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Flush with the two thousand francs Vollard had paid him in May 1906 for twenty of his early paintings, Picasso traveled with his lover Fernande Olivier to the Catalonian mountain village of Gósol. The journey took them through Barcelona, where Picasso was able to show off to his family both his fiancée--although Fernande had yet to divorce her previous husband-- and his temporary wealth, as well as catching up with old friends such as the de Soto brothers. Travelling onward from Barcelona to Gósol was arduous, including a final leg along precipitous mountain tracks on mule-back. Once they reached Gósol, a village of barely eight hundred inhabitants, they installed themselves in the only inn, Cal Tampanada, and Picasso set about work, investigating the harsh local landscape and painting the villagers. "I love the simplicity of living here," wrote Fernande, "among people who are untouched by civilization. Our hosts in the clean, rustic inn, are friendly and considerate, although, when Pablo's working, I can only make myself understood by signs. Everything gleams in the sunlight, the yellow houses, the rocky earth and the white sand, and the sky is a soft pure blue I've never seen before" (quoted in Loving Picasso, The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier, trans. C. Baker and M. Raeburn, New York, 2001, p. 183).
It was during this trip that twenty-four-year-old Picasso first tackled still-life in a concerted manner, initiating a subject that was to occupy him throughout the rest of his long career. Nature morte au tableau, with its arrangement of humble objects--an empty bottle, a teapot, a sugar bowl, a porrón, the distinctive Catalan drinking vessel--and with its inter-play between translucent or opaque surfaces and squat or elongated forms, as well as its earthy palette, firmly belongs to the tradition of Spanish still-life painting. The angular porrón makes further appearances in two other Gósol still-lifes, one canvas today housed in the Hermitage (Zervos, vol. 15, no. 13) and a watercolor in a European private collection (Zervos, vol. 22, no. 458). It is also featured in another Gósol work, Le harem (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 321; The Cleveland Museum of Art), where it is given a strong sexual charge as its phallic neck is clasped purposefully by the male figure while he surveys the naked females surrounding him.
The sexual undertow of Nature morte au tableau has been discussed by, among others, John Richardson, who sees it as the first still-life in which Picasso subverts a quotidian message into a coded metaphor for the human comedy, and specifically the topics of sex and death: "the first glimmerings of Picasso's anthropomorphic concept of still-life as a metaphor not just for sex but for all manner of conflicts and confrontations - a concept which will later help the artist to contrive a code that will divulge and at the same time conceal his secret desires" (loc. cit.). Picasso himself was unequivocal about his use of metaphor: "I want to tell something by means of the most common object: for example, a casserole, any old casserole, the one everyone knows. For me it is a vessel in the metaphorical sense, just like Christ's use of the parables" (quoted in F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, no. 74). Intriguingly, the Provençal version of a porrón, a purro, is included by Matisse in two still-lifes painted in 1904 and 1905, although it is unclear whether Picasso would have known the works.
The earthy ochres and subtle color harmonies of Nature morte au tableau, typical of the so-called Iberian phase of 1906-1907, call to mind the quiet, fugitive mood of Redon still-lifes (fig. 2). The exploration of form and the complexity of message, however, owe a debt to Gauguin (fig. 3) and, in turn, the artist who exerted inestimable influence over Picasso's generation, Cézanne (fig. 4). Gauguin's quest for the primitive, which took him to the South Pacific, surely contributed to Picasso's choice of such remote locations as Gósol for painting expeditions. Cézanne's integrity and relentless pursuit of his "sensations" also held great allure for Picasso.
The inclusion of two pictures on the background wall enrich the metaphorical message of Nature morte au tableau and also establish it as a "studio" picture. The portrait at the center--the "tableau" of the title-- is a small devotional picture of the Virgin and Child, probably Spanish eighteenth-century in design and quite possibly acquired when Picasso and Fernande passed through Barcelona. The devotional image of Virgin and Child carries overt messages of religion and birth, as well as an implicit reference to a death foretold. The image traveled back to Paris with Picasso at the end of the Gósol stay in August, remaining on display in his Paris studio. It is identifiable in the background sequence of photograph portraits taken in his boulevard de Clichy studio in the fall of 1910, although by this stage it has parted company from its gilt frame (fig. 3). In Nature morte au tableau, written across the bottom of the portrait is the inscription "Les Pregunts", colloquial Catalan for "the questions". The inscription suggests the influence of Gauguin, whose Tahitian pictures very often carried similar texts, the most famous example being D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? of 1897 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The extra-pictorial references that such inscriptions suggested appealed to Picasso, who doubtless enjoyed the layer of intrigue "Les Pregunts" lent his work. Moreover, the very fact that the inscription was in Catalan meant that further mystery was assured - again, an echo of Gauguin whose inscriptions were often written in Tahitian. The other image in the background of Nature morte au tableau is what appears to be a pencil or chalk study for Les deux frères (fig. 4; Kunstmuseum, Basel). Painted during his stay in Gósol, Les deux frères exhibits Picasso's exploration of the monumental and primal aspects of figure painting. It also an obvious reference to youthful fraternity and, of course, its counterpoint of death.
The first private owner of Nature morte au tableau was the German collector, Franz Kluxen (1888-1968), described by John Richardson as "one of the earliest and most serious buyers of Picasso in pre-1914 Germany"(A Life of Picasso, New York, 1996, vol. II, p. 468, no. 73). Inheriting a Münster department store from his father, Bernhard Kluxen, Franz Kluxen's interests were focused instead on art collecting. A partial reconstruction of his large art collection indicates that he owned numerous works by Kandinsky, Macke, Marc, Chagall and Jawlensky amongst others (many of which were loaned to the exhibition Sammlung Kluxen; Gemälde und Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, held at Galerie der Sturm, Berlin in 1917) as well as over a dozen works by Picasso including Femme au chapeau noir (Zervos, vol. 2, no.178) and Woman playing the Violin (Zervos, 2, no. 256).
By 1925, Nature morte au tableau was in the collection of a Hamburg businessman named Ernst Schlesinger (1877-1925), the German trade attaché in Copenhagen during World War I. Ernst Schlesinger's solidly middle-class lifestyle appears to have masked a clear interest in contemporary German culture, possibly influenced by his uncle, the Dada writer and poet, Salomo Friedländer ("Mynona"), an essayist for the magazines 'Die Sturm' and 'Die Aktion'. Ernst Schlesinger's own art collection was wide ranging and included Dutch seventeenth-century paintings and drawings, Chinese porcelain and scroll paintings and Egyptian antiquities.
Ernst Schlesinger died in 1925 and in his will he bequeathed a life interest in Nature morte au tableau to a Hamburg friend, a dentist named Dr Johanna Meyer-Udewald. As a Jew, she emigrated from 1930s Germany and settled in the Netherlands with one of her brothers. In February 1939, Dr Meyer-Udewald loaned Nature morte au tableau to the Stedelijk Museum's exhibition Parijsche Schilders held in Amsterdam. In 1940 Dr Meyer-Udewald moved to Belgium to join her other brother, his wife and two young children and a family friend, also from Hamburg. In Belgium, Dr Meyer-Udewald moved from one safe house to another in Antwerp and Brussels until she was betrayed to the Nazis and sent to the transit camp for Jewish prisoners at Malines. On 20 September 1943, Dr Meyer-Udewald was deported from Malines to Auschwitz where she perished. It was Dr Meyer-Udewald's niece who recalled her aunt's friendship with Ernst Schlesinger in Hamburg in the 1920s and spoke of how the painting had once been in his collection.
After passing through the hands of Joseph Albert Dederen, a resident of Brussels, and Dr Georges Robyn, a gynecologist by profession who worked in Bad Godesberg and who lent Nature morte au tableau to the 1950 exhibition at Knokke-le-Zoute, it was sold to the Bollag Gallery, Zurich from whom it was purchased by the Galerie Benador, Geneva. In October 1952, Nature morte au tableau was acquired in good faith by Duncan C. Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., for his wife Marjorie Phillips, who left it to grandson Duncan V. Phillips, the current owner.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait, Gósol, 1906. Whereabouts unknown. BARCODE 20626747
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Fruit Dish, 1879-1880. The Museum of Modern Art. Fractional gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller. BARCODE 20626730
(fig. 3) Odilon Redon, Poivron et Citron sur une nappe blanche, 1901. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 20626716
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Paris, Boulevard de Clichy studio, autumn 1910. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 20626709
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, The two brothers, Spring-Summer 1906. BARCODE 20626723