At the very end of two days of looking at great art in Amsterdam, I came across a Pablo Picasso painting that made me laugh: “Seated Woman Wearing a Hat in the Shape of a Fish.” The painting is in Amsterdam’s modern art museum, the Stedelijk. The date is 1942, midway through the Second World War. I had to look up the artist’s whereabouts during this time. As it happened, he stayed in Paris during the entire Nazi occupation. Naturally, the Gestapo regarded him as subversive–and he certainly was, though not in any way the Nazis could understand. He did not bother to exhibit his work at this time, but he never stopped creating.
According to one account, one day Gestapo officers were in his studio harassing him, as they often did. They spotted his great antiwar painting, “Guernica,” which depicts the terrible suffering inflicted by German bombers on a town full of innocent victims during the Spanish Civil War. A Gestapo officer pointed at the painting, which was not yet acknowledged as one of the most powerful antiwar images ever made, and asked Picasso, “Did you do this?” “No,” Picasso reportedly replied. “You did.”
So what about this woman with a fish on her head? Could it be a spoof on military headgear? Or a joke about pompous officials in general? Was Picasso poking fun at some acquaintance? Was he making fun of women’s frivolous fashions during wartime? I don’t know. Maybe the painting means nothing at all–maybe that is the point. Maybe it is just meant to provoke a smile. In even the darkest times, we need artists who are able to show us that there is more to life than the grim reality that sometimes surrounds us.