Photo: AlbaCiudad retrieved
Camarada Picasso opened last week in Caracas, at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Armando Reverón (formerly Sofía Ímber), a week-long event that included the exhibition of the 149 Picasso paintings that are part of the museum collection, with movies and documentaries screenings, all dedicated to the Spanish painter that gave Guernica to the world.
The paintings were acquired through the effort of Sofía Ímber, the Moldova-born Venezuelan journalist and art promoter who founded the museum in 1974 and managed it for almost three decades. Seeing it now, you wouldn’t know, though.
Imber was dismissed from her post in 2001 by Hugo Chávez. In 2006, he also ordered the removal of her name from the museum. “I’m the founder of that museum and nobody can take that away from me,” Ímber declared during a press conference in 2001. “I had no other goal or concern in my life than the museum.”
Sergio Monsalve, documentarian and film critic, reported his visit to the exhibition… and he was appalled: “You visit the museum now and find just a series of empty rooms. It’s quite a contrast to the great image it had, to all the expositions curated by Sofía and those close to her,” he said to Caracas Chronicles.
“You visit the museum now and find just a series of empty rooms. It’s quite a contrast to the great image it had.”
Sofía Ímber passed away in 2017. Not only was she the first female museum director in the country, her example also led a modernization of the museum system nationwide. Nowadays, under the guise of “recovered spaces for the people,” the government pretends to bury her legacy, making no reference to her during the exhibit.
“If chavismo thought they were wiping the slate clean, that they were re-founding the museum,” Monsalve adds, “then you have here a metaphor of the country, a well-established, well-funded institution turned right now into a shadow of what it was.”
The other controversial element is Pablo Ruiz Picasso himself. The exposition stresses Picasso’s communism, calling him a revolutionary icon. That’s fair, a Tate Liverpool exposition also explored Picasso’s politics in 2010.
The difference is that the Tate Liverpool tried to reunite and discuss the few works of his that were actually political, mainly antifascist and generally antiwar. After all, Picasso, like most exiled Spaniards, had very strong feelings against Franco.
The works exhibited at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, meanwhile, are mostly experimentations on cubism, with the strained political reading Minister Ernesto Villegas and others try to imprint.
“If they want to sell a respected artist as Picasso and link him with communism, then they should make the case for it, backing it up with the artist’s work. When you go the exhibit and see the paintings, these refute the curatorial text,” Monsalve explains.
Picasso certainly considered himself political, joining the French Communist Party in the 40s, but, as Monsalve points out, there was a divorce between what he preached and how he acted.
Yes, in 1945 he stated that:
“I’m a communist and my painting is a communist painting. But if I were a shoemaker, royalist or communist or anything else, I would not necessarily hammer my shoes in any special way to show my politics.”
But by 1968, he wrote:
“I no longer understand the politics of the left and I have no wish to talk about it. I decided long ago that if I wanted to deal with such matters, I should have to change profession and go into politics. But of course that is impossible.”
“When you go the exhibit and see the paintings, these refute the curatorial text.”
Many communists, though certainly thankful of all the francs he donated to the party, were ambivalent to him as a person and as an artist. As art historian David Caute stated to Deutsche Welle, “They regarded him as decadent and formalistic and influenced by Western capitalist aesthetics.”
Art in the USSR (and by extension, most communist governments) was rigidly limited to Socialist Realism, a dogmatic and repetitive style focused on idealized, optimistic representations of workers, everyday life, and Lenin, Stalin and the whole lot. They’re mostly known today for the decaying statues and murals all around the former Soviet Union.
Yet, had it not been for the liberties that France gave Picasso, it’s unlikely he would’ve made a portrait of Stalin that was categorically rejected by communist leaders.
Art is born from freedom. Freedom of creation, freedom of interpretation, freedom of expression. Without that, you might have a nice-looking building to hang pretty pictures and sculptures, lacking the necessary congress of ideas and views that make art lasting in people’s minds.
“The problem is that chavismo has relied on the appropriation of other people’s achievements and legacies.”
Chavismo has thrown money at programs and artists, from publishing houses to art schools, all in the hopes of building up an intelligentsia. Yet, maybe with the exception of cinema, it has failed to make significant or memorable contributions to Venezuelan arts and culture. It’s telling that the revolution’s prominent artists and intellectuals (like Román Chalbaud and Luis Britto García) had their heyday in the 70s and 80s.
For Monsalve, the problem isn’t the State financing arts—democratic governments in Venezuela managed to support very diverse voices. The problem is that chavismo has relied on the appropriation (quite literally in the case of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo) of other people’s achievements and legacies to call them their own, in many cases with the complicity of artists and intellectuals looking for funds. They didn’t start El Sistema or Monte Ávila, but they made them “theirs and theirs only.”
“It’s what I call a ‘forced culture,’ one that’s created by the machinery, and making art like this, from top-to-bottom without taking into consideration vital elements of artistic expression, produces today’s landscape.”