The death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on 5 March 1953 marked the end of the most violent and wretched years in the history of the USSR. As his iron grip on the lives of millions of Soviet citizens was loosened, his successor Nikita Khrushchev ushered in a period of De-Stalinization.
Soon after Stalin’s death, the French poet Louis Aragon invited fellow communist Pablo Picasso to create a tribute to the late dictator. On 12 March a small charcoal drawing by the artist was featured on the front cover of the French communist publication, Les Lettres Francaises. The comical appearance of the youthful Stalin, with a bushy peasant-style moustache and thick, raised eyebrows which gave him a look of surprise, infuriated the leaders of the French Communist Party. They announced that they ‘categorically disapproved’ of the drawing, which was rebuked for failing to adhere to the heroic ideals of Socialist Realism.
Picasso was distressed by the criticism and defended his depiction of Stalin: ‘As I am a painter, I sent a picture as a token of respect and affection, just as a poet might have sent a poem’. The incident would permanently damage the artist’s relationship with the Soviet authorities, although he remained a loyal member of the French Communist Party for the rest of his life.
In an ironic twist, 55 years after this incident Picasso’s drawing provoked a whole new generation of outrage. A banner bearing Stalin’s likeness was placed on the front of New York’s Cooper Union in 2008 to promote an exhibition by Norwegian film artist Lene Berg, featuring her humorous artwork Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of a Woman with Moustache. But a campaign by enraged New Yorkers led to the banner’s removal, leading Berg and Picasso to suffer similar attacks on their work. You can watch excerpts from Berg’s video and read more about the incident here.
Image: Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Stalin, 1953. Location unknown, presumed lost.