News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Picasso, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Malcolm Wiener

| October 24, 2012

As visitors step through the doors of the Kennedy Memorial Library for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they are in for a surprise. On display in the library from October through early January is Picasso's 1963 Rape of the Sabine Women - on loan from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

The connection between Picasso's painting and what is widely accepted as the most dangerous moment in human history demonstrates the global terror of those 13 days in October 1962 when the world was on the brink of nuclear war. That connection of art to history was brought to light for many by Malcolm Wiener, a member of the Belfer Center’s International Council and the person for whom Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy was named.

In 2001, Wiener wrote an article for Apollo Magazine in which he told the story of Picasso's painting and its connection to the missile crisis. In the article, he related the story of Picasso’s reaction to the Crisis, based in part on a memoir by Hélène Parmelin, a friend of Picasso and his wife Jacqueline. In brief:

On October 22, 1962, then 81-year old Picasso was at his grand estate in southern France when he turned on the television to hear President Kennedy announcing the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba capable of reaching the U.S. with nuclear warheads. Dismayed at the immense danger facing the world, Picasso contacted his friend Hélène Parmelin and her husband Edouard Pignon in Paris and asked them to bring him slides of Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents and David’s Rape of the Sabines, depicting a fabled abduction of Sabine women by ancient Romans. Wiener writes that according to Parmelin, the two couples stayed up much of the night as Picasso studied and viewed the slides superimposed on his wall. He worked for the next 10 days on his Rape of the Sabines series, completing it with the painting that found its way to the Museum of Fine Arts. His 6 foot by 4 foot oil on canvas painting, Rape of the Sabine Women, depicts in bold colors two armed men with spear and sword raised toward each other, trampling a woman and sobbing child – Picasso’s denunciation of the horror and atrocities of war.

When Caroline Kennedy unveiled the painting at the Kennedy Library, she recalled her father, President John F. Kennedy, saying that art is “a form of truth.” The Picasso painting, she said, is a masterpiece depicting the horrors of war and the fear and uncertainty of the world during those days when the survival or destruction of mankind was in the hands of two men – President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

As the Kennedy Library began its commemoration of the Cuban Missile Crisis, MFA Assistant Curator Emily Beeny wrote to Malcolm Wiener to thank him for his role in making that happen.  “In light of your wonderful Apollo Magazine article on the relationship between the painting and the crisis, I wanted to be sure you were aware of the loan and to let you know how grateful I was, in preparing press materials for the unveiling of the picture, to have your article as a guide.”

Rape of the Sabine Women will be on display at Kennedy Memorial Library through January 6, 2013.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wilke, Sharon. “Picasso, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Malcolm Wiener.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 24, 2012.

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