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The Battle for Picasso’s Mind
  • October 18, 2013 : 03:10
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Bradford is portrayed as a newspaperman, which Braden was, but as less commanding and confrontational than the real Tom Braden. “He came into the room with more balls than a pool table,” says screenwriter William Blinn, who developed Braden’s book for Hollywood. “He had a built-in edge about him.” Even the opening credits offered a point of contrast. They feature Tom Bradford playing football with his wife and kids. As Bradford prepares to throw the ball, one of the boys whips by and steals it. When I told Van Patten I knew Tom Braden, Van Patten said, “Tell him hello. Playing him on TV bought me my house.” When I told Braden I’d met Van Patten, he said, “I would have made the pass.”

Despite all the hot-button issues and “new morality” (as Braden called it) of the 1970s that Eight Is Enough addressed, the series never delved into his espionage background. Most Americans associated him with the father-figure journalist. Braden’s own children grew up around the residue of his clandestine life, always trying to connect the dots. From an early age, Braden’s daughter Elizabeth loved art. She is an alumna of the Rhode Island School of Design and is now an art teacher. When I ask her about modern art, she replies, “Dad said it was all about fighting the communists, trying to win the Cold War.”

R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, now acknowledges the legacy of Braden’s program. He says its genius was in exposing the essence of the American and Soviet systems. “If you compare socialist realist art—the muscled worker in the Soviet Union pressing forward into the future—to Jackson Pollock’s art, you have to ask yourself, Which society is freer? Pollock has three-dimensional canvases, really interesting patterns and—wow!—all these colors,” Woolsey says. “Then you look at the socialist realist art, and it’s crap—propaganda crap. That can’t help but have some resonance, especially among intellectuals. It doesn’t win the war itself, but it communicated that people were free to read and paint what they wanted to in the United States, and they were not free to do that in the Soviet Union.”

Last summer, at lunch with Braden’s son Nicholas, I asked, “What did your dad tell you about the art?” He paused, smiled and answered, “You mean that MoMA was a front for the CIA?”

The history of the Central Intelligence Agency is rife with conspiracies, but was the Museum of Modern Art really a cover for spies?

In part, yes. A trail of evidence shows there was an organized program by the CIA to influence European intellectuals. MoMA, with Braden in place at the CIA, was essential to the operation. Museum administrators and others in the art world, including the artists themselves, were mostly unaware of this collaboration. In other words, Braden and other spooks pulled off one of the greatest capers in history.

On one wall was Dutch Interior by Joan Miró, then Black Lines by Kandinsky, The Bride by Marcel Duchamp and a mobile, Red Petals, by Alexander Calder—all an explosion of colors, lines, shapes and shadows. These were just a few of the modern works in the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s XXth Century Masterpieces exhibition.

As Aline B. Louchheim, arts editor of The New York Times, observed about such art, “There are many paintings which seem to say to you, ‘Look, stop and look at me. I am addressing you. Look at what I am saying.’ And having thus claimed you, they manage to banish other considerations, to pull the mind away from speculation or daydreams and to fill the eye only with the urgency of their particular visions. Some are big, some are blatant, some are small, some speak quietly.”

The paintings seemed to exclaim, “This is what absolute and total freedom looks like.”

The opening of this exhibition, on April 30, 1952, was attended by “a large throng of invited guests,” reported a press account. In its “Letter From Paris,” The New Yorker wrote that the exhibit “spilled such gallons of captious French newspaper ink, wasted such tempests of argumentative Franco-American breath and afforded, on the whole, so much pleasure to the eye and ear that it can safely be called, in admiration, an extremely popular fiasco.” Herbert Luethy recorded in Commentary, “It proved to be one of the most dazzling expositions of modern art ever brought before the public.” And this was just the beginning.

MoMA and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris sponsored a 1953 exhibition, Twelve Contemporary American Painters and Sculptors, which represented “different regions and trends of art in the United States,” The New York Times reported. The account also noted that the Paris museum delayed other exhibitions to display the high-quality works, including ones by abstract expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. The money and publicity for the show were provided by the Association Française d’Action Artistique, an organization that was a donor to the Congress for Cultural Freedom and whose director was a CIA contact at the French Foreign Office.

Word of this unique atmosphere traveled. It attracted Frances FitzGerald, a fresh-faced Radcliffe graduate and aspiring writer. Her father, Desmond FitzGerald, a CIA officer, sent her to the Farfield Foundation—one of Braden’s CIA fronts—in New York for a job. “The foundation was one room with one person in it,” she recalls. She was told that because of reorganization, the job didn’t exist anymore. “But then my mother, Marietta Tree, called her friend Nicky Nabokov, and he said, ‘But of course your daughter can have a job.’” FitzGerald moved to Paris and began working at the congress. “My father must have been furious, but he didn’t say a word to me. In fact, the job didn’t exist, as the man in the office said. So the congress had to scramble to find me something to do,” she says. “I sharpened pencils.” (FitzGerald went on to cover the Vietnam War for Atlantic Monthly and to write Fire in the Lake, a 1972 book that won a Pulitzer.)

Jointly, the congress and MoMA sponsored six Americans to represent the U.S. at the Young Painters show in 1955, which was displayed in Rome, Brussels, Paris and London. The show included approximately 170 paintings, almost all abstract, by artists from around the world. The Congress for Cultural Freedom gave out cash prizes to the three best paintings, and all the money for this show came through the Farfield Foundation.

Fifty Years of Art in the United States, a 1955 Musée d’Art Moderne exhibition, was the largest representation of American art yet. Although met with mixed reviews by French critics, the two-month show was widely attended. Afterward, French galleries started to take note of these new American painters. In the fall of that year, the Right Bank Gallery was beginning to introduce France to “informalists,” including artists such as Pollock.

It’s likely this second show was also sponsored or paid for by the Congress for Cultural Freedom—but even if it wasn’t, it meant Braden’s plan was working: Europeans were taking notice of American modern art. And the shows continued.

Braden left the CIA in the mid-1950s, but his program carried on with his deputy Cord Meyer leading it. By the end of the decade it had taken hold. MoMA would host more than 450 separate exhibitions in more than 35 countries. A 1958 Esquire cover proclaiming “The Americanization of Paris” depicts powdered “instant vin rouge” being poured into a water-filled wineglass (for better or worse).

By 1959, abstract expressionist art was on a roll. John Berger, a Marxist art correspondent for New Statesman, declared, “Abstract expressionism…is sweeping the field. Nowhere in Western Europe is there a realist stronghold left.”

Nabokov’s secretary, in a letter to a MoMA trustee, described an exhibition promoted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom and MoMA planned for the Biennale de Paris in 1959. She explained that word “swept through the artistic circles like a tornado. Every young painter in Paris, every gallery director, every art critic are telephoning to find out what it’s all about. It’s going to be a terrific hit.”

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read more: News, politics, art, issue november 2013

2 comments

  • patb2009
    patb2009
    1) If the official policy of the US Government was not to support Modern Art in the 1950s, then it's bad governance for a secret division to go against public policy.2) If the US Government wants to support Modern Art and Cultural Enterprise, it's cheaper and more efficient to do it through the State Dept, NEA, NEH, or via UNESCO, then to do it through black bag jobs, mechanics and front entities.3) "As the Wall crumbled, Braden watched the bulletins from the den of his 11-bedroom yellow house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with modern art decorating the walls." Um, With all due respect to Mr Braden, he was a Career Civil Servant with 8 kids and a stay at home wife, how did he afford this? I knew plenty of high level civil servants in Montgomery county with 5 kids living in 3 bedroom houses.
  • la2013
    la2013
    Um...with all due respect, Braden owned a newspaper for 10 years, which he sold for a lot of money, wrote a best selling book that was turned into a hit TV series, worked as a journalist in DC and co-hosted Crossfire - the number one cable political talk show for almost a decade. Joan had various jobs, but almost always worked. I'd say he could afford a house.
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