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T. J. Clark on Picasso and the fall of Europe


In the London Review of Books, T. J. Clark writes about a lesser-known Picasso work that nonetheless crystallizes a pivotal moment in twentieth-century history: the mural Fall of Icarus that adorns Unesco headquarters in Paris. As Clark writes, the painting—both in the circumstances surrounding its production and in the painting itself—captures a Europe emerging from the self-inflicted catastrophe of WWII and entering a perilous, uncertain future. Here’s an excerpt:

Picasso’s Fall of Icarus, done in 1958, is a defining and appalling statement of Arendt’s post-epic perspective. It aims to put the era of Guernica behind it. And it does so in a context that lies at the heart of the postwar, ‘international community’ reality of the 1950s: the just finished headquarters of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Paris. Icarus was commissioned for the hallway of Unesco’s Bâtiment des Conférences, and first shown to the public there on 3 November 1958, the moment of the new building’s inauguration.

Picasso’s proposal – his vision of the form to be taken by history painting in a post-Guernica age – has never been much liked or understood. The literature on the artist largely leaves it to one side: the Communist pantomime of his earlier Massacre in Korea, or the exacerbated repeat of Guernica in the Temple of Peace at Vallauris, are given more sympathetic attention. No one – Picasso included – has ever had a firm idea of what the Unesco mural was of. Unesco itself, in the literature produced for the inauguration, said it showed ‘les forces de la vie et de l’esprit triomphant du mal’. Maurice Thorez, leader of the French Communist Party in the 1950s, and a regular visitor to his most famous party member in Vallauris – Picasso and he seem to have had a genuine friendship – noted in his diary that the mural showed ‘le triomphe de la paix sur les forces de la guerre’. Thorez had been present at the first unveiling of the mural in Vallauris in March 1958, but it seems doubtful that his title conveyed Picasso’s intention accurately. When Georges Salles – old friend of Picasso, scholar of Asian art, by 1958 head of the French museum establishment – called the scene ‘La chute d’Icare’ in a speech at the painting’s installation in Paris a few months later, it was unclear to his audience if he was acting with Picasso’s sanction. Salles, we know now, had been at the Vallauris launch and suggested a title then: ‘L’Icare des ténèbres’…

The details of Unesco’s evolution, that is, do not ultimately matter in assessing Picasso’s mural, though often they make for tragicomic reading. (In the 1960s, the Secretariat was instructed to produce anthologies on Tolerance and the Horrors of War. The first could only be printed, after long delays, by an outside publisher, and Unesco refused to put copies on sale – parts of it had not been ‘cleared’. The second never materialised.) Perhaps what is striking, from the vantage of our own Strasbourg-and-Brussels internationalism, is how real the disappointment of the intellectuals continued to be for so long. Unesco, we might say – just because of the urgency and nobility of its aims – was the theatre in which the disintegration of the ‘international community’ could still bring on a shudder. It is this wider disintegration, I feel, that The Fall of Icarus tries to represent. And the mural’s stylistic bizarrerie – the tragicomic strip cartoon idiom Picasso devised for it – could not be more apt.

Image: Picasso’s mural Fall of Icarus at Unesco’s headquarters in Paris. Via London Review of Books.