le Catalan restaurant

    16 Rue des Grands-Augustins

    Pablo Picasso, Das Buffet des Catalan Paris

    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

  • 3

    Dora Maar’s apartment

    6 Rue de Savoie

    Dora Maar in her studio, 1944, Brassaï

    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.

  • 4

    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.

  • 5

    Le Vert-Galant

    15 Place du Pont Neuf

    Pablo Picasso, Le Vert-Galant

    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

Le Vert-Galant: In detail

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

Pablo Picasso, Le Vert-Galant

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.

Letters to Picasso

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.

Barr (1902–1981)

Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized a major

Telegram to Pablo Picasso
December 15, 1939

Kahnweiler (1884–1979)

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler became Picasso’s gallerist in 1911. Because he was Jewish,

Letter to Pablo Picasso
June 13, 1940

Zervos (1889–1970)

Picasso’s publisher Christian Zervos published all 33 volumes of Picasso’s catalogue

Letter to Pablo Picasso
August 8, 1940

Weill (1865–1951)

The gallerist Berthe Weill also represented Picasso’s works. She had opened her gallery in

Telegram to Pablo Picasso
December 15, 1939

Freundlich (1892 – 1966)

The visual artist and singer Jeanne Freundlich was born Johanna Kloss in Glogau,

Two letters to Pablo Picasso
March 2, 1943

Réty (1889–1970)

Alfred Réty managed Picasso’s estate in Normandy, the Castle Boisgeloup, which was about

Letter to Pablo Picasso
July 27, 1944

Penrose (1900–1984)

Roland Penrose was an artist, writer, and gallerist from London who moved to Paris

Letter to Pablo Picasso
July 27, 1944

Picasso as an Icon
of the Liberation

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

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.

Peter D. Whitney, “Picasso is safe,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 3, 1944

Pablo Picasso holding a sculpture of a skull in his studio

In Detail: What Did Picasso
Paint During the War?

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.

Women, Women, Women

Pablo Picasso, Sitzende Frau

Pablo Picasso, Frau in Grau und Weiß

Pablo Picasso, Madame Paul Éluard

A classic female nude?

Pablo Picasso, Großer liegender Akt

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.

Personal Views

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.


Pablo Picasso, Frauenkopf

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.

Erik Gohlisch

Pablo Picasso, Frauenkopf mit zwei Profilen

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.


Pablo Picasso, Männerkopf

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.


Pablo Picasso, Kind mit Tauben

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.

Daniela Zimmer

Pablo Picasso, Krug, Kerze und Kasserolle

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.

Clarisse Akouala

Pablo Picasso, Stehender Akt