Picasso at Tate Liverpool

Late Picasso, like all great Picasso, is unexpected. Confounding assumptions about an artist’s final years, it is not serene like late Matisse. It does not suggest resigned settlement with time, like late Rembrandt. It does not luminously dissolve materiality, like late Titian or late Monet. It is a railing against death and – well, what else is going on in the frantic 1960s-70s canvases, with their disintegrating forms, graffiti scrawls, grey-black tonalities and skull-like heads? That has been debated ever since the first show of late Picasso in 1973, months after the artist’s death.

The newest interpretation is Tate Liverpool’s high-profile show Picasso: Peace and Freedom, covering the years 1944-73 and proposing the modernist master as a political painter. For an artist described by his dealer Kahnweiler as “the most apolitical man I have ever known” (and for whom freedom in all its manifestations was paramount – from deconstructing the human figure to living exactly as he pleased), this seems perverse. As a thesis it does not persuade. Yet it has given us a rich, stimulating exhibition, packed with transatlantic loans, that offers an overview of the last, quixotic decades of Picasso’s work and, at times, sheds decisive light on it.

It opens superbly with New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s “The Charnel House”. Last seen in the UK 50 years ago, and Picasso’s most important anti-war painting after “Guernica”, it is put into the context of end-of-occupation Paris by works including the large, dynamic “The Cockerel of the Liberation” and a delicate-hued, unstable cityscape, “Notre Dame”.

The contrasts highlight the monochrome monumentality and stylisation of terror in “The Charnel House”, its interwoven figures tangled into a heap of corpses that have lost individual identity, its interior/exterior spaces collapsed into rigid bluish-grey, black or white areas denoting walls, floors, posts. Atrocity, this painting says, happens anywhere – though a ghostly outlined still life on a table emphasises the domestic setting: “The Charnel House” was inspired by a film about a Spanish family butchered in their kitchen, but completed in early 1945 as news of the concentration camps emerged.

Still life, this exhibition beautifully demonstrates, was Picasso’s dominant genre during and just after the occupation. “Still Life with Guitar” twists a Spanish guitar out of shape like a human body; above, a mirror in a disjointed frame reflects a blacked-out corner. In “Still Life with Candlestick” and “Still Life with Skull, Book and Petroleum Lamp”, neither candle nor lamp illuminates the blocks of unbroken colour and silhouetted objects. “Skull and Sea Urchins” wavers between aggressive yellow and muted grey – acrid, restless contrasts enhancing the mood of emptiness and fragility.

These allusive, fraught works, refashioning the vanitas – a key Spanish genre – to suggest everyday harshness and gloom in Nazi-controlled Paris, prove Picasso’s point that “I did not paint the war, but the war was in my paintings.” Even a star loan, “Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher”, rhyming an angular depiction of the vegetable with a skull to suggest the Spanish Republican skull-and-cross-bones, is subtle and painterly, not politically overt.

In 1944, months before this work, Picasso, accepting long-term exile, joined the French communists, seeking an intellectual home “until Spain can at last welcome me back”. The affiliation was a coup for the Soviet Union, although his work was banned there – a commemorative drawing of Stalin in 1953 was greeted, to Picasso’s bewilderment, with howls of dismay: Russians reared on socialist realism read it as distorted and disrespectful. Posters, pamphlets, photographs and a massive section on his iconic dove of peace here document such stories. Detailing unequivocally his leftist sympathies, they rarely resonate with the unfolding of his art.

The result is an exhibition that spectacularly resists its own didacticism. Three gaudily opulent, light-flooded 1950s depictions of “The Studio” at La Californie, Picasso’s villa of wrought-iron staircases, cathedral-like windows with art-nouveau tracery and terraces of palms overlooking the Mediterranean, are displayed because they include the politically correct birds. They demonstrate, of course, not an outward, committed artist but the opposite: an ageing, inward-looking Picasso whose realm is the atelier, where the eye is led deep into the picture space, watching the maestro create worlds out of his imagination.

Picasso at this time intensified his dialogue with dead masters too. Tate Liverpool shows four of his variations on Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers” – three borrowed from the Nahmad Collection, whose London exhibition in 2006 pinpointed how, by breaking down figures into blocks and lines, then rebuilding them in abstracted forms, Picasso here made theatrical the act of painterly construction. Tate stresses that Picasso began the series within a month of the November 1954 uprising that led to the Algerian war of independence. Far more significant is that this was also the month when Matisse died, depriving Picasso of the only living artist with whom he could converse. The oriental flavour and sumptuous colour are homages; Matisse, Picasso joked, “left me his odalisques”.

The National Gallery’s Picasso: Challenging the Past last year chronicled such tussles with history. They dominate Liverpool too, though links to Tate’s theme are comically tenuous – variations on “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” are shown on the grounds that Manet was a Paris Commune radical; those on David’s “Rape of the Sabines” from 1962-63 as Picasso’s supposed response to the Cuban missile crisis.

I was convinced, however, by the analysis of the most troubled reworkings, that of “Las Meninas”. Thin and uncompelling as paintings, these are brilliantly effective political cartoons parodying Velázquez’s famous courtly tableau: ceiling bosses become grotesque hooks for suspending torture victims, the maid wears a Franco moustache, the painter is an inquisition agent, nun and priest are already in their coffins, Picasso’s dachshund Lump supplants Philip IV’s mastiff.

Other lively insights – notably the marvellous grisaille “Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle” interpreted as a memorial to executed Greek communist partisan Nikos Beloyannis – alternate with bizarrely off-kilter speculation. Picasso’s last, desperate, poignant unpickings of the female figure – “Nude with Bird and Flute Player” (1967), “Nude with Necklace” (1968), “Reclining Nude” (1969) are terrific examples – are travestied by the suggestion that “the erotic in [his] late works can be linked with the ideology of women’s liberation ... emerging in the 1960s”.

And final self-portraits such as Budapest’s tragic “Musketeer with Sword” (1972) say little about “his fear of empires, racism and war” and everything about his savage refusal to go gentle into that good night. They proclaim an art preoccupied to the end with the human form, and rooted not in theory but in human experience.

‘Picasso: Peace and Freedom’, Tate Liverpool, until August 30, www.tate.org.uk

Albertina, Vienna, Sept 22-Jan 16 2011, www.albertina.at

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, Feb 11-May 29 2011, www.louisiana.dk

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.