‘Poland trip was best two weeks of my life:’ So, why exactly was Pablo Picasso in post-war Poland?
Once proclaiming it to have been the best two-weeks of his life, 73-years-ago Poland found itself in the grip of starstruck wonder as Pablo Picasso embarked on a mini tour of the country.
Originally intended as just a three-day visit, the official reason given for the increased length of his stay was that it allowed the artist to attend a state ceremony to receive an award from President Bolesław Bierut.
Just as likely, however, was Picasso’s trepidation about flying. But perhaps, as impossible as it might sound nowadays, it really had been a magical time for the artist – certainly, there is much to suggest that.
The reason for his visit had been straight-forward enough; still traumatized and reeling from the war, Poland - and more specifically Wroclaw - had been picked to host the grandly titled World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace.
Coined by authorities in the Soviet Union and Poland, the conference would act as a showcase of the kind intentions of the Communist world whilst subtly casting aspersions on the goals of the Western powers.
Held between the 25th and 28th August, a galaxy of star speakers and attendees were assembled, among them the acclaimed German playwright Bertolt Brecht, the notorious writer and Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, novelist Aldous Huxley, poet Julian Tuwim, the legendary British author Graham Greene and the scientist Irène Joliot-Curie – daughter of Marie.
Albert Einstein, meanwhile, sent a letter of support that was relayed to the delegates – apparently only after being redacted by censors.
Staying in the Monopol Hotel, where only a few years earlier Hitler had stood waving at his acolytes from a balcony, it was while here that Picasso sketched out a dove on a hotel napkin.
Though historically representative of peace for several cultures, this act alone helped popularize the bird as a symbol of post-war pacificism – today, unfortunately, no trace of the napkin exists.
Getting Picasso to Wrocław in the first place had in itself proved a little problematic.
Basing himself at the time in the south of France, Picasso had received a visit from a delegation of Polish top brass who pleaded with him to attend.
Some claim his decision to come was made while he mulled the proposal over a swim in the sea; others report he was only convinced after seeing a serial number tattooed on the arm of an Auschwitz survivor.
Either way, his positive response was seen as a coup by the Polish state who overlooked the fact that Picasso lacked a passport and sent a Soviet Li-2 plane to fly him from Paris.
Viewing Poland from above, Picasso is said to have expressed delight at the strangely-shaped patchwork of fields down below. “My God,” he exclaimed, “that’s pure Cubism”.
Though the congress had succeeded in attracting huge names, there can be no doubt that Picasso was the biggest sensation of them all.
Happily posing for photographs and signing autographs (reputedly in ink that quickly faded), he was enthusiastically trailed wherever he went by curious admirers.
When it was his turn to speak at the congress (he used the occasion to express his support for the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda), the hall “froze” to pay heed to his words.
“It was like an electric current had swept the room,” wrote the newspapers.
The stories did not finish there. The caricaturist Eryk Lipiński later recalled being stunned when Picasso walked into a public lavatory and took his place next to him.
“My hands were shaking and I couldn’t urinate,” said Lipiński, “if only a photographer had been around to take a picture!”
There were other moments, as well. During one vodka-fuelled dinner in the Monopol, Picasso took off his shirt after complaining of the heat. From their perch at the bar, some women complained that “some Czech man was undressing in the restaurant.”
When the conference finished, Picasso was not done with Poland. Rather than leaving, he instead travelled by train eastwards to Warsaw.
Recognized by the ticket collector, he was ushered into an elegant carriage and performed a belly dance with an umbrella after one fan declared his unrelenting devotion.
In the Polish capital, his appetite for the country showed no signs of waning. Staying in the Bristol Hotel, his activities included a tour of the ruined city and a visit to the National Museum where he handed over a series of hand-painted ceramics.
Having already heaped praise on the paintings of Cybis and the sculptures of Dunikowski in Wrocław, he again voiced his appreciation of Polish artists as he was escorted through the museum’s exhibitions. A heavy smoker, he was permitted to smoke as he walked around.
Keeping a busy schedule, other notable events included a dinner at Bagatela 10 alongside artists and politicians and a reception held in an artists’ canteen in Saska Kępa on August 31st – unveiled in 1989, a plaque remembers this fleeting visit to Obrońców 28/30.
Kraków came next, and although less is known about this leg of his trip we do know that he seized the opportunity to snap up the folk and mountain outfits that had first impressed him on show in Wrocław – later, his partner, Francoise Gilot, would model one as the subject of his painting ‘A Woman in a Polish Coat’.
Returning to Warsaw, he was awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta Commander’s Cross with Star at a gala in the Belvedere Palace and also squeezed in a trip to Wilanów Palace before being flown home on September 6th.
Not to be underestimated, the impact of his visit was huge, and amply proved by the fact that a plate he autographed at the Bristol Hotel is now considered one of the treasures of the Museum of Warsaw.
Famously, not all traces of Picasso were as carefully preserved.
Before his trip came to an end, the artist was taken on a tour of the WSM Housing Estate in the Koło district by its designers, the architects Helena and Szymon Syrkus.
Built in a modernist style, the estate was presented as proof of the visionary new thinking that Warsaw had embraced.
Suitably impressed, Picasso whipped out a hunk of coal that he had picked up from the construction site and drew his version of Warsaw’s mascot, the mermaid, on the wall of one of the apartments that he was being shown.
Replacing the creature’s sword with a hammer, it was a giant work measuring 1.7 by 1.8 metres. It wasn’t just its dimensions that were eye-catching, either.
One startled witness is quoted as saying: “and her bosoms were huge – like two big balloons.”
Indeed they were and word of this impromptu work spread after the artist had left Poland. When the new tenants moved into the flat at ul. Deotymy 48 they found themselves besieged by sightseers – even Bierut himself once presented himself on their doorstep.
Increasingly irritated by the work, the couple that resided there did their best to ignore it, eventually even hanging a curtain over it. Still, their resentment festered, buoyed by the random school excursions that would bang on their door.
After writing to the building’s administrator, permission was granted for the removal of the mermaid.
“The WSM Board does not impede the renovation of premises No. 28 / 48 Deotymy and agrees to have the Mermaid painted on the wall by the painter Pikacco (sic) removed,” came the reply.
Apocryphal it might be, but when workers arrived to the flat one is alleged to have looked disparagingly at the etching and asked: “and the who on earth did that – my brother-in-law could do better.”
Later interviewed by a magazine, the flat’s owner defended her actions: “All I can say is that it wasn’t a masterpiece.”
And so it was that Warsaw lost a priceless piece of Pablo Picasso – gone but not forgotten.
To read more about the Picasso mermaid and its return click here: https://www.thefirstnews.com/article/picassos-mermaid-returns-to-apartment-wall-66-years-after-being-washed-off-7890