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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Nature morte à l'oiseau en cage

Details
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Nature morte à l'oiseau en cage
dated '22.3.47.' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
23 5/8 x 28 5/8 in. (59.9 x 72.7 cm.)
Painted on 22 March 1947
Provenance
Estate of the artist.
Maya Widmaier-Picasso, Paris (by descent from the above).
Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich.
Private collection (circa 1982); sale, Sotheby's, London, 24 March 1999, lot 36.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Exhibited
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art; Munich, Galerie Thomas and London, The Mayor Gallery, Picasso, February-April 1983 (illustrated).
Antibes, Musée Picasso, Picasso, 1945-1949, L'ère du renouveau, March-June 2009, p. 196 (illustrated in color, p. 154).
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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco

Lot Essay

Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

In the fall of 1946, while Picasso was living and working in the Musée Grimaldi at Antibes, a small owl with an injured claw was discovered in a corner of the museum, where he had fallen from the rafters. Picasso, ever the animal lover, agreed to take in the wounded bird, whom he named Ubu, partly out of assonance with the French word for owl (hibou) and partly after the obnoxious anti-hero of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi. Picasso bandaged Ubu’s claw, and it gradually healed. When the artist left Antibes to return to Paris in November, he brought along the owl—who proved quite irascible—to join his extensive menagerie of caged birds.
“We put him in the kitchen with the canaries, the pigeons, and the turtledoves,” Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s companion at the time, later recalled. “We were very nice to him but he only glared at us. Any time we went into the kitchen, the canaries chirped, the pigeons cooed, and the turtledoves laughed but the owl remained stolidly silent or, at best, snorted. He smelled awful and ate nothing but mice. Every time the owl snorted at Pablo he would shout, ‘Cochon, merde,’ and a few other obscenities, just to show the owl that he was even worse mannered than he was. He used to stick his fingers between the bars of the cage and the owl would bite him, but Pablo’s fingers, though small, were tough. Finally the owl would let him scratch his head and gradually he came to perch on his finger instead of biting it, but even so, he still looked very unhappy” (Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 144-145).
Manners aside, the presence of the owl—at once the attribute of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and craft, and a legendary harbinger of evil and doom—seems to have deeply affected Picasso. Between November 1946 and March 1947, he painted no fewer than a dozen canvases depicting the grave and compact Ubu, on a perch, in a cage, or most often on the back of a wooden chair. No doubt, he identified with the owl—his nocturnal habits, perhaps his predatory nature, and especially his preternatural power of sight, which penetrates the night like the painter’s own vision penetrates ordinary experience. In photographs of Picasso and Ubu together at Antibes, the artist’s famously piercing gaze is echoed in that of his new avian companion, whose eyes glitter uncannily. “The owl introduced something almost extraterrestrial and mythic into his still-lifes,” Jean Sutherland Boggs has written (Picasso and Things, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992, p. 297).
Picasso painted Nature morte à l'oiseau en cage on 22 March 1947, four months after he had returned with Ubu to Paris. After 1947, the owl re-appears only intermittently in Picasso’s paintings and drawings; in his work in three dimensions, by contrast, it becomes a dominant motif. In the early 1950s, working at the sculpture studio that he had established in a former perfume factory at Vallauris and at the Madoura pottery workshop in the same town, Picasso produced owls from sheet metal (Spies, nos. 400-402, 573-575), from plaster embedded with objets trouvés (Spies, nos. 475-477), and from fired clay decorated with red and black slip (Ramié, nos. 81, 109-113, 151-161, 453). He also produced a pair of plaster sculptures, both subsequently cast in bronze, that deliberately contrast different aspects of the owl’s nature—one representing the bird as cool and composed, surveying his terrain with protruding eyes, his wings by his side, the second showing his beak gaping open and his wings outstretched as he swoops in for the kill, raw aggression replacing taut control (Spies, nos. 403-404).
There is no evidence that the ill-tempered Ubu accompanied Picasso to Vallauris. A new owl flew into his life, however, in 1957, two years after he and Françoise’s successor, Jacqueline, had moved to the villa La Californie, high above Cannes. Although he complained that it cost him precious work time, every day at noon and in the evening Picasso brought the bird a ball of meat that he had prepared himself in the kitchen, and as he worked on his Las Meninas variations into the wee hours, the owl and the dachshund Lump were his faithful companions. One night, Picasso recounted to Roland Penrose, yet another owl soared into the studio, hoping perhaps to prey on his sleeping doves, which flew at liberty from the terrace outside the window during the day. After battering itself repeatedly against the glass, seeking escape, the interloper conceded defeat and perched on top of the canvas on which Picasso was working. “They are following me!” Picasso exclaimed (quoted in B. Friedewald, Picasso’s Animals, Munich, 2014, p. 92).
Shortly thereafter, the owl became the impetus for one of Picasso’s most startling self-portraits. In October 1957, he received a visit from his friend David Douglas Duncan, who had recently photographed the artist’s intense gaze in a close-up shot and hoped that he would sign a print, cropped and enlarged. Instead, Picasso tore a blank page from his sketchbook and drew the face of an owl, cutting out holes to fit his eyes. He first held the paper up to his face like a mask; then he laid it on top of Duncan’s photograph so that the eyes of the portrait looked through. It was no longer an invocation or a masquerade; Picasso had become the owl. “Nothing unnatural seemed to have taken place,” Penrose has written about this unforgettable photo-collage, which Duncan chose for the dust jacket of his book Goodbye Picasso in 1974, “except that the bird now possessed the vision of a man whose eyes could not only see but also understand” (Picasso, His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 361).

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