The story goes that when the Picasso: Peace and Freedom exhibition was on tour at the Louisiana in Denmark, it overlapped with a David Hockney show in the same museum. But the curators could never get hold of Hockney when they needed him, to help with the installation of his work: day after day he was to be found, tucked away in a corner of the other exhibition, saying to himself ‘that Picasso's blooming marvellous.’
Hockney wasn’t the only one to be impressed. In all, nearly three quarters of a million people saw Picasso: Peace and Freedom, which started at Tate Liverpool, and also visited Albertina Vienna. The show sought to re-establish Picasso as a radical and political artist, and campaigner for peace. And it was research, supported by the AHRC, which made it possible.
As Lynda Morris, who is Professor of Curation and Art History at Norwich University of the Arts, explains: ‘for a major revaluation of an artist like Picasso, you need to do your homework. It’s fair to say that this exhibition couldn’t have taken place without the research component, and without the AHRC.’
With the AHRC’s support, Lynda Morris, who has worked on Picasso since the late Seventies, was able to spend many weeks researching in archives, such as at the Musée Picasso, Paris and Alfred Barr’s archives in New York. And painstakingly, she was able to tie-in Picasso’s art with the daily historical events which influenced it, helped in part by Picasso’s meticulous way of dating his work. As Lynda Morris puts it, ‘through my research, we were able to tell the back-story of the paintings: who he was talking to, what newspapers he was reading, who he was corresponding with. Picasso was a subtle figure: he didn’t talk explicitly about his politics, but it’s all there in his work.’ Picasso’s masterpiece The Charnel House, for example, was shown to have been inspired by film of a Spanish Republican family, who were murdered in their kitchen.
For Lynda Morris, the point about the AHRC’s funding wasn’t just that it enabled groundbreaking research to be carried out, away from the commercial pressures that national museums are often constrained by. ‘In showing that Picasso was an artist who was very much politically engaged, we were going against the view of him that the big auction houses have been promoting for many years. Picasso wasn’t just this godlike artistic genius: he was very much engaged with the modern history he was living in. My proudest memory is of ordinary families in Liverpool, including grandparents, visiting the exhibition with their children and grandchildren, and intensely discussing the memories that it evoked for them. Picasso’s works are from a period which is still just within memory.’
For Lindsey Fryer, who is Head of Learning at Tate Liverpool, having an exhibition that was truly research-led was a rare opportunity. ‘Every summer we have a major show,’ she says, ‘aiming to say something different about a modern master: we try to tell a story that has not been told before, in depth, and with strong research. In the case of Picasso: Peace and Freedom, we were able to go further, with deeper and more extensive research. Lynda’s passion, experience and knowledge of the field are well-known: this show wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t had such an expert, who was able to go through such a vast amount of archival material. Our job then was to work collaboratively with her – we know the building and we know our audience, and we were able to hone the material down, for them.’
The success of the exhibition was indisputable: ‘we had over 95,000 visitors – that’s the second highest number that we’ve ever had. And we know that many of those people weren’t regular gallery-goers: we were reaching a new audience. We even gave out 10,000 teachers’ packs – normally we’re lucky if we get asked for 1,000.
And as Picasso was revealed as an artist who was deeply politically and socially engaged, there were a few surprises in store. ‘I had no idea,’ says Lindsey Fryer, ‘that Picasso was such a strong supporter of women’s rights, for example, given what we know about his personal life. But through the show we had the chance to see the whole man, in all his depth and complexity.’
For Christoph Grunenberg, who was Director of Tate Liverpool at the time of the exhibition, it was also the research that made the artworks come alive. ‘Picasso is a painter who’s been hugely researched, and it’s difficult to come up with anything new,’ he says. ‘The difference with this show was the long period of preparation that it was able to have – that was a pure luxury for us. This was exactly the kind of intense, sustained research that’s often missing, especially nowadays, with the demands of a constant cycle of exhibitions.’
Working with Lynda Morris as an outside researcher, says Christoph Grunenberg, was ‘a fantastic opportunity. This exhibition relied upon systematic digging in the archives – drawing out the connections, say, between Picasso’s Women of Algiers [one of the series recently became the most expensive painting in the world] and the war that was happening in Algeria at the time that it was painted. That’s only possible through sustained research.’
‘Through his donations of money and artworks, Lynda has been able to show what a huge range of causes Picasso supported – from Civil Rights in the US, to independence movements in Africa. This often contradicts the image of himself that he cultivated – that of the unreflective, creative genius producing works on a conveyor belt. We argued convincingly, I think, that Picasso was often working quietly, behind the scenes, to support the causes he cared about.’
This article originally appeared in the publication 10 Years of the AHRC, which can be downloaded from our publications page.