“Picasso Was a Foreigner in France”

Annie Cohen-Solal arrived on the French literary scene in 1985 with a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre. Her subsequent success saw her appointed cultural counselor to the French embassy in the United States from 1989 to 1993. Following her time in America, she wrote a slew of biographies, including two noteworthy books on gallerist Leo Castelli and painter Mark Rothko. Her latest work, Picasso the Foreigner: An Artist in France (1900-1973), has just been published in the U.S. An accompanying exhibition formerly on show at the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration in Paris will be presented at the Gagosian gallery in New York City in November.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: You approach Picasso from the unique angle of immigration. Was he a foreigner in France or simply stateless aside from in the world that he created?

Annie Cohen-Solal: Picasso lived in a space far beyond national borders. He applied for French citizenship [and was rejected] in April 1940 [at the start of World War II] because he was scared for his life. But given the multiple facets of his national identity – Andalusian, Galician, Castilian, and Catalan – I don’t think that his passport defined him. He was cosmopolitan, and felt more defined by “the Mediterranean sphere.”

Picasso never became French. How is this possible given that he lived in Paris, then Vallauris in Southern France, from 1900 until his death in 1973?

Picasso arrived in France at a difficult time, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair and a series of anarchist attacks. It was around this time that the “distinction between nationals and immigrants” was introduced. Picasso therefore had to request a foreign ID at the police precinct. This document had to be renewed every four years, and his fingerprints were recorded on it from 1936 onwards. The artist could have become French in 1927, as the eligibility conditions only required him to have lived in France for three years, but he never applied. Later, in the 1960s, the French prime minister Georges Pompidou and culture minister André Malraux offered him French citizenship and the Légion d’Honneur on a silver platter, but he refused.

The French police monitored Picasso for 50 years because of his anarchist, pacifist, and then communist tendencies. Using the artist as a starting point, have you shown France to be an inhospitable country?

France during the first half of the 20th century was obsessed with the idea of “national purity.” There were waves of xenophobia sparked by wars and economic crises. Some attitudes became deeply rooted, along with the “outrageous power of administrative workers.” One among them, Emile Chevalier, refused Picasso’s citizenship application in 1940.

Annie Cohen-Solal at the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, Paris. © Cyril Zannettacci/VU/Libération

Picasso took his first steps as an artist in Barcelona, a hotbed of creativity at the time and still today. In 1900, he moved to Paris. Was the French capital an unavoidable destination for any ambitious artist?

Absolutely. Paris was a Mecca for artists the world over, offering the best museums, the best schools, the best critics, and incredible mutual inspiration.

What is the School of Paris? I know that you dislike this expression.

The term “School of Paris” was invented by French critic André Warnod in 1925. It described the living artists – although not the academic figures – who arrived in the capital starting in 1900, many of whom found themselves in a paradoxical situation. The city offered them exceptional museums, bustling cafés, and the warmth of a diverse population. It was a place to meet French artists, form relationships, and identify with each other, yet all within a marginalized subculture and environment. In this context, Picasso’s situation was quite unique. He retained his individuality and, unlike Chagall, for example, did not try to become French.

New York City has since replaced Paris. Is this because of World War II and mass European exile, or rather the sign of a French withdrawal from the international art scene?

These two temporalities coexist. On the one hand, France has always protected its traditions while its museums are constrained by the all-powerful Académie des Beaux-Arts and the government. On the other, the United States rapidly amassed considerable wealth and created collections and institutions by buying up works that Europe didn’t want, such as Impressionist paintings. But America also benefited from successive waves of European immigration starting in the late 19th century. This was driven by pogroms under the Russian Empire, World War I, and the rise of fascist regimes. I believe that the foundations for this context were laid at the end of the American Civil War, not just after World War II. This latter conflict was a major event, but it only added to a dynamic that had been underway for almost a century.

Has New York City now been overtaken by California, Berlin, or Seoul? Is the art capital everywhere?

Yes, that’s right. Since the legendary 1989 exhibition, Magiciens de la terre, at the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, this previously Western system has opened up with the rise of art biennials across the world, the advent of “mobile curators,” and the development of multiple spaces.

Is there an eternal bond between art and exile? Are artists always foreigners in their own way?

As deftly demonstrated by Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which looks at the Italian Renaissance, artists have always had to travel to put down roots in an artistic hub or access the finest masters and patrons. This mobility leads to a loss of spatial, historical, and linguistic bearings, but it can also become an opportunity for extraordinary stimulation and creativity.

Picasso the Foreigner: An Artist in France (1900-1973) by Annie Cohen-Solal, translated from French by Sam Taylor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.

Interview published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.