Picasso and the CIA

(Last Updated On June 4, 2022)
Pablo Picasso Maia's Face 1938

Pablo Picasso – Maia’s Face (1938)

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) needs little introduction since he is probably the most famous artist of the 20th Century. His portraits from his Blue and Rose period reflect a sensitivity for his subjects which was lost when he turned to Cubism. However, occasionally he did some beautiful work after his Cubist phase which reflect a love for the subject, his portrait of his daughter Maia is proof for any Philistines that he could draw in a traditional manner.

Pablo Picasso Guernica 1937

Pablo Picasso Guernica 1937

On the April 26, 1937 the town of Guernica was totally destroyed fom a bombing by the German air force. The town was of no military importance; its destruction was an act of pure terrorism. Picasso responded by painting a surreal cartoonish scene that has the effect of a collage made of old newspapers due to the hard edge forms and the palette of dark browns and white. Guernica is considered a masterpiece of modern art.

Picasso Massacre in Korea 1951

Picasso Massacre in Korea 1951

Picasso painted another painting like Guernica in 1951; this time he drew inspiration from the composition of Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May 1808. I consider the Massacre in Korea to be a much better painting than Guernica since I can empathize with some of the figures. An adolescent girl stands frozen near the center of the painting and she looks to the viewer with expression of grief. To her right, a baby plays near her feet, unaware of the violence. Two younger children run to a group of four terrified women; all the women and children are naked to symbolize defenselessness. To the right of the painting stands a firing squad, as in Goya’s painting. The posture of the soldiers seem to be mechanical—they are a group of executing robots. The painting was not well received since the “robots” represented the United States military.

The New York art community regarded Picasso’s “new Guernica” to be an “aesthetic failure”. Clement Greenberg, who was the most influential art critic of the time claimed that modern art was apolitical and was only an aesthetic pursuit, but some thought otherwise. On August 16, 1949, Congressman Dondero from Michigan gave a condemning speech “Modern art shackled to Communism”. Picasso had a reputation as a genius but his Massacre in Korea didn’t help the position of Nelson Rockefeller and his associates, who were promoting Modernism. A letter was drafted to Picasso in December 1952 by the recently formed Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). The letter condemned Picasso for supporting communism. The letter was never sent but Irving Kristol who was the executive director of the CCF, was confident that he could count on Greenberg’s signature and probably the signatures of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Alexander Clader.

Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell paintings modern wing Piladelphia Museum

Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell –  Paintings in the modern wing of the Philadelphia Museum

In 1967, the magazine Ramparts exposed the CCF to be a CIA-funded organization. The CIA’s promotion of abstract expressionism was so extensive in the 1950’s, an unknown artist couldn’t find representation in New York unless he was painting in a style derived from the New York School. The CIA claimed that the purpose of the program was to improve the United States’ image to liberals who may support communism. The Congress was run by CIA agent Micheal Josselson from 1950 to 1967. At its peak, it had offices in thirty-five countries, published over twenty prestigious magazines, held art exhibitions and rewarded artists with prizes. The realist painter Ben Shahn refused to join and referred to the Congress as the ‘ACCFuck’.

Mark Rothko room, Tate Modern

Mark Rothko Room, Tate Modern

Pablo Picasso Girl with Basket of Flowers 1905

Pablo Picasso Girl with Basket of Flowers 1905

Frances Stonor Saunders’ book Who Paid the Piper? provided much of the information for this article; she writes: “Operating at a remove from the CIA, and therefore offering a plausible disguise for its interests, was the Museum of Modern Art. An inspection of MoMA’s committees and councils reveals a proliferation of links to the Agency.” The program manufactured history and abstract expressionism was promoted as New American painting when in fact most Americans then and now have difficulty accepting the paintings as art. The purpose of the program had nothing to do with freedom—the effect was more like censorship. If respectable art is limited to drips of paint or a field of color, it makes it impossible for an artist to represent anything that could conflict with the ideology of the social system. This is what I found in the account of the response to Massacre in Korea; it was called an “aesthetic failure” for actually being expressive. I regard Korea to be one of Picasso’s best paintings since his Rose Period. I find paintings like Guernica to be ineffective due to the abstractification, the aesthetic distance. I agree with Tolstoy, the essence of art is expression, not just an arrangement of form. The forms in Guernica are cold symbols that fail to evoke empathy.

Wikipedia noted that none of the soldiers in Massacre in Korea have penises. This feature is contrasted by the pregnant state of the women on the left side of the panel. “Many viewers have interpreted that the soldiers, in their capacity as destroyers of life, have substituted guns for their penises, thereby castrating themselves and depriving the world of the next generation of human life”. An expressive image of Americanization indeed.

Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup Cans 1962

Andy Warhol – Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)

Miles Mathis believes as well as I do, that the CIA allowed for Saunders’ book to surface to distract from the fact that the government is still in control of the ideology of the art establishment. For example, the book makes no reference to Andy Warhol despite the fact that Warhol was being promoted during the time that the CIA’s program was admittedly active. The values of Pop: mass production and consumerism were in complete conflict with the values of the genuine liberals of the 1960s and 1970s. This is why Jock Sturges was persecuted by the FBI; his photographs reflect a connection between people which were in conflict with the emerging post-humanism. The underlining goal of the plutocracy is to maintain a dysfunctional culture since a disconnected society is easier to control.

The artist Miles Mathis examined Frances Stonor Saunders’ book, the PDF can be found here: The Cultural Cold War.

The Independent’s article can be found here: Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’

Pablo Picasso Le Gourmet 1901

Pablo Picasso – Le Gourmet (1901)

Picasso Girl with Dog 1905

Pablo Picasso – Girl with Dog (1905)

Pablo Picasso Maia-with her Doll 1938

Pablo Picasso – Maia with her Doll (1938)

6 thoughts on “Picasso and the CIA

  1. I mean, is there any facet of culture that the CIA hasn’t actively curated and cultivated to keep us all on message? It seems like every time I start thinking an original thought, some CIA minion seems to clap his hands and tell me I’m “getting emotional again.” Anyway, you-know-the-drill.

    • One of the things that most mothers and fathers neglect to teach their children is to think for themselves. There is a kind of substrate of how to frame our political/economic thoughts. The tyranny of the two-party system has been carefully cultivated over the decades, for instance. False dilemmas like this are meant to make us feel there is nothing outside the box. Ever try to fill out a survey/questionnaire? They frame the questions for what they want to hear, not real feedback from the “customer”. To my mind, those who vote for so-called marginal parties are not wasting their votes, it is those who vote the major parties (including my own mother and father). Thank you for your comment. -Ron

  2. Ron made a post “The Blind Art Collector” about a 4-y-o girl who painted in the “abstract” style (like Pollock) and was considered as a genius. I commented (/2015/09/the-blind-art-collector/#comment-31738) that “a 4-year-old has never painted anything resembling Rembrandt or Raphael.”
    In some sense, “modern art” represents a form of infantilism and lazyness, you can with not much effort and in a short time make a “work”, contrarily to old masters who laboured for weeks. It is like the “Star academy” TV shows selecting new fashionable singers, while students in art schools spend years and years to master the art of music and singing. Or people posting their daily poetry or prose, devoid of any charm and elegance, while Flaubert sometimes worked hard for a whole day to chisel just one sentence.

  3. A testament to Picasso’s genius is that he could demonstrate talent when producing representative art and abstract art. Less talented artists get stuck producing representative kitsch with no symbolic depth or play the political game and make use of an abstract gimmick. Abstract art causes additional problem with authentication of paintings that have weak or nonexistent provenance. A great example is Jackson Pollock. In the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? a truck driver finds a piece at a thrift store that she later discovers must be a Pollock. Art experts were unable to agree if this was a genuine Pollock since it was an unsigned test piece. The most compelling evidence was the presence of a thumb print found on other Pollock works as well as his workshop.

  4. Of course the problem any limited text is that all angles can’t accounted for in the limited space. I gave an explicit account of the effects of capitalism as well the clash between American and European culture in my post on the Armory Show of 1913, here are two passages:
    The psychological orientation of a society changes gradually over a period of time, with those in high positions in industry experiencing alienation before those in small communities, as those in agriculture. In the mid 20th century, the psychologist Rollo May accounted for his patients’ loss of their sense of relatedness to nature. He writes, “They may remark, regretfully, that though others are moved by a sunset, they themselves are left relatively cold; and though others may find the ocean majestic and awesome, they themselves, standing on the rocks at the seashore, don’t feel much of anything.”
    There was a conflict of interests between the American patrons and the creative direction of the European artists. Many artists ( as diverse as Bouguereau and Gauguin) were reacting to the modernization of the world which had the effect of alienating society, by painting and sculpting intimate works that reflect human bonds. But unfortunately, the American patrons who were in high positions in industry, were very often the most alienation members of society.
    So I agree with the point you made about an atrophy of human relations due to the effects of capitalism. But the effects of alienation from capitalism may account for only half of it, I’m sure much of the alienation is the result of conscience conditioning which was foreseen by the authors of the anti-utopias. C.S. Lewis gives examples of it in his Abolition of Man. There are so many factors, the “Death of God” is an other important influence.
    I’m sure the ARC would not publish my post on Picasso, I know because Miles was writing for them at one time but was fired because he likes Van Gogh! I should thank Ron for inviting me to write. I’m much more open minded than they are at the ARC, I plan to submit to them but I’ll have to censor out any defense Gauguin and Picasso. I’m not even sure if they would like my post on Arthur B Davies because they may not think his work is refined.

  5. Probably most readers don’t know that this post develops further some ideas proposed in your blog, in particular in the following two articles:

    The political orientation of American abstract painters, many starting as radicals or even Trotskyists, then ending as proponents of American imperialism in the name of individual freedom, is discussed in the Art History blog:

    Your defense of figurative arts has perhaps something in common with the Art Renewal Center (http://www.artrenewal.org/), see in particular their articles “Abstract Art is Not Abstract and Definitely Not Art” (http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2005/Abstract/Ross.php) and “The Great 20th Century Art Scam” (http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/Philosophy/ArtScam/artscam.php).

    I think that the success of 20th century abstract artists (like the ones you mention here) and “avant-garde” ones (like Marcel Duchamp whom you mentioned in your blog) cannot be explained simply by wealthy capitalists financing them and the CIA promoting them. It is a global evolution of culture, which I think manifests itself in many domains (including fast food and reality shows). Both you and the ARC date it from about 100 years ago, around the outbreak of World War 1, exactly the time when, according to Marxists, capitalism entered into its imperialist stage of putrefaction. I like to compare that to the remark by Johan Huizinga in his book The Waning of the Middle Ages, that in the 15th Century the perfection of painting and the decay of poetry was a symptom of the predominance of the sense of sight, indicating thus an atrophy of thought. Today’s painting reflects an atrophy of human relations, as people become ever more reified as commodity producers and exchangers.

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