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Picasso and Things: The Still Lifes of Picasso Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Grand Palais, Paris

by Jean Sutherland Boggs, with essays by Marie-Laure Bernadac, by Brigitte Léal. Catalog of the exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the
The Cleveland Museum of Art/distributed by Rizzoli, 371 pp., $75.00

Picasso: Collected Writings

edited and with an introduction by Marie-Laure Bernadac, by Christine Piot, preface by Michel Leiris
Abbeville, 454 pp., $150.00

Still life as we now accept it emerged as a subject in its own right in Flanders and Holland in the sixteenth century; the English phrase derives from the Dutch stilleven. Still life never appealed to English patrons, who preferred pictures of their dogs and horses. The French, after toying with various alternatives—my own favorite is vie coy or vie tranquille—settled for the somewhat chilling nature morte, possibly in indirect acknowledgment of the fact that many of the earliest still lifes produced by France’s neighbors had been memento mori or vanitas paintings, reflections on the finality of death and the transience of earthly pleasures. But the genre flourished in France, and in the eighteenth century Chardin endowed it with a totally new grace and humanity, even though still life remained marked as the lowest order of painting.

A hundred years later Courbet, who had the ability to handle paint as if he were touching human flesh, broke fresh ground when he gave his depictions of fruit, flowers, and dead game (the latter often lifted directly from Flemish prototypes) some of the physicality that he achieved in his female nudes. Significantly, in 1858 his contemporary Théodore Thoré (Wilhelm Bürger) in the first volume of his Les Musées de la Hollande protested about the generic use of nature morte: much Dutch still life, he pointed out, didn’t look dead at all. Toward the end of the nineteenth century Van Gogh and Cézanne between them raised still life to a status it had never before enjoyed, the one on an emotional and psychological plane, the other through formal innovation and challenge. The Spanish expression for still life, bodegón, refers to simple domestic utensils and supplies from the kitchen cupboard and also to humble taverns and eating houses. Spanish painters eschewed the opulent displays in which northern artists came so to delight—Simon Schama’s “embarrassment of riches”—and have tended to this very day to take a grimmer view of things, thus in a sense preserving some of still life’s bleaker iconographic origins.

It was in the still lifes of the 1870s that the full force of Cézanne’s genius first made itself felt. As time went on formal innovations first hinted at in the still lifes increasingly came to inform his landscapes while in return the still lifes became increasingly animate; objects seem to pulse, draperies become heavier and denser: they envelop and protect us. Early portraits and figure studies of family and friends, vigorous, clumsy, but always truthful, gave way to monolithic studies of sitters seen as still life. And it was through Cézanne more than through any other artist that in France in the early years of this century still life came to be recognized as the prime vehicle for formalist innovation and experiment. Two of the three creators of true Cubism, Braque and Gris, were essentially still-life painters. Although we think of Picasso primarily as a painter of the human body, during the years of his prewar Cubism he produced approximately as many still lifes as he did figure pieces. The still lifes painted by Matisse in Toulouse and Paris in 1899 are the first works to hint at his future stature. His subsequent recognition that pattern could be used spatially in still life rather than as a flattening device provided him with the means of finding an independent counterpart to Cézanne’s methods of planar construction. When Mondrian came to Paris he had already studied Cézanne’s still lifes. Boccioni, the most gifted and also the most iconoclastic of the Italian Futurists, in some of his very last work executed before his death in 1916, paid implicit tribute to Cézanne’s still lifes as a source of modernism.

Picasso had initially shown virtually no interest in still life; and it was only during his stay in Gosol in the summer of 1906, when his work acknowledged the new classicism that went hand in hand with a relaxed sensuality, that he turned to objects, endowing them invariably with playful erotic connotations. But in 1907 he produced his monumental Still Life with Death’s Head, which with a certain amount of justification could be regarded as a postscript or even as a pendant to the Demoiselles d’Avignon. The picture, it has been suggested, may commemorate Cézanne’s death the previous year. It shows a skull, which is given an unmistakably masculine presence, partnered by an empty bowl; placed above the skull are the painter’s attributes—a palette with its thumb-hole pierced by brushes; behind the bowl there stands a painting of a female nude. Iconographically this is possibly the most prophetic and significant still life Picasso ever painted.

The second of Picasso’s greatest pre-Cubist still lifes, Table with Loaves and Bowl of Fruit, produced during the winter of 1908–1909, began life as a four figure composition and also as an indirect homage to both Cézanne and the Douanier Rousseau: their stylistic legacy remains, but the figures which were to have symbolized them have been replaced by the still life objects. At least one other still life of the period acknowledges the presence of a figure underneath it, and these transformations must have sharpened Picasso’s feeling for pictorial metamorphosis and for metaphor itself. Picasso continued to explore Cézanne’s figure pieces, and Cézanne’s bathers in particular remained a source of constant fascination for him, although Picasso seems also to have recognized that in the latest and largest of them Cézanne had entered territory where he couldn’t be followed. But he also saw that it was Cézanne’s still life that could most squarely and profitably be confronted, and Picasso’s own still lifes of 1908 and 1909 show him making the confrontation and striding down the road to Cubism.

Both of these early masterpieces were included in the exhibition somewhat eccentrically entitled Picasso and Things seen last year in Cleveland and Philadelphia and then at the Grand Palais in Paris under a modified title: Picasso et les Choses. Les Natures Mortes. The modification was apt. In Cleveland and Philadelphia the exhibition was laid out in a straight chronological progression. The French curators were at the last moment deprived of a considerable part of their space and they decided to compensate for this by introducing a selection of later works at intervals throughout the first great display that the visitor saw. The results are startling and revealing. Still Life with Death’s Head, for example, finds itself placed opposite the sheep’s skull paintings executed in Royan in 1939. Picasso arrived there the day before the declaration of war and the agony of the times found expression in these tortured animal heads, teeth bared in pain and protest, eyes sightless but accusing. These images, reminiscent of Goya, are among the most savage and disturbing that Picasso ever produced.

Played off against the lurid reds and ochres of the Royan pictures the greens of the early Cubist paintings look somber and funereal, the grays marmoreal, the earth colors glowing but sullen. Flowers are metallic and look as if they might have come straight off one of the monuments in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Seen in this context even the beautifully balanced, glinting, and translucent monochromatic Cubist pictures of 1910–1912 look severe and somber and more Spanish than ever before. One of them contains the words sol and sombra (a reference to the seating arrangements in the bullring), and reinforces the impression that here, psychologically at least, there is more shade than light.

Later on the light is often fierce and unyielding, as though in the service of a pictorial Inquisition. Cézannesque knives no longer lead the eye back from the table edges into depth but plunge abruptly inward from the canvases’ side edges. The food in the more relaxed and elaborate works of 1914–1915, the only works in the exhibition which show a genuine sense of hedonistic abundance, is strangely inedible. Playing cards and dice read like wagers against fortune. The folded sheet metal Guitar of 1924 looks like a gigantic fetish. Picasso’s notorious superstition as well as his obsession with and fear of death permeate the atmosphere.

Skulls abound and are the principal leitmotif of the exhibition, although human skulls can be replaced by those of sheep, bulls, or steers, and also by classical sculpted heads that seem to hover between life and death; animal and human elements combine in detached heads of minotaurs. Skulls are accompanied mostly by bowls and jugs that can in their turn bring along fruit and flowers but are often left empty. Presiding over the second half of the exhibition is the larger than life-size bronze and copper skull of 1943; two casts of it were placed by Picasso on the floor of his studio, near the door, so that visitors were likely to stumble on them. This sculpture is complemented by the skull and pitcher paintings executed between 1943 and 1945, Picasso’s own dance of death. In many of them leeks placed below the skulls act as crossbones. If the food included in the later Cubist still lifes had seemed to defy consumption, during the paintings of the war years its unavailability underlines a pictorial message.

Picasso ate sparingly (and drank even less) but food is a major theme in his collected writings which were published relatively recently in a lavish volume invaluably edited by Marie-Laure Bernadac and Christine Piot. The earliest of Picasso’s surviving prose poems dates from 1935, the last from 1959; three quarters of the text included here had never been published before. As early as 1926 in an interview with a Catalan journalist Picasso had threatened to write a book “as thick as this,” adding, “and I will offer a prize of a dozen bottles of champagne to whoever can read more than three lines.” The writings are indeed difficult, largely because—with the partial exception of the three plays—they are deliberately unstructured and also because of Picasso’s rejection of punctuation, which he once described to Braque as “a cache-sexe which hides the private parts of literature.”

Picasso’s writings have been claimed, by Tristan Tzara among others, for Surrealism, although André Breton and Paul Eluard (both admirers) in the Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme of 1938 allow only the recent poems into the canon.1 And indeed the more one immerses oneself in Picasso’s texts, the less surreal they seem, largely because, despite the astounding fantasy, his images are so obviously grounded in direct experience. Michel Leiris, in a short preface to the collected writings, sees them as being “closer (on the whole) to Dadaist nihilism than to Surrealism” and goes on to compare them to James Joyce; and opaque as they are many of these texts have a mesmeric, incantatory quality that eventually takes one over even when one isn’t quite sure what is going on. The obsession with objects and their properties, particularly their colors and smells, makes the writings seem more relevant to Picasso’s still life than to his figure work, as does the fact that the texts are for the most part surprisingly free of eroticism. As in the later still lifes there is an insistence on culinary matters; kitchens and dining rooms are frequent settings, and sideboards and pots and pans abound. Over much of the writings there hangs the smell of cooking: a text of December 17, 1935, for instance, ends with an image of anchovies frying in the heat of the sun. (A postcard sent by Picasso to Apollinaire from Cadaquès in 1910 which has recently come to light declares, “Je suis le roy de la boullavaise.”)2

On the other hand sex does frequently find its way into the still lifes. The beautifully evocative Still Life with Jug and Apples of circa 1920, painted in elegant grays and fawns, more or less demands to be read as a configuration of body imagery and must surely still reflect his love of his wife Olga. When this love was seen to turn to hatred in the figure pieces executed between 1925 and 1932 the transformation finds no direct expression in the contemporary still lifes, and those of the 1920s are the most colorful and sumptuously decorative Picasso ever produced, although in their exaggeration of scale and their reckless use of color and pattern there is perhaps an element of escapism.

These works reflect and draw on Picasso’s contacts and collaborations with the world of the ballet and the theater. Olga had come from this world and it was there that Picasso had found her, but she was a conventional, limited woman and it is hard to believe she would have found these works other than distasteful and vulgar. They speak of an exclusively male appetite, insatiable and in a sense cannibalistic. Picasso was to speak of his respect for objects which he saw as being charged with a life force of their own. The objects with which he surrounded himself were simple and inexpensive just as his taste in food was for the basic and unsophisticated; his dealer Kahn-weiler claimed that Picasso was incapable of painting an object with which he did not have a familiar relationship. And yet in a text of 1935 Picasso was to write of loving things and eating them alive.

I can no longer bear this miracle that of knowing nothing of this world and to have learnt nothing but to love things and eat them alive and to listen to their farewells when the hours strike in the distance…

And that of course was in a sense what he did to people too. It is, however, worth noting that if in his rendition of women Picasso often saw them as being grotesque, predatory, and destructive, their counterparts in his still lifes are almost always fruitful and affirmative presences.

Insofar as there is a heroine in the story of Picasso’s still lifes she is Marie-Thérèse Walter, although in the Picasso literature she is invariably treated as the least interesting of his serious attachments. She was to remain in a sense his hidden partner, initially because she was underage when he first seduced her, and her existence had to be kept secret from Olga, and latterly because he preferred it that way.

It was probably in 1925, when Marie-Thérèse was only sixteen, that the liaison was initiated; and in Picasso’s work she first puts in an appearance, or a presence, in a vast still life of 1926. Her finely etched Grecian profile is barely discernible, incised on the swelling body of a stringed instrument, while her extended legs are just visible between the table legs below. Her corn-colored hair informs the golden pitchers that appear in the works of 1931, and one of these, Still Life on a Table, painted on March 11, was subsequently identified by Picasso himself as a symbolic portrait of his young mistress. The painting explodes with erotic energy, although the sheer scale of the canvas and its coloristic exuberance drain it of tenderness and renders Marie-Thérèse a victim as well as muse and inspirer of the artist’s passion. Gentleness does, however, break through in the smaller still lifes executed between 1939 and 1943 during weekends spent with Marie-Thérèse and their child Maya at the various accommodations arranged for them. These pictures depict ordinary kitchen accessories accompanied by humble foodstuffs and they show a touching concern with the apparatus of daily domestic life which he also recognized as being unsustainable and ultimately foreign to his nature.

Picasso’s writings, too, confirm that however much he may have seen and used Marie-Thérèse as an erotic object, his love for her was genuine and opened up at least one aspect of his many faceted character that he was probably unable to expose to anyone else. The written references to her are coded, but one of the more overt, recorded in a notebook entry of November 20, 1935, reads: “Flower sweeter than honey (mt symbol) you are my flame and joy.” The later Marie-Thérèse still lifes are complementary to the skull and pitcher series and are the direct counterparts also of the lonely wartime still lifes representing austere evening meals in the kitchen of the apartment in the rue des Grands Augustins, and of the pictures commemorating his visits to the restaurant Le Catalan, just down the street. Despite the fact that Le Catalan had access to black market produce, the pictures inspired by it and related works of the time are among the saddest and grimmest of all still lifes.

After the war when Picasso was spending an increasing amount of time in the South of France his interest in still life to a certain extent waned, although trips to Paris and meals in his old kitchen provoked memories of harder times and some sober commemorative still lifes. In 1953 a series of grisaille paintings of dead cocks accompanied by sacrificial kitchen knives and bowls of blood signaled the final break with Françoise Gilot. It has been suggested that the striking Still Life with a Bull’s Head of 1958, painted in French tricolor colors and, according to Picasso, executed with “four letter words,” was a reaction against events in Algeria that were to bring De Gaulle to power. The bouquet of lilies of the valley placed next to the skull refers to the fragrance that had been brought into his life by Jacqueline Roque. The very last still lifes executed in the 1960s are colorful, but tortured and apocalyptic. The most important of these, Cat and Lobster of 1962, shows a mangy tomcat attacking an array of seafood on a kitchen table in a black parody of Chardin’s magnificent The Ray Fish, which Picasso had admired in the Louvre. And in this work one senses that Picasso is taking leave of the genre. As he came increasingly to equate the creative act with the sexual act even the metaphoric properties of still life seemed inadequate to exorcise the decline of his body and the descent into dust. His memento mori had shown a fascination with death but certainly not an acceptance of it, and now he was looking for other purely carnal and historically referential subjects to keep death at bay.

The exhibition catalog is handsome and lavishly illustrated, and it contains a brilliant essay by Marie-Laure Bernadac entitled “Painting from the Guts: Food in Picasso’s Writings,” which is itself written in suitably gutsy style. Hunger and love, she reminds us, are the two staple ingredients of the Spanish picaresque novel; and her work on the writings has enabled her to classify and clarify Picasso’s use of culinary imagery and metaphor. Brigitte Léal throws light on “Still Life in the Dialogue Between Cubism and Classicism.” Jean Boggs, former director at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who selected the exhibition with for the most part an unwaveringly true and critical eye, has provided somewhat repetitive catalog entries, but she has written a sensitive introductory essay in which she examines Picasso’s work in relationship to the still lifes of Zurbarán, Chardin, Cézanne, and Rousseau, whom she rightly views as Picasso’s most significant precursors. She is aware of the fact that during the high years of pre-1914 Cubism Picasso and Braque saw their paintings as “tableaux objects” or as objects in their own right and hence by implication as potential still-life subjects; but she might have made more of the fact that during Picasso’s Cubist years he invented the whole concept of still life sculpture which has subsequently become so ubiquitous. And I wondered why none of Picasso’s pottery had been included in the exhibition. The pottery more than anything else he produced shows that works of art are “things” too.

  1. 1

    Picasso first read his poetry to the young Andalusian poet Rafael Alberti. After Alberti returned to Europe in 1964 following his exile in Argentina he became Picasso’s last serious literary attachment. Alberti’s most recent book of poetry is Los 8 Nombres de Picasso/The Eight Names of Picasso, with drawings by Picasso; translated by Gabriel Bernes and David Shapiro, foreword by John Richardson (Gas Station Editions, 1992).

  2. 2

    Picasso/Apollinaire Correspondence, edited by Pierre Caizergues and Hélène Seckel (Paris: Gallimard, 1992).

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