“It’s easy to be a hero when you’re only risking your life.”
“To be an artist,” Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary, “is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.” But how is an artist to be when the world itself becomes murderous? Nowhere is the wear and tear of living more trying for the creative spirit — for the human spirit — than in war. And yet generations of artists have not only persevered through some of the ugliest, most gruesome periods in our civilizational history but have helped the rest of us endure by bolstering the spirit of their fellow humans. Bourgeois herself lived through two world wars, as did the artist she considered the greatest master: Pablo Picasso (October 25, 1881–April 8, 1973), a man whose unflinching creative courage became nothing short of heroism under the duress of war.
Despite frequent harassment by the Gestapo, Picasso refused to leave Nazi-occupied Paris. He was forbidden from exhibiting or publishing, all of his books were banned, and even the reproduction of his work was prohibited — but he continued to make art. When the Germans outlawed bronze casting, he went on making sculptures with bronze smuggled by the French Resistance — a symbolic act which the deflated creative community saw as an emboldening beam of hope.
In Conversations with Picasso (public library) — the same vintage treasure that gave us the artist’s views on success, where ideas come from, and the glory of dust — Hungarian photographer Brassaï recounts a 1943 conversation with the French poet Jacques Prévert, another friend of Picasso’s. Brassaï, who had been visiting the artist’s studio and interviewing him for over a decade, reflects on the bravery with which Picasso had withstood the occupation of Paris since the Nazis had taken over three years earlier:
At the time of the invasion, he could have left if he had wanted, could have gone anywhere he wished, to Mexico, Brazil, the United States. He didn’t lack for money or opportunities or invitations. Even during the Occupation, the United States consul requested several times that he leave France. But he stayed. His presence among us is a comfort and a spur, not only for those of us who are his friends, but even for those who don’t know him.
Prévert agrees and considers the true meaning of heroism:
It was an act of courage. The man is not a hero. He is afraid, just like anyone who has something to say or defend. It’s easy to be a hero when you’re only risking your life. For his part, he could, and still can, lose everything. Who knows what turn the war will take? Paris may be destroyed. He’s got a bad record with the Nazis, and could be interned, deported, taken hostage. Even his works — “degenerate” art, “Bolshevik” art — have already been condemned and may be burned at the stake. No one in the world, not the pope or the Holy Ghost, could prevent such an auto-da-fé. And the more desperate Hitler and his acolytes become, the more dangerous, deadly, and destructive their rage may be. Can Picasso guess how they might react? He has assumed the risk. He has come back to occupied Paris. He is with us. Picasso is a great guy.
But the city was not destroyed. On August 25, 1944, the Liberation of Paris took place after a seven-day coup, in which Hemingway himself participated. “JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary that day.
Brassaï reflects on the larger payoff of Picasso’s courageous resistance, recounting a very different kind of joyous invasion:
From one day to the next, Picasso’s studio was invaded. His courageous attitude made him a standard-bearer, and the whole world wanted to salute him as the symbol of recovered freedom. Poets, painters, art critics, museum directors, writers dressed in the uniform of Allied armies, officers or simple soldiers, climbed the steep staircase in a compact mob. There was a crush of people at his place. He has become just as popular in Red China, in Soviet Russia, as he was in the United States after his major exhibition in New York. And, for months, Picasso good-naturedly relished universal glory, graciously made himself available to journalists, to photographers, and even to the curious who wanted to see him “in the flesh.”
Conversations with Picasso is an indispensable read in its totality, full of the great artist’s ideas on every aspect of art and life, and strewn with cameos and recollections by some of his most influential contemporaries, including Henri Matisse, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Henry Miller.
Complement this particular portion with Hemingway’s first-hand account of the Liberation coup.