When Picasso Crossed the Iron Curtain: The 1st USSR Picasso Exhibition

In 1956, Picasso’s paintings were brought to Moscow in a show seen by many as one of the first windows to the world beyond the Iron Curtain.

Apr 27, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations



The Picasso exhibition in the Soviet Union represents one of the central events and enduring memories of the thawing relations between East and West during the Cold War era. The exhibition coincided with turbulent events within the Soviet Union: mass student protests and the Hungarian revolution. Thus, Picasso and his art became symbols of political upheaval and freedom.


The successful completion of the Picasso exhibition was only possible because of Picasso’s commitment to communism after joining the French Communist Party in 1944. Picasso was widely referred to as “the most famous communist in the world after Stalin and Mao Zedong.”


Picasso & Communism Before the 1956 Picasso Exhibition

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Picasso Room in Shchukin’s house. Source: Russia Beyond


Pablo Picasso was closely associated with both communism and Russia even before the Picasso Exhibition of 1956 in Moscow.


In 1908, famous French artist Henri Matisse visited Picasso’s Montmartre studio in Paris, France, with a Russian art buyer, Sergei Shchukin. Shchukin purchased two paintings (one of which was Queen Isabea) and compensated the artist generously. Shchukin and Picasso became close partners, and over the course of the next six years, the Russian philanthropist acquired more than 50 of Picasso’s artworks, including Woman with a Fan and The Absinthe Drinker.

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Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Picasso’s two distinguished works, Girl on a Ball and Harlequin and His Companion, were acquired by Ivan Morozov, another well-known Russian art collector.


The collections of Shchukin and Morozov were nationalized by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. Picasso’s artworks were placed in a newly established Museum of New Western Art. The museum functioned until 1948 when it was dissolved, and the collections were redistributed between the Pushkin and the Hermitage Museums.


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Pablo Picasso as he created a light drawing by Gjon Mili, 1949. Source: The Life


In 1944, Pablo Picasso became a member of the Communist Party of France. His decision was an act of protest against the developments in Picasso’s native Spain. The Spanish Civil War and the establishment of General Franco’s fascist dictatorship by forceful measures were in contradiction with Picasso’s anti-military and anti-fascist beliefs. Picasso remained in the communist party for the rest of his life. Once he became a communist, the artist was commonly referred to as “Comrade Pablo.”


This period also marked the formation of a close friendship between Pablo Picasso and prominent Soviet writer, journalist, and historian Ilya Ehrenburg. Ehrenburg was one of the founders of the International Peace Movement, established in 1948. Ehrenburg attempted to break the Soviet Union’s grip on Soviet authors and artists while also introducing modern Western art to the Soviet population. He served as a cultural link between the post-World War II West and the Soviet Union. In this context, he undertook the responsibility of promoting the peace movement in 1949. Picasso joined the cause and created the well-known “dove” emblem of peace.


picasso pablo dove poster
Dove by Pablo Picasso, 1949. Source: Tate, London


After Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, Louis Aragon, the editor-in-chief of the French newspaper Les Lettres Françaises, commissioned Pablo Picasso to create a painting of Joseph Stalin. The French Communist Party felt offended when Picasso unveiled a portrait of a young Stalin inspired by an old photo of him (see portrait in the following section). The portrait did not suit the traditional stereotype of Stalin as “the father of the people.” Louis Aragon remarked, “Stalin cannot be invented.”


After Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev became the new leader of the Soviet Union. Aiming to distance himself from Stalin’s regime, Khrushchev embarked on establishing a new form of Soviet governance that was socio-politically and culturally more liberating. Ilya Ehrenburg referred to this shift in Soviet ideology as the “Thaw” and published his famous novel with the same name in the spring of 1954 in the issue of Novy Mir.


As part of Khrushchev Thaw and subsequent rapprochement policy with the West, Ehrenburg was instrumental in organizing the first Picasso exhibition at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow, Russia, on October 16, 1956.


The Picasso Exhibition at the Pushkin Museum

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Cover of Les Lettres Françaises, featuring Portrait of Stalin by Pablo Picasso, 1953. Source: Espionart


In 1956, Ehrenburg suggested to the Soviet Union’s Central Committee to hold the Picasso exhibition in Moscow as a way to honor a dedicated international communism advocate for his seventy-fifth birthday.


In 1955, as part of the cultural exchange between East and West, Picasso’s exhibition was held in East Germany at the National Gallery in East Berlin. Later, in 1956, Picasso’s works were exhibited at the National Art Museum in the People’s Republic of China. Works of Pablo Picasso often resembled the themes of anti-fascism and social justice and thus resonated with the ideology of communist countries. Following the Cuban Revolution, Pablo Picasso’s works were also later exhibited in Cuba in 1959, symbolizing political upheavals and revolutionary ideas.


At first, the Central Committee declined Ehrenburg’s suggestion. But shortly after, at the 20th Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “Secret Speech,” criticizing Stalin and introducing relatively liberal internal and exterior policies. Influenced by Khrushchev’s decisions, the Committee agreed to hold the exhibition, albeit with limited media coverage and a relatively small collection to limit its impact.


Portrait of Ilya Ehrenburg by Pablo Picasso, 1948. Source: Nigel Hall


However, Pablo Picasso was not content with this decision. He envisioned the exhibition as an opportunity to make up for his 1951 loss in Korea, as his work, Massacre in Korea, did not triumph, particularly within the French Communist Party. Pablo Picasso personally selected 38 of his artworks, including ceramics, illustrating the diversity of his work from the 1920s to the 1950s, to be exhibited in two separate museums: the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Hermitage in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg today).


The Pushkin Museum presented Picasso’s Young Acrobat on a Ball, Family of Saltimbanques, Head of an Old Man in Tiara, and Still Life with Violin.


The Hermitage presented Picasso’s earlier and larger works from his “Blue Period.” It included The Absinthe Drinker, The Two Sisters, Portrait of Soler the Tailor, and Woman with a Scarf, as well as Dance of the Veils, Clarinet and Violin, Bowl of Fruit with Bunch of Grapes and Sliced Pear, Three Women, Woman with a Fan, Maternity and Seated Woman with a Book, and Musical Instruments.


Even though no advertisement campaign took place in preparation for the Picasso Exhibition, hundreds of people flocked to the museum with great enthusiasm. Not only was it a rare opportunity to explore modern Western art, but it was also a place to engage in a lively public discussion on art, culture, and politics—everything the Khrushchev Thaw promised.


Influence of the Picasso Exhibition 

picasso pablo massacre in korea painting
Massacre in Korea by Pablo Picasso, 1951. Source: Museu Picasso, Barcelona


The influence of the Picasso Exhibition can be understood within the wider social context of uncertainty about the effects of the Khrushchev Thaw and subsequent socio-political turbulences in the Soviet Union.


By the time the Picasso Exhibition opened in Moscow, Khrushchev’s policies of de-Stalinization had triggered waves of liberation movements across the Soviet Union. On October 23, 1956, an uprising against Soviet rule began in Hungary and galvanized broader public support in opposition to communist rule in Poland in November. Both attempts at freedom were violently suppressed by the Soviet government, yet they made the Picasso exhibition the center of public unrest. The Soviet leadership feared that the exposure to Picasso’s artwork and subsequent public discourse could go beyond art and culture and transform into a political issue.


Simultaneously with the opening of the Picasso Exhibition in Moscow, protesters in Warsaw, Poland, displayed a replica of Picasso’s painting Massacre In Korea at the Academy of Arts, a symbolic gesture of support for the Hungarian Uprising. Even though Picasso’s initial purpose of the Massacre In Korea was to oppose United States imperialism, Polish protesters presented the artwork in an anti-communist context, making communist leaders further question the rightfulness of opening the Iron Curtain to Picasso.


The implications of Picasso’s exhibition became particularly concerning when it moved to the Hermitage. The Central Committee’s Culture Department reported students engaging in politically dangerous debates on artistic freedom while criticizing Soviet art and its Socialist Realism style.


The Face of Peace by Pablo Picasso, 1951. Source: Picasso Celebracion


On December 21, students attempted to organize an unofficial public discussion in Leningrad. During a three-day conference titled “The Future of Soviet Art,” the Soviet Academy of Arts was criticized and called a “feudal institution.” Collectivization was denounced as an instrument of Soviet repression. The Committee for State Security (KGB) feared that Picasso and his works were fueling an unhealthy political mood, triggering a “little Budapest” in Leningrad. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet authorities suppressed the students’ conference and arrested several participants.


Nevertheless, Pablo Picasso managed to save himself and his works from the Soviet regime. In 1962, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize as a “crusader for peace.” Ilya Ehrenburg, who had been instrumental in making the Picasso Exhibition a reality in the Soviet Union, visited Mougins, France, to personally hand over the prize. Picasso, however, refused it. In the following years, Picasso’s exhibitions were held several times in the Soviet Union: in 1966, 1971, and 1988 at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; in 1982 at the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad; in 1990 at the Ukrainian National Art Museum in Kyiv, and in 1991 in Moscow, prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.


Despite the Soviet leadership’s attempts to curtail Picasso’s influence on the socio-political climate of the communist world, Picasso’s works were hailed as “the radiance of real art” that would “break through all obstacles” within the Soviet Union. As American historian Eleonory Gilburd noted, “At the heart was Soviet art—society—while Picasso was a name metaphor for everything Soviet society was not.”

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.