Picasso the Foreigner: An Artist in France, 1900–1973

Image of Picasso the Foreigner: An Artist in France, 1900-1973
Release Date: 
March 21, 2023
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“While the book does recount Picasso’s life, it is also a work of art history that provides fascinating insights about Picasso’s art and how it was shaped by his experiences as a ‘foreigner.’”

Historian Annie Cohen-Solal’s Picasso the Foreigner: An Artist in France, 1900–1973, originally published in French in 2021, won the prestigious Prix Femina Essai, and inspired an exhibition based on her research, which she curated for the Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris in partnership with the national Picasso Museum. Her magnificent study of artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), his work, and French society and culture has been translated in a new edition for English readers on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Picasso the Foreigner sheds light on how the artist came to occupy a paradoxical situation in France due to his “foreign” status due to being an exile from Spain. While idolized as a great artist by French galleries and critics, he was simultaneously scrutinized as a potential danger by French institutional forces "obsessed with the idea of a national cultural purity.”

Cohen-Solal organizes her book into six parts and an epilogue (which is essentially part seven), covering Picasso’s time in France from 1900 to 1973, the year he died. Her preface, “Encounter with an Alien Suspect,” sets the book’s tone as if she were an investigative journalist following leads on an old case in French police archives. Among these files, she encounters “a suspect,” who, of course, is Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, immortalized as simply “Picasso,” his mother’s surname.

Picasso’s file would continue to grow as he remained under active French police surveillance as a potential security threat. While he did associate with some political radicals (such as Spanish anarchists in France during his early years there) and later joined the French Communist Party (which also attracted the attention of U.S. authorities), “among all these documents, . . . [she] did not spot a single crime, apart from that of his not being French. On some of these papers you see the word SPANISH stamped in capital letters, signaling the suspect’s difference, his exclusion, his stigma.” Littered throughout these records branding him an “alien” are “certain phrases [that] betray xenophobia or political suspicion.”

Cohen-Solal probes this “suspect’s” journey from an unwanted poor migrant in Montmartre to a prince of the French avant-garde, hunting for neglected leads uncovered in various archives. This “treasure hunt” reveals a surprisingly intertwined history of art, immigration, and surveillance. By delving into letters, records, and diverse documents in this investigative framework, Cohen-Solal presents a new lens through which to observe French society and culture, Picasso, his genius, and his art.

As a result, she is not so much concerned with the different phases of Picasso’s artistic career (such as his Blue Period: 1901–1904, Rose Period: 1904–1906, African art and primitivism: 1907–1909, analytic cubism: 1909–1912, synthetic cubism: 1912–1919, or neoclassicism and surrealism: 1919–1929). Rather, she is focused on different phases of his reception in France and abroad as he constantly reinvented himself and the art world.

Therefore, in Picasso the Foreigner, Cohen-Solal attempts to build a compelling case to suggest that Picasso’s expatriate Spanish identity was a major determinant in the trajectory of both his life and work. As a result, his artistic identity and visionary methodology were influenced by his experiences in France of being a “foreigner,” or outsider, that threatened his stability.

She consequently builds upon the concept of “the Other” commonly found in academic studies in the social sciences and cultural history focusing on national identity. The term “Others” evokes French philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion derived from the antagonistic subject/object relationship established by Freud and Lacan that nations establish the Other as a “bad race” or “inferior race” (or the “degenerate,” or “the abnormal”) whose elimination would improve society, making it better and purer.

Cohen-Solal’s argument thus illuminates a new perspective of the ever-rebellious, boundary-breaking artistic genius who never indulged in his eventual worldly success. Picasso had to navigate through a tense political climate in the first half of the 20th century. During his years in France, the country experienced World War I, an interwar period marked by an increase in both socialism and the far right, the Nazi German invasion and subsequent occupation of France during World War II, and French struggles to adapt to decolonialization and its diminished global role in the postwar world. Picasso survived and even thrived by using his foreignness strategically to advance his creativity and political causes in Europe. In this sense, he was both an influencer and product of the world in which he lived. In her book, Cohen-Solal devotes almost equal attention to Picasso’s art as well as how he negotiated his status in French society.

As a result, Cohen-Solal’s book is almost as much a history of France as it is a book on Picasso. As she notes when uncovering documents related to the artist in French archives, “I feel as if I am seeing the entire history of a country and its ghosts unfolding before my eyes.” As Pierre-André Taguieff has suggested in his classic text, The Force of Prejudice: On Racism and Its Doubles (2001), 20th and 21st century French racism emerged not from a white-black historical divide as in the United States, but as a tension between “authentic/native” citizens and more numerous “ethnic outsiders,” arriving increasingly from former colonies. By exploring Picasso within this context of being an “outsider” or “foreigner,” Cohen-Solal is able to trace actions toward the artist to contemporary France and current debates about French identity.

Cohen-Solal’s meticulously researched book, using methods primarily from the fields of history and sociology, is not a conventional biography; it is, in fact, much more. By structuring her narrative as she does, she writes in a way that reveals to the reader how the process of historical research unfolds to the one doing it, and why research in the fields of history and the social sciences can be such a thrilling experience and like solving a mystery. The backmatter includes a list of the extensive archival collections used for the book, endnotes, acknowledgements, an index of names, an index of works by Picasso, and an index of works by other artists.

While the book does recount Picasso’s life, it is also a work of art history that provides fascinating insights about Picasso’s art and how it was shaped by his experiences as a “foreigner.” Further, her book is also one about the history of France, specifically shifting debates about French identity and what it meant to be French in an emergent global age by addressing issues surrounding race, class, identity, and exclusion. Picasso the Foreigner is, therefore, not only a remarkable contribution to Picasso studies and those on 20th century art, but also studies on 20th century France.