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Ian Buckley’s new play that opens in London on March 11. PETER FROST talks to him while recalling the nazi art theft that inspired it

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Playwright Ian Buckley (above) is no stranger to communist ideas or to the city of Paris and French life. Politically active, he now spends much of his time in France.

“In my play I’ve tried to take my audience back nearly three quarters of a century to the occupied Paris of 1940. It was a crucial time in the history of Europe, of communism and of art,” he explains.

Buckley’s new play finds Pablo Picasso in the vaults of the Paris branch of the Bank of Industry and Commerce during the nazi occupation, with two young German officers who are making an inventory of the Spanish painter’s stored works.

Hitler and his officers in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower In a occupied Paris.

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One German, Frisch, himself an artist, is trying to understand how art and politics are changing under the new nazi order.

The other, Hebbel, has discovered the dirty postcards for sale on the city’s street corners. For him they are more interesting, and he hopes more profitable, than Picasso’s curious creations.

All in all this cataloguing is a heavy responsibility for two simple soldiers far from the fatherland. But now in this French bank vault they come face to face with the legendary painter.

At this time Picasso is probably the world’s greatest living artist. His massive international reputation is his protection. Unlike other, particularly Jewish, artists Picasso was never hounded or arrested and his work never confiscated.

However, he was highly suspect in nazi eyes and consequently his position was precarious.

He had supported the Spanish republicans during the civil war, raised money for their cause, painted the famous Guernica and even published unflattering caricatures of Franco.

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In the autumn of 1940 Hitler’s troops occupied Paris, the undoubted art capital of Europe. They would occupy the city for four years.

Painters like Picasso and Matisse, writers like Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Cocteau, all had chosen Paris as their home and many of them espoused left-wing and even communist views.

Hitler and his arts advisor Alfred Rosenberg declared much of this left-inspired art as bolshevik and degenerate.

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Herman Goering – despite his public support of nazi policy – amassed a huge looted personal collection including many examples from painters decried by the nazis.

The occupying forces stole many valuable works of art from Jewish families who had fled Paris – just as fascist gangs had done in Germany. They also confiscated paintings from collectors and the artists themselves.

Some works went into high-ranking nazis’ own collections, others were sold to raise money for the fascist cause. Some were destined for Hitler’s planned huge art museum in Linz (below).

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These grandiose plans for this Fuhrermuseum, like his thousand-year Reich, disappeared in the dust of death and defeat.

This nazi looting of art still haunts us today. As recently as last November a huge cache of over 1,500 paintings was uncovered in a Munich apartment. The billion-euro haul included works by Picasso, Dix, Chagall and Matisse – all condemned as degenerate by the nazis.

Part of the 1940 looting process demanded the cataloguing of thousands of valuable art objects, and in a city like Paris that would be a huge task.

Even as the swastika flew over the Eiffel Tower cultural life in the city went on. This suited both nazi occupiers and the Paris-based artists.

Nazi Occupied Paris

The otherwise defeated Parisians could show that, culturally at least, they had not been totally humiliated. The artistic life of Paris continued, but now under the shadow of the jackboot.

The many German soldiers, and particularly the officers, had money to spend and provided an economic boost to the French capital’s legendary galleries, theatres, clubs, cabarets, restaurants and even brothels such at the most famous Le Chabanais pictured here.

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Maurice Chevalier sang enthusiastically to German troops. A young Edith Piaf (below) sang in clubs and cabarets. I wonder if the Germans who loved her songs realised she was secretly working with the communist French resistance?

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Picasso – though his art was officially banned – continued to paint in his Left Bank studio (below).

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Today French comrades are proud that he joined the French Communist Party six weeks after the liberation in August 1944 and remained a member to the end of his life.

Buckley tells me: “The play questions how artists can survive under a fascist dictatorship. I hope those who come to see the play will discover at least some of the answers.”

Runs from 11th to 30th March. Box office: 020 8932 4747

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A Gestapo officer searching Picasso’s Paris studio came across an image of the artist’s most famous painting Guernica (above). It shows the aftermath of the bombing of the undefended Basque town of Guernica  on 26 April 1937 by planes of the German Luftwaffe Condor Legion and the Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria. 

“Did you do that?” The Nazi demanded of the artist.

“No”, said Picasso, “You did!” 

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 27 February 2014.

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