Painted in 1919, Verre et pipe dates from the period when Pablo Picasso was truly in the ascendant, in a dominant position in the art world, the trailblazing pioneer of the Blue Period, the Rose Period and Cubism. It is to Cubism that Verre et pipe relates, yet the picture has an openness, a playfulness and a freedom that characterises this period in the wake of the First World War, when Picasso was creating both his Neo-Classical works while also continuing to explore his Cubist idiom. These dual strands can be seen in one of his studies from the same year which shows a guitar, glass and bottle rendered in a Cubist manner above a smooth, monumental hand. As can be seen in both that work and Verre et pipe, Picasso's Cubism had lost some of its theoretical edge and instead had become more accessible and more lyrical. This is clear in this painting in the curlicues and decorations of the 'frame' that Picasso has created within the composition of Verre et pipe, which wittily create a picture-within-a-picture while also hinting at the increasing influence that Picasso's involvement with set design for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes - the subject of an impressive recent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - was having on his work during this time.
Picasso had already been painting and drawing in his Neo-Classical style, often referred to as Ingresque, for a couple of years by the time he created Verre et pipe, yet that shift is often seen to relate to the general Rappel à l'ordre that held so much of the Parisian avant garde in its sway in the wake of the chaos and bloodshed of the First World War. An age of beauty, reason, peace and harmony was promoted in various ways by a range of artists in the years following that conflict, be it in Picasso's references to a classical world of Mediterranean tranquillity or the Purism espoused by Le Corbusier, Amedée Ozenfant and even Fernand Léger; indeed, Picasso himself would not remain immune to the influence of those developments. However, the rigid lines of Purism had in fact been prefigured in Picasso's own so-called 'crystal cubism' which had been created during the two years preceding Verre et pipe. In this picture, that crystalline aspect has been banished in favour of the ogee-like forms that articulate the glass in particular within the more planar composition of geometric areas of colour within the central part of the picture; and that crisp rationality is further dispelled by the framing device.
Picasso often played with the idea of the frame-within-a-frame, sometimes even including a painted label within the composition of his pictures, a form of supplementary signature as is the case of his 1914 still life of a bottle of Bass and a pipe, recently included in the exhibition dedicated to the artist's 1932 retrospective at the Zurich Kunsthaus; it was a device that he would revisit often, especially in the two decades leading up to the Second World War, often using it, as here, to juxtapose and contrast two artistic styles. In Verre et pipe, he has created a mock-Baroque surrounding for the Cubist composition, which itself recalls in the form of the glass the artist's pictures from 1914, when he stayed in the South of France near Georges Braque - the period when both artists began to play with the frame concept - as well as the more recent Guéridon paintings that he created in 1919. In a sense, then, Verre et pipe appears to be a still life of a still life, a picture of one of Picasso's own earlier pictures, now enshrined within the more grandiose setting of its expensive-looking faux frame.
While this juxtaposition can be seen in one way to echo Picasso's own life after Christmas 1918, when he moved with his wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, to a large apartment at 23, rue la Boétie on the Right Bank in Paris, far from the artists' milieus and instead within the territory of many of the more exclusive dealers. There, amidst the more bourgeois trappings of the interior that Olga had created for their new home, Picasso's Cubist pictures hung, creating an atmosphere that is echoed through the composition of Verre et pipe. At the same time, the concept of trompe-l'oeil that Picasso is invoking is clearly and gleefully punctured by the sheer painterliness of the frame, bringing the viewer's attention emphatically to the fact that this is not a sliver of reality, but is very much a subjective representation of the world. Picasso's Verre et pipe is a manifesto in the way that painting works, an apt standard to be raised by this great pioneer, who at this point had become one of the most famous figures of the avant garde in the world. Picasso is deliberately banishing the suspension of disbelief in order to allow us to enjoy the fact that this is a picture. Verre et pipe is about seeing, and about painting.
This artistic process, with the artist provocatively showing his own hand in this flagrant way, is a parallel to the deliberate staginess that Picasso introduced into his sets for the Ballets Russes. While the costumes that Picasso designed for Diaghilev showed an increasing classicism during the years at the end of the First World War and following it, perhaps revealing the influence that the presence of Olga is deemed to have had on his stylistic development, the sets that he created often retained the stylisation and simplification of his later Cubistic works, while the stage for Pulcinella, created the year after Verre et pipe, included painted areas continuing the interior of the theatre, meaning that there was a theatre-within-a-theatre. Picasso's involvement with the Ballets Russes during this time led to his being exposed not only to increasingly high levels of society, but also to many of the great international avant garde figures, be it the Bohemians in London, where he moved for several months to create the sets for Tricorne in 1919, or the composer Igor Stravinsky.