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Picasso in Korean history

Artist’s anti-war painting was banned for decades in Korea

July 30,2006

“Massacre en Coree” (1951) by Pablo Picasso. [Musee National Picasso]

Here’s this week’s tip on Korean language and customs, in response to a question sent in by Neil D. Williams of Seoul:

Q:
I read a story about Korea a few years ago, and I’ve always wondered if it is true. I read that, when Park Chung Hee was president, the government was so anti-communist that they prohibited the sale of a brand of crayons called “Picasso Crayons.” The reason was simple ― Picasso was a communist. Is this a true story or just an urban legend?

A:
Although there is a lack of evidence, several Korean news columnists write in their online blogs that a crayon brand was forced to change its name from “Picasso” to “Phoenix” at the height of the cold war in the 1960s. There is no crayon brand named Picasso or Phoenix on the market today.

The story involving the famous Spanish artist, who became a communist in France, started with the unveiling of an oil painting titled, “Massacre en Coree” in Paris in 1951. The abstract painting of armored soldiers aiming guns at naked women and children is said to have been commissioned by the French Communist Party to denounce American involvement in the Korean War. The painting was seen as a French communist political viewpoint, along with another Picasso anti-war painting, “Guernica”(1937).

In 1953, a Japanese publisher named Sojusha used the image on the cover of a book, which alleged the American military used viruses during the Korean War. In Korea, during and after the war, the painting and use of its image were allegedly banned until the 1980s, when it was re-evaluated and, in 1986, used on the cover of a translated book, “The Origin of the Korean War” by Bruce Cumings.

For decades, historians and art critics have argued over what Picasso meant to express in the controversial painting. When the painting was featured in an exhibition in Korea in 2004, critics largely said it expressed Picasso’s frustration and anxiety over the Korean War, or universal emotions against all wars and violence.


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