A vision of kaleidoscopic colour painted during the dark days of the Occupation of Paris, La cafetière was a gift from Pablo Picasso to his blonde-haired lover and muse: Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso executed this vibrant, colour-filled still-life in April 1943, likely during one of his visits to Walter and their young daughter Maya, at their home on the boulevard Henri-IV, a short walk from his studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins. Constructed with a web of lines, by turn linear, angular or undulating, each stroke of the painting vibrates with saturated colour. As a result, the surface is luminous; this quotidian scene transformed into a dazzling, jewel-like composition, a defiant beacon of hope, vitality, colour and light in the face of oppression and war.
The genre of the still-life dominated Picasso’s wartime work. Despite many of his friends offering to aid the artist in fleeing the occupied French capital, Picasso had decided to remain in his beloved Paris. Declared a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazi regime and purportedly prohibited from exhibiting his work in the city, Picasso retreated to his studio during this time, entertaining friends and visitors there, and withdrawing from the café culture that had characterised his life for years. Enduring the many deprivations that befell the city’s inhabitants living under enemy rule – food shortages, blackouts, the constant fear of bombardment or violence, as well as the constant stories of death and disappearance – Picasso threw himself furiously into his work. ‘It was not a time for the creative man to fail, to shrink, to stop working’, he later explained, ‘there was nothing else to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly, and look forward to freedom’ (Picasso, quoted in M. McCully, ed., A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences, Princeton, 1981, p. 224).
Due to his isolation, Picasso turned to his immediate surroundings as his pictorial subjects, which resulted in the proliferation of still-life paintings. Françoise Gilot’s memory of one of her first visits to Picasso’s studio in May 1943 describes the artist’s prolific production at this time: ‘[Picasso] piled [his paintings] up almost like scaffolding. There was a painting on the easel; he stuck another on top of that; one on each side; piled others on top of those… That morning there were cocks; a buffet of Le Catalan with cherries against a background of brown, and white; small still lifes, some with lemon and many with glasses, a cup, and a coffeepot, or with fruit against a checked tablecloth’ (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 20).
Using a small repertoire of objects – cups, pots, skulls or food – Picasso invested these quotidian scenes with a powerful allegorical meaning. These often-sombre works reflect a sense of pathos, anxiety and tension. Unlike the predominantly dark still-lifes of this time however, La cafetière sings with vitality, brilliance and hope. Likely painted at Marie-Thérèse’s apartment, the present work reveals the joy that could be found in life’s simple pleasures, and indeed, in painting itself. The coffee pot that stands sentinel in the centre of this scene in fact alludes to a luxury in wartime Paris: coffee was a precious commodity and hard to come by. Next to this is a plate with a large slab of vivid yellow butter – another rarity due to rationing. Together with the cup and saucer, and the pieces of bread laid scattered upon the multi-hued table, this scene therefore tells of an indulgent breakfast that the artist may have enjoyed; a moment of bliss and respite away from the outside world and the increasing terror of war. Picasso had painted a similar, though more naturalistic composition to La cafetière a month prior (Zervos, vol. 12, no. 290). Featuring the same combination of objects, including the knife, which Maya recalled the artist would hone during his visits, this work also remained in Marie-Thérèse’s collection, but lacks the symphonic, radiant colour of the present work.
Marie-Thérèse had long provided a place of domestic solace and uncomplicated happiness for Picasso, and, as a result her presence often stimulated a proliferation of still-lifes in his art. At the beginning of their love affair, Picasso had kept his golden-haired lover entirely secret, concealing her both in his life and his art. As a result, her image first emerged in his work in the form of symbolic guises, perhaps most notably in the form of the still-life. Picasso distilled her voluptuous curves and statuesque form into the undulating lines of bowls and pitchers, as well as ripe fruit. Finally, in 1931, the artist could no longer resist the urge to depict her appearance in visual form, creating an abundance of sculptures and paintings inspired by her body, her untroubled disposition and perhaps most importantly, the passion and eroticism she inspired in him.
In the turbulent years preceding the eventual outbreak of the Second World War, Picasso once again returned to these symbolic still-lifes, painting the same curving pitchers, blossoming flowers and fruits in a similarly vivid palette as his portraits of her, at their rural hideout in La Tremblay. Picasso has returned to this same visual language in La cafetière. The spout of the cafetière, outlined in intense black lines, takes on a phallic connotation, while the cup, saucer and spoon, created with a web of organic, softly undulating lines and soft tones of rose, lilac and green, appears as the female counterpart. At this time, Picasso had largely ceased painting the majestic seated portraits of Marie-Thérèse that he had begun in 1932 and continued through the decade. Instead, as the present work attests, he distilled her presence into the form of symbolic still-lifes; alive with colour, hope, love and passion.