Museums commonly tell the story of modern art as if its only value lies in its ability to invent new ideas and forms. By that standard, we hardly need to look at the work Picasso did in the war-ravaged decade that began with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Even in such iconic works as his painting "Guernica" (1937), he used stylistic devices he had long since perfected.
Living in occupied Paris during the war, his studio searched frequently by German soldiers, Picasso continued to make art but prudently avoided heroics, political or artistic. Except for a few very famous objects, his art of those years remains undervalued. Taking up the challenge of exploring this little known body of work, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco joined with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to organize an exhibition of Picasso's output from 1937 to 1945.
Even a painting as celebrated as "Night Fishing in Antibes" can easily lose its wartime significance. At one level it pictures an ordinary sight. We know Picasso enjoyed walking along the waterfront of Antibes in August 1939, when he made the painting. The models for the two women have been identified as his companion Dora Maar and Jacqueline Lamba, the wife of Andr Breton.
But we also know that Picasso was terrified by aerial bombardment. Not only Guernica, but other Spanish cities had already been bombed, and the war that would erupt in the following month promised far worse.
From that perspective, the lights may be understood symbolically as bursting anti-aircraft shells, the fisherman as both Nazi bombardiers and Christian evangelists gathering souls, and the fish, in long-established symbolism, as souls to be saved or Jesus himself.
"Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945" is at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, through Jan. 3, and at the Guggenheim in New York from Feb. 5 through April 28, 1999.