The twentieth century became a battleground of political imagery, one in which strongarm regimes and supposedly egalitarian allies alike learnt the potential of aesthetics to influence (if not change) opinions. In the wake of Soviet political posters and the propagandist art of the Nazis, artists such as John Heartfield (the German artist who anglicised his name in protest against anti-English sentiment) and Pablo Picasso began to lob back the odd intellectual grenade, hoping to explode the myths of ‘victory at any cost’ being espoused by both warring sides. First, Picasso depicted the human suffering of war in his legendary composition of dismembered figures, ‘Guernica’, which was painted over a couple of months in 1937 when he was supposed to be in London giving a lecture at the Royal Albert Hall. When asked by a Nazi officer, ‘Did you do that?’ of his famous picture, Picasso replied, ‘No, you did.’ Not long after, the artist was marked out as a left-wing radical, even though his depiction of a white dove – initially used in advertisements for huge socialist rallies – was widely adopted as a new symbol of peace.
As well as earning the dubious honours of round-the-clock FBI surveillance (suspect number 100-337396) and becoming the world’s most famous communist after Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, Picasso was on the receiving end of rival, CIA-funded poster campaigns showing his peacenik dove being variously syringed by black market medicines, used to disguise an enemy tank or kept on a leash by Stalin. Examples of these posters are included in the V&A’s current blockbuster exhibition tackling the subject, ‘Cold War Modern’.