The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What a new book gets wrong about Picasso’s time in France

In ‘Picasso the Foreigner,’ Annie Cohen-Solal offers an ambitious but misguided interpretation of the great Spanish artist’s life

Artist Pablo Picasso poses in his studio in Vallauris, France, on Oct. 23, 1953. (AP)
8 min

If there was one constant in the life and art of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), it was France. After arriving in Paris as a teenager in 1900, he lived in the country almost continuously for more than seven decades, through two world wars and three different French Republics. Of course, his Spanish background was essential to his genius: “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was named after a brothel in Barcelona, and “Guernica” was a response to a fascist atrocity in the Spanish Civil War. But it was in France that he created those works, and it was as leader of the French avant-garde that he became the most celebrated artist of the modern world.

So how was it that he never became a French citizen?

For decades after his death, it was assumed that he preferred his expatriate status. But in 2003, the art historians Pierre Daix and Armand Israel published the startling contents of Picasso’s unknown French police file. French authorities had surveilled the artist at the beginning of his career as a suspected anarchist, but that wasn’t all. In the spring of 1940, at the height of his fame, they also denied his application for citizenship. A police official ruled that Picasso “does not qualify for naturalization.” France’s most influential 20th-century artist would die a Spaniard.

For Annie Cohen-Solal, a French cultural historian who has written frequently about the art world, these curious facts provide the starting point for an ambitious new interpretation of Picasso’s life. In “Picasso the Foreigner: An Artist in France, 1900-1973,” translated by Sam Taylor, she traces a familiar biographical arc: his beginnings in Paris, the cubist revolution and World War I, the interwar years, his experience under the Vichy regime, his postwar celebrity, and his final years in the south of France. But Cohen-Solal is not primarily concerned with the unfolding drama of Picasso’s art, his serial breakthroughs and serial lovers. Instead, she takes aim at Picasso’s adoptive country and what she sees as its systematic failure to embrace him.

From a former museum guard, a meditation on art, time and loss

Part dogged investigation, part extended polemic, “Picasso the Foreigner” is organized around a provocative claim: Because of his immigrant background, Picasso was continually rejected and marginalized by the French establishment. In her account, French museums shunned his works until astonishingly late, while French officials, French critics and French bureaucrats did their best to sideline him, denigrate his work or excise him from the national story altogether. As Cohen-Solal puts it, with italic emphasis, France’s treatment of Picasso amounted to “the scandal of the greatest artist of his age, stigmatized and targeted because he was a foreigner.”

Cohen-Solal lays out her case in a formidable battery of documents, statements, immigration policies and sociological research. In place of the seedy Belle Epoque glamour usually associated with Picasso’s first years in Paris, she presents a paranoid and xenophobic city, still reeling from a decade of antisemitism and anarchist violence. Montmartre, we learn, was crawling with police informants with names like Finot, Foureur, Bornibus and Giroflé; as for the Bateau-Lavoir, the much-mythologized artists’ building where Picasso lived and worked during his first cubist breakthroughs, it was in reality “one of those shameful habitations that the capital offered its immigrants and marginals.” In this unpromising milieu, the young Picasso, with his broken French and outcast friends, struggled to avoid arrest or even expulsion. Already in 1901, Cohen-Solal writes, he was considered an “alien suspect” for his apparent ties to anarchists; four years later, one of his first solo exhibitions provoked a police investigation.

By the eve of World War I, Picasso’s star had begun its rapid rise — at least in other parts of Europe and, Cohen-Solal maintains, the United States. In Paris, by contrast, newspapers were “rife with fear that cubism was a direct threat to the country’s identity.” Even in the 1920s and 1930s, when Picasso had long since become a well-paid and highly sought-after member of the Right Bank beau monde, Cohen-Solal finds French nationalist critics attacking him and the state utterly indifferent to his work. And then there was the continual menace of the immigration authorities, or what she calls the “all-powerful police.” The evidence is thin here, and readers may scratch their heads when Cohen-Solal writes breathlessly of the “minefield of bureaucracy” that Picasso was made to walk through, having to renew his foreign identity card about once every four years between 1919 and the start of World War II: “so many fingerprints taken, so many mugshots of him looking like an ex-con,” she writes. Elsewhere, she puts much weight on the fact that Picasso was “stigmatized” by the word “SPANISH” on his identity card, in what appears to have been a simple identification of his nationality. But for Cohen-Solal, all this is the prelude to his definitive rejection for citizenship in the spring of 1940.

Amid this drawn-out indictment of “institutional France,” as she calls it, Cohen-Solal makes some interesting discoveries. Granted extensive access to the Picasso archives, she reveals that Picasso, during his early struggles, was something of a mama’s boy, receiving a constant string of letters from his worried mother in Barcelona. She documents, in new detail, the crucial legal help given to the artist by the astute French lawyer André Level during and after World War I. Even more striking, she adds new information about Max Pellequer, Level’s nephew, who made speculative investments on Picasso’s behalf that helped the artist amass a small fortune in the 1920s. And she finds that, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of France, someone anonymously denounced Picasso for making “anti-French remarks.”

‘Biography of X’ is a brilliant novel that remixes art and history

Less appealing is Cohen-Solal’s habit of overdramatizing her research. Multiple chapters begin not with Picasso but with her visits to archives: “In a hot, humid room, I examine the files on late nineteenth-century anarchist plots” or “I struggle to decipher the handwriting, and I start to read.” She also makes liberal use of stacks of rhetorical questions to support her conclusions when evidence is lacking. And in at least one instance — a discussion of the French collector Jacques Doucet, the first owner of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” — Cohen-Solal appears to recycle, verbatim, several paragraphs from “Painting American,” a book she wrote more than 20 years ago.

But a deeper problem with “Picasso the Foreigner” lies with its central argument. In Cohen-Solal’s reading, the United States — along with Germany and Russia — was far ahead of France in its openness to avant-garde art. This is incorrect. For years, there were hardly any American buyers for Picasso’s advanced art; in 1926, Paul Rosenberg bought up the lone major Picasso collection in the United States and brought it back to Paris, because the New York market was so weak. Even Chester Dale — the New York financier who became, as Cohen-Solal notes, an avid Picasso collector in the late 1920s — steered clear of cubism.

Indeed, on the strength of Cohen-Solal’s own evidence, France was crucial to Picasso’s success, just as it was for so many other foreign artists who settled there. As she observes, it was often in dialogue with the French artists Georges Braque and Henri Matisse that Picasso was spurred on to new innovations. Frenchmen such as Level and Doucet were crucial patrons of his art before and after World War I. Rosenberg, Picasso’s primary dealer from 1919 to 1939, ran one of France’s leading galleries. And Picasso’s first great retrospective was not in New York but at the Georges Petit galleries in Paris, in 1932 — much to the chagrin of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the legendary founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. Bizarrely, Cohen-Solal accuses André Malraux, de Gaulle’s culture minister and a leading French intellectual, of “erasing Picasso’s name” in a 1961 eulogy to Braque, though, as she later acknowledges, Malraux organized a “vast” state exhibition devoted to Picasso a few years later and recommended him for one of France’s highest honors.

As for Picasso’s failure to obtain French citizenship in 1940, the historians Daix and Israel provide a more straightforward explanation. The application was filed during the tense first spring of World War II, and the negative ruling came two weeks after Hitler’s armies marched into France. Picasso — who had not previously sought citizenship — may have been motivated by fears of an imminent Spanish-German alliance, which would have classified him as an enemy alien. In turn, the French police were probably concerned about Picasso’s ties to communists, since the French Communist Party had been banned following the German-Soviet pact of 1939. Although one functionary ruled in Picasso’s favor, the anonymous denunciation that Cohen-Solal has unearthed, together with the arrival of the Wehrmacht, may have been enough to tip the balance. Rather than the result of a decades-long campaign to stigmatize Picasso, then, it probably came down to the chaos and anxiety of a security bureaucracy confronting the opening stages of a terrifying world conflict.

Hugh Eakin is the author of “Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America.”

Picasso the Foreigner

An Artist in France, 1900-1973

By Annie Cohen-Solal, translated by Sam Taylor

Farar, Straus and Giroux. 588 pp. $40

More from Book World

Join Book Club: Delivered to your inbox on Fridays, a selection of book reviews and recommendations from Book World editor Ron Charles. Sign up for the newsletter.

Best books of 2022: See our picks for the 10 best books of 2022 or dive into your favorite genre. Look to the best thrillers and mysteries to keep you on the edge of your seat, get lost in the possibilities of the best sci-fi and fantasy, and spark some joy with these 14 feel-good reads.

There’s more: Those looking for love stories should check out the best romance novels of 2022. And for the young (and young at heart) in your life, see the best children’s and YA books and top graphic novels. Plus, six BookTok stars share their favorite reads of the year. Audiobooks more your thing? We’ve got you covered there, too.

Still need more reading inspiration? Check out reviews for the latest in fiction and nonfiction.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.