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, ‘Cohon, 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 Hibou sur la chaise on 10 January 1947, two months after he had returned with Ubu to Paris. The hexagonal patterning represents the tiled floor of his studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins, where he had endured the discomforts and deprivations of life under the Occupation. The woven seat of the chair repeats the texture of the owl’s feathers, the arched cross rails pick up the lozenge-like form of his wings and facial discs, and the concentric whorls of the finials draw attention to his round, staring eyes. The principal pictorial drama of the painting, though, is found in the sharp contrast between the moody, grisaille tonality that engulfs the aloof, nocturnal bird and the fall of artificial yellow light that illuminates his chair-perch, entering from the right with a jagged streak like lightning. “The light I have at night is magnificent,” Picasso told Brassaï. “A light that sets off every object, dark shadows making a ring around the canvases...you find them in most of my still-lifes, almost all of them painted at night. Whatever the atmosphere, it becomes our own substance, it rubs off on us, arranges itself to fit our nature” (quoted in Picasso Black and White, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2012, p. 26).
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; see Christie’s, New York, 8 May 2013, Lot 6).
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).
Picasso with his owl at Antibes, 1946. Photograph: Michael Sima.
Pablo Picasso, Nature morte à la chouette et aux trois oursins, 1946. Musée Picasso, Antibes.
Pablo Picasso, Chouette dans un intérieur, 1946. Musée Picasso, Paris.
Pablo Picasso, Nature morte à l’oiseau en cage, 1947. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 9 November 1999, Lot 540.
Pablo Picasso, Le hibou sur la chaise, 1947. Allen Memorial Museum of Art, Oberlin, Ohio.