Pablo Picasso painted Nature morte au chandelier in 1937, a tumultuous year in his life, both on a personal and an historic level, and tremors from both of those dimensions appear to vibrate through this composition. This was the period when he was becoming increasingly involved with the photographer Dora Maar; at the same time, the Spanish Civil War was tearing apart his homeland as he watched helplessly from what had effectively become his exile in France. During the course of 1937, Picasso painted a number of still life compositions which were suffused with a cloistered, nocturnal atmosphere occasionally off-set by the harsh angles of some of the corners depicted. Several of these contemporaneous still life compositions appear to relate to Nature morte au chandelier, for instance the Nature morte, painted in January, and now in the Yale University Art Gallery, and another painted in March which is now in the New Orleans Museum of Art. Another Nature morte which was sold at Christie's in 2007 bears striking similarities to the present lot, sharing the depiction of an open book and a candle with flames flickering in several directions; its palette too appears related. That picture was dated 25 April 1937; accordingly, it would appear that Picasso probably painted Nature morte au chandelier during that first third of the year too, perhaps also in April.
Nature morte au chandelier balances sensuality with rigidity: the playful snaking of the gold of the candlestick and the star-like bursts of the flowers, combined with the almost romantic, nocturnal setting, seem initially to speak of comforts. A book, a picture, decorated wallpaper and flowers: these are the accoutrements of a civilised and cultured person. This may reflect the more intellectual aspect of his mistress Dora Maar, with whom he had only recently become involved. She was a multi-lingual photographer and had been associated with Surrealism; she also brought a dark intensity that was in stark contrast to the more joyful, spontaneous Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of Picasso's daughter Maya. Nature morte au chandelier shows an intimate corner of Picasso's own universe, which he was now increasingly sharing with Dora, and thus hints at romance as well as culture.
In a sense, Dora was the perfect muse for Picasso during the age of the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War: she was gifted, intellectual and emotionally unstable; she had first been spotted by Picasso playing the 'knife game', by which with one hand she was thrusting a blade between the fingers of the other. This masochism fascinated Picasso and would also lead to Dora's becoming one of the most eloquent embodiments of war in Picasso's works as the 'weeping woman' in a number of his portraits of her during the following years. Because of the presence of Dora, Picasso's works were already infused with a new edge, and this appears in Nature morte au chandelier in its darkness and also the sometimes abrupt, blade-like corners of elements such as the book and the table.
April 1937 was to prove a dramatic watershed in Picasso's art, which is one of the reasons for suspecting that Nature morte au chandelier was painted during those first four months of that year. For it was on 26 April that Guernica, a town in the Basque area of Northern Spain, was bombed catastrophically, causing an outcry that would mark a sudden change in Picasso's art, resulting in his mural of the same name. Already before that cataclysmic moment, though, Picasso had been keenly aware of the conflict: his anxieties had come to the fore in a number of works which channelled his tensions in various ways, with forms often becoming more angular, hinting at an aggression that was in stark contrast to the sinuous curves of the pictures he had painted during his recent, years-long affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter. Now, perhaps in part ushered in by the increasing presence of Dora, a certain jaggedness was filtering into his pictures, as is clear from the flames in Nature morte au chandelier, as well as the stylised edges of the book, the table and the picture frame.
Picasso may not have been overtly pouring out his emotions during this time of strife, yet looking at his works from the period, it appears clear that they were nonetheless in evidence. Picasso would later say of the Occupation, in terms equally appropriate to Nature morte au chandelier, 'I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war’s influence. Myself, I do not know’ (Picasso, quoted in Steven. A. Nash, ed., Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 13).
During the first months of 1937 this was all the more the case as Picasso had been approached with a request that he paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, which was being held that year in Paris. The committee commissioning the pavilion and its contents were representing Republican Spain, and their décor was aimed at raising awareness of their plight as they struggled against Fascism and General Francisco Franco, who was already beginning to make mocking and threatening appearances in Picasso's pictures. Picasso accepted the commission and moved into a large new studio found by his more recent lover, Dora Maar. As Roland Penrose explained: 'By good fortune Dora Maar knew of a large empty room which had been used by the poet Georges Bataille for the lectures and discussions of a group he had founded named "Contre-attaque." It was the second floor of a seventeenth-century building which before the Revolution had been the residence of the Dukes of Savoy. By a coincidence it was situated in the rue des Grands Augustins near the river, the same street in which Balzac had set the scene of his story of the mad painter' (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, p. 268).
Picasso found the subject matter for his mural at the end of April 1937, when he read accounts of the bombardment of Guernica; however, until that time, he was looking for other means of showing pictorially his dissatisfaction with the situation in his native Spain. It has been suggested, not least in Herschel B. Chipp's book Picasso's Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings, that Picasso's initial ideas may have included the theme of the artist and his model; similarly, he explored still life a great deal during the first four months of the year (see H.B. Chipp, op. cit., London, 1989). If Picasso was indeed using the still life as a vehicle for his feelings about the Spanish Civil War, he was working in mysterious parallel to his compatriot Joan Miró, who painted his own Nature morte au vieux soulier during the same months of 1937; that work, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was identified by its former owner, the art critic and curator James Thrall Soby, as one of Miró's most eloquent statements about the Civil War. Miró, like Picasso, was working on a commission for the Spanish Pavilion as well during this period, his own mural, El Segador - 'The Reaper'. Accordingly, Picasso may well have been aware of some of his work; certainly, he looked with admiration upon Miró's works, and indeed owned several in his own right.
There are a number of similarities between Nature morte au chandelier and Miró's Nature morte au vieux soulier, not least the almost ectoplasmic glow of some of the elements in their nocturnal scenes. However, where Miró's painting is filled with an hallucinatory quality, with its flowing pools of colour and almost lurid focus on the fork piercing the apple, Picasso's own picture remains more openly tethered to the visual world. There is little of the Surreal in this composition; indeed, in this, he may already have been exploring the visual language that would later come to the fore in Guernica. After all, Picasso himself was well aware that some of his modes of representation were considered arcane and hieratic by large swathes of the public. Instead, for his public commission, even before he had discovered his subject matter, Picasso appears to have been aware that he needed to tap into an aesthetic that could be more easily read by the populace, and that would therefore have a greater value as propaganda. Picasso was seeking to communicate with a wider public than before. Looking at Nature morte au chandelier, the composition is certainly simple to read in terms of the components, a reflection of Picasso's success. Gone are the stylisations of Cubism, though some of its mannerisms may remain. The openness and legibility of pictures such as Nature morte au chandelier would be characteristics that would define much of Picasso's output in years to come, be it in the howling animals and figures of Guernica, the weeping torment of Dora, or indeed in the more playful images that would dominate his post-war work.
In the more immediate future, Picasso would continue to develop the theme of the still life, both during 1937 and afterwards. Indeed, his ability to use this format as a means of conveying his own unease at the state of the world at large would continue, not least in some of the images of skulls, be they animal or human, that would emerge during the Occupation. By contrast, Nature morte au chandelier is a lyrical work, showing a domesticated corner of a cultivated life. Perhaps, with its candle burning, Picasso was hoping to keep alive the beacon of humanity, celebrating it, showing it precariously ablaze within a realm of pictures, books and flowers - art, literature and beauty. In this way, Nature morte au chandelier may be seen as a parallel to Claude Monet's Nymphéas, painted against the backdrop of the First World War, which raged sometimes within earshot. While the stylised appearance of Nature morte au chandelier gives a hint of tension, the subject matter itself may be considered a defiant eulogy to fragile culture and thus to humanity during a time when they were being put to the ultimate test.