During the early 1920s, Picasso tirelessly explored the pictorial possibilities offered by the juxtaposition of two still-life elements, the stringed instrument (either a guitar or a mandolin) and the fruit-bowl, placed on a sideboard, an ornate pedestal, or a simple wooden table. With their fragmented forms and flattened planes, these compositions represent a continuation of Picasso's cubist explorations of the previous decade. Elizabeth Cowling has written, "Most of Picasso's still-lifes of 1918-1924 belong to short-lived series involving subtle formal variations on a strictly limited theme. Their imagery seems secondary to their formal devices--a pretext for the variations explored throughout the series as a whole. These paintings are full of teasing ambiguities, which mitigate the effect of rationality and impersonality. Nevertheless, one senses that Picasso was primarily concerned with formal arrangements--with the creation of balanced, although asymmetrical, compositions, ingenious combinations of rhyming shapes, and contrasts of tone and color and plain and patterned surfaces. In their poise, control, and subtlety, they remind one of Chardin's modest kitchen still-lifes, in which a limited repertoire of everyday objects is shuffled and reshuffled to form a series of variations on the same melodic theme" (in Picasso, Style and Meaning, London, 2002, pp. 379, 381-382).
The present still-life was painted during the winter of 1922 in the apartment on the fashionable rue La Boétie that Picasso shared with his wife, Olga Khokhlova, and their infant son, Paulo. It depicts a mandolin at the right, distinguished by its elongated neck and bowl-shaped body, and a compotier at the left, with an oval top and a square foot. The two objects are positioned on a round table (also known as a guéridon), pointing toward a decorative screen or hanging textile at the left edge of the canvas. The dominant colors of the painting are dark blue and green, with contrasting accents of bright white and yellow, suggesting that Picasso was working at night, by artificial lamplight. The composition is structured around a clever repetition of ovals: the ovoid shape of the mandolin, the round bowl of the compotier, and the swelling yellow form in the background, most likely the mandolin viewed from an alternate angle. The objects are united by several horizontally striated passages, possibly developed from the wood-graining of the tabletop, which lend the composition a pulsating energy that echoes the music of the mandolin.
Like the guitar, the mandolin is a recurrent motif throughout Picasso's work of the 1910s and 1920s. It appears in one of his most important cubist portraits, Fanny Tellier (fig. 1; Zervos, vol. II, no. 235), a painting that John Richardson asserts would change the course of cubism (in A Life of Picasso, vol. II: 1907-1917, New York, 1996, p. 150), as well as in his very first cubist composition in an oval format, Femme la mandoline of 1910 (Zervos, vol. xxx, no. xxx; Private collection). Notably, a photograph of Picasso's studio from the same period, possibly taken by the artist himself, depicts a long-handled mandolin in the center of an arrangement of still-life objects (fig. 2). The mandolin also features in three of Picasso's largest and most complex still-lifes of the post-war period, painted at Juan-les-Pins during the summer of 1924. One of these (fig. 3; Zervos, vol. V, no. 228) boasts the same nocturnal coloring and strong artificial light as the present painting; in another (fig. 4; Zervos, vol. V, no. 220), Picasso reprises the use of a white ovoid to render the body of the instrument. As Jean Sutherland Boggs has written about the latter composition, "The dominant form is appropriately the biomorphic white body of the mandolin--purely white and suspended in space as if it had no need of gravity to support it" (in Picasso and Things, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992, p. 212).
Picasso's interest in the mandolin as a motif for painting may well have been inspired by a very specific source: the art of Corot. In 1909, the year before Picasso painted Fanny Tellier, the sensation of the Salon d'Automne was a show of twenty-five of Corot's figure paintings, including several that depicted meditative young women holding mandolins. Picasso was profoundly affected by the paintings, which had seldom been exhibited before then. Richardson has written, "According to Braque, these were a revelation to Picasso, Derain, and himself for their gravity and austerity, also for their studio settings. 'They are paintings about painting,' he said. Braque liked the way Corot's models held musical instruments but seldom played them, thereby establishing a silence: a silence, I remember him saying, as permeable as Corot's space. Thanks to Corot, Picasso and Braque saw how the presence of a stringed instrument could endow a figure painting with the stasis of a nature morte" (in ibid., p. 149).
During the wartime and post-war years, Corot was widely celebrated in artistic circles as an exemplar of the great French tradition. Gris explicitly quoted Corot in a major cubist painting of 1916, Femme à la mandoline (apres Corot) (Cooper, no. xxx; Kunstmuseum, Basel), while Derain lauded the painter in 1921 as "one of the greatest geniuses of the Western world" (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. III: 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 149). The series of drawings and paintings that Picasso made in 1917-1919 on the theme of the Italian peasant girl are indebted not only to popular prints and postcards that the artist brought back from his Italian journey, but also to the imagery of Corot. The dealer Paul Rosenberg explicitly noted this connection in the preface to an exhibition of Picasso's work at Heinrich Thannhauser's Munich gallery in 1922, describing Picasso's desire to "create a Corot in the same style" (quoted in ibid., p. 149). That Corot was very much on Picasso's mind during these years-- the same period that the present canvas was painted--is confirmed by a sketch after the French painter's Mademoiselle de Foudras (1872; Glasgow Museums) that Picasso drew in 1920, one of his rare line-for-line copies from the art of the past (Zervos, vol. xxx, no. xxx; Private Collection).
Part of the appeal of both the mandolin and the guitar for Picasso (who, unlike Braque, had no particular love of music) was no doubt their well-established association with his Spanish homeland, which also explains their frequent appearance in the work of Juan Gris. For instance, a trompe l'oeil painting by Pedro de Acosta, which Picasso would have known from his youthful studies at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, depicts a mandolin and a guitar hanging side-by-side on a wood-plank wall (fig. 5). The stringed instruments, however, also possessed palpable sexual connotations, which Picasso never shied away from exploiting. In the present painting, for instance, two elongated, phallic forms--the neck of the mandolin and the base of the compotier--both point suggestively toward the vulva-like floral decoration at the left side of the canvas. Richardson has written, "The allegorical possibilities of musical instruments had intrigued Picasso ever since Arte Joven, the magazine that he and Soler had edited in Madrid, published Nicolás María López's essay 'La Psicología de la guitarra.' López likens a guitar to a woman: the passive instrument on which a man plays. The anthropomorphic rhymes and pictorial double entendres in his innumerable guitar compositions confirm that Picasso subscribed to these sentiments. Paradoxically, he also uses an ithyphallic guitar as an aggressively masculine symbol--sometimes indeed for himself--but not as often as he uses a curvaceous mandolin, with its suggestive sound hold, to stand for his mistress" (in op. cit., 1996, p. 149).
By the time that he painted the present still-life, Picasso had been working alternately--and indeed, controversially--in two styles for several years. In addition to his continued explorations of the cubist idiom during the late teens and early 1920s, which usually took still-life as their subject, he also worked in a new, classicizing manner, especially in his figural compositions (see Lot xxx). This contrast was monumentalized at Fontainebleau during the summer of 1921, when Picasso simultaneously painted the cubist Trois musicians (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 331; The Museum of Modern Art) and the classicized Trois femmes la fontaine (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 322; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), each a veritable manifesto of its respective visual idiom. At Dinard during the summer of 1922, the year that he painted the present canvas, Picasso worked both on cubist still-lifes and on a series of mother-and-child compositions that are among the most unabashedly classicist of his career.
Picasso's two styles each attracted its own partisans. During the war years, cubism had repeatedly been attacked as a Germanic--and hence an anti-Gallic, even treasonous--art form. Following the Armistice, one group of critics, on the lookout for a new post-war style, argued that cubism had lost its novelty. The other side, including many major artists working in a cubist mode, interpreted Picasso's classicizing works as a repudiation of modernism and an outright betrayal of the avant-garde. Picasso himself, however, rejected the polarizing efforts of both camps, proclaiming in an interview in 1923, "The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution, or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them" (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 5). In a canvas that Picasso painted in 1920, which juxtaposes cubist still-lifes and classical figural studies, he indeed establishes an overt equivalence between his two artistic tendencies (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 226; fig. 6). Kenneth Silver has written:
"The interplay of stylistic polarities in a single work--or, as in the case of Three Women at the Spring and Three Musicians, in two obviously related works--testified to the artist's ability to transform himself like Proteus, and thereby to rise above the banal categories that ensnared less powerful artists. At the same time, this joining of the modern and the ancient was a brilliant way of bringing Cubism into the fold of tradition while, conversely, diminishing the conservative sting of neo-classicism. In making us concentrate on his artistic prowess, on his unique ability to be both the most traditional artist and the most gifted creator of new forms, Picasso removes himself from the group aspects of both Cubist and neo-classical aesthetics. He says not only that Cubism is more traditional than it had appeared to be before the war (and that traditional styles may be less retrograde than we had imagined) but, also, that his modernism and his atavism are personal choices... This is the Renaissance conception of a solitary, protean, overwhelming genius; Picasso in the 1920s becomes a modern Michelangelo" (in Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, p. 316).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Fille à la mandoline (Fanny Tellier), spring 1910. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 24409674
(fig. 2) Picasso's studio with Mandolin and guéridon, 1911. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 24409667
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte à la mandoline, Juan-les Pins, summer 1924. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. BARCODE 24409643
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte à la mandoline, Juan-les Pins, 1924. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. BARCODE 24409650
(fig. 5) Pedro de Acosta, Trompe l'oeil, 1755. Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid. BARCODE 24408530
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Etudes, winter 1920. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARC0DE 26015194