From the Collection–Pablo Picasso’s The Cock of the Liberation

Many of the artists featured in the special exhibition Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels, Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are also represented in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This is the fifth in a series of blog posts that will highlight Milwaukee’s artworks during the run of the exhibition.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), The Cock of the Liberation (Le Coq de la Liberation), 1944. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley M1959.372. Photo credit: Larry Sanders. © 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), The Cock of the Liberation (Le Coq de la Liberation), 1944. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley M1959.372. Photo credit: Larry Sanders. © 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) is not usually considered a political artist.  His favorite artistic subjects were still-lifes, portraits, harlequins, and other seemingly uncontroversial images.

But in some key instances, world events were an important influence on him.  We don’t have to look far to find an example: the Milwaukee Art Museum’s The Cock of the Liberation (Le Coq de la Liberation), painted by Picasso in 1944.

For the first several decades of his career, Picasso didn’t explicitly mix art and politics. But outside of his art, Picasso was always interested in politics.  He associated with political radicals of all stripes, numbering among his friends communists, socialists, and even anarchists.

This separation, however, wasn’t always the case. One event in particular brought Picasso’s political views to the fore. On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the small Basque town of Guernica was brutally bombed by the Nazi and Italian Fascist allies of the Spanish Nationalist Government. Guernica was not a military target and was bombed as an act of terror, resulting in the deaths of several hundred civilians.

Lucien Clergue (French, b. 1934), Picasso at Californie near Massacres en Coree, Cannes, 1955, printed 1981. Gelatin silver print. Milwaukee Art Museum, The Floyd Segel Collection, Centennial Gift of Wis-Pak Foods Inc. M1988.68b. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.© Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Lucien Clergue (French, b. 1934), Picasso at Californie near Massacres en Coree, Cannes, 1955, printed 1981. Gelatin silver print. Milwaukee Art Museum, The Floyd Segel Collection, Centennial Gift of Wis-Pak Foods Inc. M1988.68b. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.© Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Although Picasso had lived in Paris for decades at the time of the bombing, he was still Spanish. He was also popular with the Spanish Republican Government, who commissioned him to paint a large mural for Spanish exhibition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. After reading an eye-witness account of the Guernica bombing, Picasso decided that his mural would be an anti-war statement based on that terrible event.

Guernica was completed in 1937 for the World’s Fair and can be seen today in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. The scene shows both people and animals in the middle of the attack, and all of the figures express pain and despair. The work is chaotic and disjointed, reflecting the chaos of the bombing. The shades of grey that dominate the scene add to the sense of death and destruction. Still today, Guernica is widely considered a powerful anti-war symbol and ranks among Picasso’s best known works.

Which brings us back to Milwaukee’s The Cock of the Liberation. What makes this painting as much of a political statement as Guernica?

Picasso was still living in Paris at the beginning of WWII, and chose to remain rather than flee like so many other artists and intellectuals. He stayed there throughout the Nazi occupation and continued to paint, though he was a favorite target for harassment by the Gestapo. According to one anecdote, when a Gestapo agent noticed a picture of Guernica in Picasso’s studio, he asked the artist “Did you do that?” to which Picasso pithily replied “No, you did.”

Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees to view Allied tanks and half tracks pass through the Arc du Triomphe, after Paris was liberated. Photograph by Jack Downey, courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USW36-1 A.

Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees to view Allied tanks and half tracks pass through the Arc du Triomphe, after Paris was liberated. Photograph by Jack Downey, courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USW36-1 A.

Consequently, Picasso was in Paris in August 1944 to witness firsthand the Allied liberation of the city. The liberation of his adopted home no doubt had a great impact on him, and The Cock of the Liberation expresses his joy at this turning point in WWII.

The choice of a rooster might seem odd, but in fact it directly references France. The Gallic rooster has long been the unofficial national symbol of France, and in Picasso’s painting the proud bird seems to announce the end of a dark chapter in French history. The bright colors are a reference to historical French art, and also reflect the exuberance felt by Picasso and all of Paris at their new found freedom.

Milwaukee’s painting is the opposite of Guernica in many ways. Guernica is a massive mural, while The Cock of the Liberation is just over three feet tall. While Guernica is dark and foreboding, The Cock of the Liberation explodes with bright colors.

Despite these differences, war is at the heart of both works. The Cock of the Liberation may be more subtle than Guernica, but it is no less impactful in its message. And it is more hopeful, for while Guernica shows the terrible effects of war, The Cock of the Liberation shows the optimism for what’s to come after the fighting stops.

Matthew Rogan, Curatorial Intern

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