The booming actor Brian Blessed has a flair for a story. Asked by a newspaper if he ever made a financial mistake, he revealed that when he was 12 he met Pablo Picasso. The artist was in Sheffield for a peace congress and the boy Blessed cheekily asked if he really was Picasso – then challenged him to prove it by drawing something.
Picasso drew a dove, and the future film star said “That’s not a dove”, and threw it to the ground. It was picked up and preserved by someone else and today – claims Blessed – it is worth £50m.
£50m may be pushing it a bit (it’s Picasso’s oil paintings that fetch those sums, not his sketches), but anything from his hand is a treasure.
The 12-year-old Blessed was very unfair on Picasso, though. Of course his doves look like doves. They are miracles of simple, suggestive drawing that show how art can define reality in the briefest, boldest way. Blessed was far from the only person Picasso drew a dove for when he was in Sheffield for the 1950 World Peace Congress. City paper the Star has traced at least three doves drawn in Sheffield by Picasso, including one on a napkin at a cafe – and he was only there for a day. He also got his hair cut by a local barber, before giving a short speech at the conference.
It seems Picasso was in full flight in Sheffield when it came to doves. No wonder. He’d hit on this lovely, simple way to contribute to the cause of world peace the previous year. In 1949, the poet Louis Aragon chose a dove design by Picasso to promote the first World Peace Congress in Paris. These peace congresses were, of course, propaganda events. Aragon and Picasso were members of the French Communist party. They were serving Stalin’s claim of pacifism at a time when he was actually building a nuclear arsenal as well as crushing dissidence across eastern Europe.
Picasso’s motives were pure. He joined the party at the end of the second world war because he admired its role in the French resistance. Later, when Russia sent tanks into Hungary in 1956, he would break with the Communist cause. His dove of peace has outlasted all that. It is a sweet symbol of peace, and one of his loveliest creations.
But seriously – what was Blessed talking about? Did he really see one? For Picasso’s doves look perfectly like doves. The whole point about Picasso is that he could draw as well as Raphael (as he himself modestly confessed). When he distorted reality it was because he chose to – not out of any lack of skill. When called on (as he was by the Communist party), Picasso could draw as plainly as you like. His doves range from the richly shaded lithograph Aragon selected for the 1949 peace poster to the simplified line drawings that followed and that he did at the drop of a hat.
Did Picasso really do a dove for Brian Blessed? Maybe, possibly, who knows?...but I do know one thing, his doves are not worth £50m. They are worth more than that.