‘You're like a growing plant and I've been wondering how I could get across the idea that you belong to the vegetable kingdom rather than the animal. I've never felt impelled to portray anyone else this way. It's strange, isn't it? I think it's just right, though. It represents you’
(Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 119)
Set within an exuberant, richly decorated interior, a single flower framed by verdant green leaves ascends upwards, as if moving towards the light that radiates from the lamp that hangs from above in Pablo Picasso’s Intérieur au pot de fleurs. Enclosed within a glass vase that proudly reveals its stem and root, this solitary plant is the protagonist of this boldly coloured and enigmatic still-life, painted on 20 December 1953. Filled with the influence of perhaps Picasso’s greatest rival, his friend Henri Matisse, this intriguing interior scene can also be seen to allude to the inner turmoil that characterised the artist’s life at this time. Just a few months prior, Picasso’s post-war lover and muse, Françoise Gilot, had left him, returning to Paris with their two young children, Claude and Paloma.
A young artist, Françoise Gilot had entered the artist’s life in May 1943. In the dark days of the Occupation of Paris, Picasso had met Gilot one night at Le Catalan, a Left Bank restaurant where she was dining with the actor Alain Cuny and another friend of hers. ‘As the meal went on’, Gilot recalled in her autobiography, Life with Picasso, ‘I noticed Picasso watching us, and from time to time acting a bit for our benefit… Whenever he said something particularly amusing, he smiled at us rather than just at his dinner companions. Finally, he got up and came over to our table. He brought with him a bowl of cherries and offered some to all of us, in his strong Spanish accent, calling them cerisses…’ (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 14). Over the following weeks and months, the pair saw more and more of each other, but it was not until the following year that they became a couple.
Gilot’s presence reinvigorated Picasso’s life and art, her youth and vitality ushering in a new period of intense creativity and personal contentment for the artist. Together they moved south, to Vallauris, where Picasso became immersed in ceramics as well as embarking on a new, experimental phase of sculpture. In 1947, the couple’s first child, Claude was born, followed two years later by a daughter, Paloma. These were halcyon years for Picasso, who relished his young family and his newfound creativity. Yet, by 1951, cracks were beginning to show in the couple’s relationship. Increasingly, Picasso was spending long periods in Paris, where he had begun to see Geneviève Laporte, enjoying secret trysts with her in his rue des Grands-Augustin home. ‘By 1952’, Gilot recalled, ‘there were a lot of hard feelings on both sides. I was looking for a way out of our relationship. Pablo was making things as difficult as possible. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore… I was in two minds. Would it be better if I left or stayed on at Vallauris with the children? Had I stayed, it would have ended in my death’ (Gilot, ibid., p. 35). Finally, in September 1953, Gilot decided to leave Picasso, returning to Paris with Claude and Paloma.
It was not long after his family had left him that Picasso painted the present work. For an artist whose work was innately autobiographical, still-life scenes are rarely meaningless arrangements of objects. Instead, they frequently hold a deeper personal, symbolic or allegorical meaning, often serving as a reflection of the artist’s life at that time. ‘I want to tell something by means of the most common object,’ he had once told Gilot, ‘for example a casserole, any old casserole, the one everybody knows. For me it is a vessel in the metaphorical sense, just like Christ's use of parables’ (Picasso, quoted in Gilot, ibid., p. 74). The sensual, colour-saturated still-life paintings of the early 1930s serve as passion-filled paeans to his clandestine muse of the time, Marie-Thérèse Walter; the ripe fruit and undulating vessels serving as veiled stand-ins for the voluptuous forms of his lover; while his wartime scenes reflect the darkness, angst and despair of life under enemy rule. ‘Indeed, under each pot, bowl of fruit, or guitar, there lurks a story, a person, or an anecdote that is part of the painter’s life,’ Marie-Laure Bernadac has written (M.-L. Bernadac, ‘Picasso from the Guts: Food in Picasso’s Writings’, in J. Sutherland Boggs, Picasso & Things, exh. cat., Cleveland, Philadelphia & Paris, 1992, p. 22).
In this way, the protagonist of the present work, the single, solitary plant, can also be regarded in an autobiographical context. On her second visit to Picasso’s rue des Grands-Augustins studio, Gilot brought the artist flowers that matched her dress: ‘Remembering, from our first visit, the very pleasant entrance with its many plants and exotic birds in wicker cages…we had decided to add a little colour to the greenery and so we arrived carrying a pot of cineraria’, she recalled. ‘When Picasso saw us he laughed. “Nobody brings flowers to an old gent,” he said. Then he noticed that my dress was the same colour as the blossoms, or vice versa. “You think of everything; I can see that,” he said’ (Gilot, ibid., pp. 19-20). While at the time, seemingly an act of little significance, this gesture was perhaps among the first occasions that the image of Gilot became conflated in Picasso’s mind with nature, in particular flowers and plants. It was this analogy that would come to define her image in Picasso’s art, beginning, or perhaps culminating, with her portrait, La Femme-fleur (Zervos, vol. 14, no. 167; Private collection) of 1946, in which Gilot is forever immortalised as a flower.
‘You're like a growing plant’, Picasso told Gilot in 1946, at the time he was painting La Femme-fleur, ‘and I've been wondering how I could get across the idea that you belong to the vegetable kingdom rather than the animal. I've never felt impelled to portray anyone else this way. It's strange, isn't it? I think it's just right, though. It represents you’ (Gilot, ibid., p. 119). Using the motif of a flower or plant, Picasso was able to distil Gilot’s vitality and vivacity, as well as her radiant youthfulness and femininity into pictorial form. At once delicate yet at the same time durable and resilient, a flower was the perfect way to capture the radiant beauty and independent, resolute character of Gilot. From this point onwards, natural motifs, symbols and colours abounded in Picasso’s depictions of her, as she became an Arcadian goddess, fecund fertility goddess or the embodiment of spring.
It is possible then that Picasso was in the present work once again returning to his conception of Gilot as a ‘growing plant’. Now she had finally walked out of his life, here he pictures her as a single, resolute bloom, ascendant and in full leaf, seemingly thriving despite his threats and warnings that she would be nothing without him. No longer filling his life with vitality, his world, perhaps like the wallpaper in the upper right of the composition, had faded from radiant colour to monochrome. Or, by contrast, Picasso could also be implying that, placed under the electric, artificial light, and tightly enclosed within this interior setting, the flower will never bloom. With this interpretation, the bold, Matissean-patterned wallpaper, featuring abundant flowers and radiant colour is perhaps mocking the solitary flower; the flat decorative pattern threatening to dominate both the central motif as well as the whole painting. With the meaning of the painting open to interpretation, what is certain is that the combination of the low, angular ceiling, radiant yellow table, and flattened, decorative interior space creates an undeniable sense of pictorial tension, exuding an intensity of emotion the exact origin or meaning of which is hard to fully discern.
Nine days after he completed Intérieur au pot de fleurs, Picasso painted two works which seem to convey the sense of loneliness he now faced in his life without his young family around him (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 99 & 100). While he was not alone but engaged in a love affair with Geneviève Laporte, Picasso does seem in these pictures to express a sense of loss, or at least emptiness. As John Richardson has written, ‘Françoise thinks these paintings are unique, the only time Picasso ever gave way to nostalgia. He desperately missed Françoise – the more so because he had never succeeded in breaking her. In that respect, she would be a lone survivor’ (J. Richardson, Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953, exh. cat., New York 2012, p. 35). Along with the present Intérieur au pot de fleurs, these works reveal various fascinating glimpses into the complex panorama of conflicting emotions that define this moment of personal transition in the artist’s life.
Intérieur au pot de fleurs also pays homage to Henri Matisse. In the late 1940s and early 50s, Picasso kept in close contact with Matisse, who was at the time living not far from the artist in Vence. At this time the two enjoyed a gentle rivalry, fascinated by what the other was doing, and often exchanging works with one another. With its exuberantly patterned background – likely created from the artist’s imagination as Vallauris was known for having very austere interiors – the present work immediately recalls Matisse’s decorative still-lifes, particularly his great series of colour-filled interiors from the late 1940s. Picasso also owned a late still-life by Matisse, Tulipes et huîtres sur fond noir, from 1943 (Musée Picasso, Paris). In these works, Matisse focused solely on colour, light and line, bringing these formal aspects together in a triumphant, triumvirate unity. Similarly, Intérieur au pot de fleurs also sees Picasso play with pure colour, constructing the composition with his distinctive cubist language of flattened forms and bold lines.
As the new year dawned, so did new love in the artist’s life, as he began a relationship with Jacqueline Roque, the woman who would become his second wife and last great love of his life. Soon, the artist would leave Vallauris and move into the large villa La Californie, set on the hills above glamorous Cannes; a far cry from the rustic La Galloise, the home he had shared with Gilot. In November 1954, Matisse died. Devastated, Picasso paid tribute to Matisse in the great Les Femmes d’Alger series. After this, Picasso entered into battle with a number of great masterpieces of the past, as he began to consider the legacy he wanted to leave as he began what would be the final decades of his life. In many ways therefore, Intérieur au pot de fleurs is one of an important group of works that dates from this period of personal transition and change for the artist, marking the end of an era and the beginning of a new, valedictory chapter of his life.