Flight of Fancy - Picasso and the dove called Peace
When the author, Louis Aragon, chose Pablo Picasso’s World lithograph, La Colombe (The Dove) for a poster commemorating the Paris Peace Conference in 1949, he was building on the artist’s complex relationship with both doves and peace. Picasso’s father, José Ruiz y Blasco, was an artist in Malaga, and specialised in paintings of doves and pigeons.
The birds had featured in Picasso’s work since childhood when he often took his pet pigeons to school and drew them. An early Parisian work, Child Holding a Dove, 1901, was painted when the artist was just 19. For many people, however, it is Picasso’s deceptively simple line drawings of doves that are the most memorable and symbolic celebrations of peace, and their genesis lies in an infamous act of war. On 26 April 1937, Picasso had been living in Paris for almost 40 years. Late that afternoon, German and Italian aircraft attacked the Basque town of Guernica – a frontline of republican resistance to Spanish dictator Franco. Crowdedboth for market day, and with throngs of refugees from the civil war, the aerial bombing devastated the town, and killed a large number of non-combatants.
A year before, Picasso had been commissioned by Spain to create a work for the country’s pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. As reports of the outrage circulated, notably from George Steer, the Times reporter, the bombing caused an international uproar. Within a fortnight, Picasso began a painting that has become an iconic symbol of war protest. Until then, though his work invariably provoked powerful reactions, it had not been outwardly political. With its scale, Guernica is a devastating black, grey and white work full of fractured ruin, fire, and figures, both people, and the totemic domestic symbols for Spain, the bull and horse.
Matisse portrait, Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1951
Picasso remained in Paris throughout the Nazi occupation, and though Guernica was safely in the US, it was the painting that crystalised his involvement in the post-war peace movement. In the Spring of 1949, his then-wife, Françoise Gilot, gave birth to their second child, and they called her Paloma, Spanish for dove, perhaps responding to the numerous peace posters bearing Picasso’s first ‘peace dove’. The bird itself had been a gift from his friend, Henri Matisse, who is shown in a photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson clasping one of his own birds. From that first figurative lithograph, a wealth of line drawings grew of doves, often carrying sprigs of leaves, or surrounded with flowers, or alongside faces, often mantling them with their wings. In 1950, Picasso visited the Peace Congress in Sheffield, UK. Asked to speak there, he recalled how his father had taught him to paint doves, and finished with the words, ‘I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war’. Even now, the World Peace Council has a Picasso dove as its emblem, a legacy built from childhood,from war, from friendship, and the simple gift of a bird from one great artist to another.