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

Nature morte: Tête de taureau

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Nature morte: Tête de taureau
signed and dated 'Picasso 15.1.39.' (lower center)
oil on canvas
31 7/8 x 39 7/8 in. (81 x 100 cm.)
Painted on 15 January 1939
Paul and Marguerite Rosenberg, Paris (acquired from the artist).
Transferred to Castel Floirac, Floirac-la-Souys, Bordeaux by Paul Rosenberg and subsequently confiscated following his emigration on 17 June 1940.
Returned to Paul Rosenberg by Martin Fabiani (December 1945).
Private collection, Paris (by descent from the above); sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., New York, 3 July 1979, lot 36.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1958, vol. 9, no. 237 (illustrated prior to signature, pl. 114; with incorrect dimensions).
J. Richardson, ed., Picasso: An American Tribute, New York, 1962 (illustrated, fig. 18; titled Bull's Head and Pitcher).
J.S. Boggs, Picasso and Things, exh. cat., The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992, p. 259 (illustrated prior to signature, fig. 102a; titled Skull of a Bull and Pitcher).
P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 257.
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Sale room notice
Please note that this work is displayed with a loaner frame for the exhibition, which is available for purchase.

Lot Essay

While vacationing during the summer of 1937 with Dora Maar and friends at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon in Mougins, near Cannes, Picasso discovered an ox skull on the beach. Only a few weeks earlier, he painted a bull, the totemic symbol of Spain, as a signal image in his anti-fascist mural Guernica, then on view in the Spanish pavilion at the Exposition Internationale, Paris. He was delighted to imagine, moreover, in these broken and weathered bones, a "relic" of the Minotaur, the mythical chimera of a bull's head joined to the body of a man, which he adopted in 1933 as his surrealist avatar. Dora photographed the artist with his find several times. In one shot Picasso held the skull up before his head, savoring this moment in which life magically imitated the content of his art.
On 15 January 1939, as Pierre Daix declared, "the bull's skull appears in his painting"—the present canvas, Nature morte: Tête de taureau—and to powerful effect. "This skull is an instrument with which to make painting scream and weep" (op. cit., 1993, p. 257).
Picasso required only two strongly contrasting objects–the jagged skull and his own invention of an elegantly curved, variously colored pitcher–to establish for the viewer the many themes, related to both private concerns and events of the day, which he sought to explore in this painting. From his engagement with the surrealist poets, Picasso conceived the presence and significance of each element as a multivalent symbol, capable of conjuring varied contexts of feeling and experience simultaneously, ranging here from the mythic and cultural significance of the taurine skull, to the plastic, metamorphic suggestions in the shape of the vessel.
The final weeks of 1938 had been hard on Picasso. He was still recovering in mid-January 1939 from a debilitating bout with sciatica. He nonetheless painted several heads of Marie-Thérèse and Dora during the first week of the new year—a portrait of Marie-Thérèse dated 7 January marked the eve of the anniversary of their first meeting outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris on 8 January 1927. A wrenching event then turned Picasso's thoughts to the most unbearable of all his fears—mortality. His ailing mother, María Picasso y López, died in Barcelona on 13 January, at age 83. The artist was not yet fit to travel to her funeral; the deteriorating political situation in Spain also rendered the trip inadvisable. General Franco's all-out Nationalist offensive in Catalunya had reached the outskirts of the regional capital. Much of its population having already fled, Barcelona surrendered on 28 January.
Picasso consequently conceived the bucranium as a memento mori for his mother, while in the process–for the time being, at least–exorcising his own profound dread of death. The skull is also a tribute to the valiant resistance of Barcelona's defenders, including his sister Lola's two sons, who subsequently escaped to France. The pitcher is both a foil to and complements the skull. Its swelling, brightly colored feminine forms betoken Picasso's thoughts for Marie-Thérèse on their anniversary; the egg-shaped base of the vessel celebrates her role as the mother of their young daughter Maya. The red and yellow of the Spanish flag prevail in the flagon's color scheme—Picasso had painted Marie-Thérèse as the young girl running at lower right in Guernica.
Nature morte: Tête de taureau is, in sum, a double portrait. Picasso depicted himself in the guise of his Minotaur alter-ego; the skull alludes to the bull in ancient worship as a symbol of male strength and procreative power, while also the fated victim–as practiced in modern Spanish bullfighting—of ritual sacrifice. Picasso ascribed to the bull in Guernica the qualities of "brutality and darkness" (quoted in J.S. Boggs, exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. 254), mitigated in this still-life by the joyous, feminine life-force manifest in the sensual vessel shape of his blond inamorata, Marie-Thérèse.

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