Category Archives: Pablo Picasso

Picasso, the FBI, and why he became a Communist

 I came across this clipping, Pablo Picasso’s "Why I became a communist," from Meyer Schapiro’s research files on Communism and art. Written in 1945 and sent by cable to the publication The New Masses (of which Schapiro was a contributor), Picasso wrote:

"My joining the Communist Party is a logical step in my life, my work and gives them their meaning. Through design and color, I have tried to penetrate deeper into a knowledge of the world and of men so that this knowledge might free us. In my own ways I have always said what I considered most true, most just and best and, therefore, most beautiful. But during the oppression and the insurrection I felt that that was not enough, that I had to fight now only with painting but with my whole being." 

For Picasso, Communism was a means towards freedom and happiness, as he wrote in the article:  "I have become a Communist because our party strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy."

The year 1945 was a pivotal one for thinkers on the left, after the "Great Purge" of 1936 through 1938 in Russia by leader Joseph Stalin, many leading figures began to deflect from Communism and, like Schapiro’s friend and former Communist spy Whittaker Chambers, would altogether denounce it as a failed concept and governmental form.  As Picasso’s stance suggests, many individuals in artistic and entertainment circles moved within the orbit of Communism as a liberal concept. To counter this trend, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), presided over by the United States House of Representatives, was created in 1938 to criminalize those activities in hostile congressional hearings.

Many artists who identified as Communist or were considered "Communist sympathizers," a euphemism at times for being merely progressive, were blacklisted from working, as witnessed by the "Hollywood blacklist." Individuals were monitored by federal agencies such as the FBI, which, to no surprise, kept files on individuals such as Picasso for their engagement with what HUAC deemed as "Communist activities" and/or the Communist party.  A document from the FBI archives on Picasso includes a mention of his article "Why I became a communist" and reasons that, because of this, "any information concerning Picasso" should be "furnished to the Bureau in view of the possibility that he may attempt to come to the United States." 

In the late 1940s to early 1950s, Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr Jr. would compare Communist Russia to Nazi Germany in his article for the New York Times Magazine titled "Is Modern Art Communistic?" Barr would write this it seems to distance and even undermine the assumption that artists, perceived as liberals,  where in any way affiliated with Communism — an important distinction to be made in order to avoid more prosecution from a paranoid populace.  

Indeed, as the 1950s progressed, old acquaintances parted ways ideologically, as Michael Kimmage shows in his book The conservative turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, yet Schapiro remained friends with individuals on both sides of the ideological divide — an interesting fact that is at times forgotten.

Needles to say, it was a volatile and paranoid moment in American history — one that still holds many fascinating insights into the role of politics, the arts, and how the two collide. 





Codename: Agent Japonica & Ventriloquist

One of the joys of working in an archive is deciphering clues and ascertaining that certain identities are really who they are.

For example, Who is Agent Japonica & Ventriloquist and is there a connection with Meyer Schapiro?

As many of Schapiro’s friends, colleagues, and scholars know, he was an adamant supporter of the resistance and the left during the 1930s to the 1950s. For instance, he corresponded with Mark Chirik, a communist revolutionary. There are records that Schapiro was to support Chirik in New York, although the archives never house records that say he in fact did. Several individuals, such as Whittaker Chambers, who defected and later renounced the Communist party, were also friends of Schapiro. Chambers is famously known for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee and exposing the likes of Alger Hiss.

Schapiro also had many European friends and colleagues during the wartime, and there are records that indicate he might have known a certain Agent Japonica. Although a certain Blanche Charlet corresponded with Schapiro, none of the letters in the archive directly state she is THE Blanche Charlet who worked with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. Charlet was known as Agent Japonica and Ventriloquist and succedded Virginia Hall in France to spy for the allies against the Germans in Nazi invaded France.

While the political angle may be how Schapiro knew Charlet, it was actually through the art world. Before the war, Blanche Charlet was also a gallery owner and one of the first to represent the surrealist artist Magritte. I couldn’t confirm that this Charlet of the art world was also the Charlet of the espionage world until I came across a clue. In a 1978 letter to art critic David Sylvestre regarding Magritte, Charlet writes: “I left Belgium definitely in 1932 for France. During the beginning of the War I discovered I was British becauseg I was born in London. Mobilized in 1941, was trained as a courrier [sic], went back to France, arrested, escaped, came back in 1944, etc…”

Charlet was arrested 1942 by the German occupiers of France and later staged a prison outbreak with other French resistance fighters. Not much is known of Charlet and no definite biography has been written (although Wikipedia cites the publication A Quiet Courage: Women Agents int he French Resistance as a citation for their entry on Charlet). That Wikipedia entry makes no mention of Charlet’s role in the artistic community, nor is there any substantial source material about her ( a quick search on Google, World Cat, and a subject heading search on Columbia’s library catalog yields nothing substansive if anything at all).

Clues like these all add up to what I call archival archeology: a set of clues laid out within a collection of primary source material that all come together through an amalgamation of archival processing, research, and the hunch that something is more than meets the eye.

All these clues were found in the archives, but did not add to anything until they were pieced together.

Espionage, surrealist art , prison break-outs…all in a days work of an archivist…