Later recalling it as “the best two weeks” of his life, this August marks the 74th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s visit to Warsaw…
First intended as merely a three-day jaunt, Picasso’s trip to Poland found itself considerably extended – officially, this was so that he could receive an award from President Bolesław Bierut though it’s also possible the artist himself chose to delay his return due to his famous fear of flying. Just as likely, however, he was simply too busy having a whale of a time.
As a card-carrying member of the French Communist Party, Picasso found himself invited to attend an event in Wrocław. Pompously titled the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace, it was held between the 25th and 28th of August and drew a host of champagne socialists: German playwright Bertolt Brecht, novelist Aldous Huxley, British author Graham Greene and the scientist Irène Joliot-Curie (the daughter of Marie).
Even among such celebrated company, Picasso was undoubtedly the star of the show, and he cemented his reputation for eccentricity during a raucous dinner at Wrocław’s Monopol Hotel. Prancing around half-naked in the banquet hall, one guest is said to have complained about “the drunk Czech man undressing in the restaurant”.
Having originally been flown into the country in a Soviet Li-2, Picasso’s love affair with Poland had begun even before he landed. Looking down on the arable land below, he reputedly exclaimed: “Look at those fields; that’s pure Cubism!”
With this in mind, it’s hardly a surprise the artist chose to prolong his visit. And so it was, after finishing his duties in Wrocław, he climbed a train bound for Warsaw on the morning of the 29th, reportedly entertaining one autograph hunter on board with a belly dance.
The Bristol Hotel
Krakowskie Przedmieście 42/44
Having been sequestered by the Germans during the occupation, the Bristol had survived the war largely intact, and this venerable institution was to serve as Picasso’s digs for the duration of his Warsaw stay. Before one gala dinner held here in his honor, the artist drew a portrait of Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, as well as his guide and translator, Ewa Lipińska. It was here, too, that he autographed and dated a plate – donated to the Museum of Warsaw in 1978, it today forms a much-treasured part of their permanent collection.
The National Museum
Al. Jerzolimskie 6
Picasso’s time in Warsaw included a tour of the flattened Ghetto and the city’s broken ruins. On a lighter note, he was also taken to the National Museum where he was given a personalized tour by the museum’s director, Stanisław Lorentz. Expressing his appreciation for the Polish art on display, he was also given special dispensation to smoke whilst admiring the art. After, he donated twenty hand-painted ceramic plates to the museum.
ul. Obrońców 28/30
Picasso’s schedule was hectic with his itinerary including a dinner with Poland’s intelligentsia at Bagatela 10, dinner with the mayor at Wilanów Palace and a presidential ceremony at the Belvedere Palace – it was at the latter he, along with poet Paul Elouard, was awarded the Commander’s Cross with the Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta. But among all that, he also found time for lunch at an artist’s canteen on Obrońców 28/30 – though the building is now locked from the public, peering through the fence you’ll find a copy on the exterior wall of his famous mermaid…
ul. Deotymy 48
For one of Warsaw’s greatest lost treasures, look no further than the story of Picasso’s mermaid. Taken on a tour of the WSM Housing Estate in the Koło district, the artist whipped out a pen inside one apartment he was shown and sketched his take on the Warsaw mermaid. Measuring 1.7 meters by 1.8 meters, one witness remarked upon the work: “my God, her bosoms were huge – like two big balloons.”
Word of the work spread quickly, and it wasn’t long until people – even President Bierut – were knocking on the door of the flat at Deotymy. With their patience waning, the owners applied for the removal of their private ‘Pikacco’ (sic). On turning up, one worker reportedly remarked: “and who on earth did that? My brother-in-law could do better.”
While Warsaw’s cultural institutions may find it difficult to rival the art collections of the Louvre or Tate Modern, they do, on the rare occasion, exhibit works by some of the greats. Such is the case at the Królikarnia Sculpture Museum, where viewers can view an original Picasso at the current CIRCUS exhibition.
The Pablo Picasso work on display is a colored lithograph, dated between 1957-1961, titled Trick Rider and Clowns. Featuring the artist’s characteristic distortion of human form and almost crude rendering of bodily details, the work fits seamlessly into the narrative of the exhibition, where the peculiarity of performers is a trait to be admired. It will be on display until the 2nd of October 2022.