‘Just as a poor man on barren terrain gathers up his treasures, the artist, who is at once the richest and the poorest of men, in his work combines on the one hand the ideas or the ghosts of certain objects from everyday reality (the glass, the guitar, the man’s hat, wisps of a woman’s hair) with on the other the concrete remains of this reality: scraps of wallpaper, aperitif bottle labels, newspaper’ (J. Cassou, Preface to Papiers collés 1910-1914, exh. cat., Paris, 1966).
Ranking among Pablo Picasso’s earliest Cubist collages, Bouteille et verre sur une table belongs to a series of restrained, yet highly sophisticated works which the artist executed between November and December 1912. Evoking the presence of a bottle and a glass on a table with an impressive economy of means, the collage expresses Picasso’s acute visual intelligence as he embraced this new medium to expand Cubism’s revolutionary potential. At the time the work was executed, the artist had just returned to Paris, after having spent the summer in the small town of Sorge-sur-L’ouvèze, painting with Georges Braque. There, the two artists had engaged once again in a tense creative collaboration, motivated by an urge to solve the challenging problems that their fearless invention of Cubism had raised a few years earlier. Yet, their styles had started to diverge. William Rubin brilliantly captured their differences when he wrote: ‘Faced with a mark, a blot, a patch of paint, a texture or a piece of material, Picasso instinctively wants to make a figure or an object out of it. Where Braque may be content to let the peg of a violin dissolve from a sign into a mark, and hence "painting", Picasso will transform it into a sign for a face or a figure’ (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. 2, 1907-1917, London, 2009, p. 245). A few months later, Picasso’s distinctive approach would indeed become the key to works such as Bouteille et verre sur une table and to the sophistication of his Cubist collages in general.
In early October 1912, upon his return to Paris, Picasso settled into a new studio on the Boulevard Raspail. Having broken up with Fernande, the artist had felt the need to break with his past and opted to moved away from his atelier at the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, which had been the site of his bohemian beginnings as an artist in Paris. Accompanied by his newly found lover Eva, Picasso thus settled in Montparnasse. Situated on a ground floor, the new studio did not entirely satisfy Picasso, who considered it a temporary solution. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of that new setting – Josep Palau i Fabre argued in his authoritative study of Picasso’s Cubist period – would prove influential to the creation of the early series of collages to which Bouteille et verre sur une table belongs. The studio looked out onto a complex known as Cité Nicolas Poussin, whose architectural features seem to have informed the structure of charcoal lines which is central to works such as Bouteille et verre sur une table. Palau i Fabre explained: ‘…what mostly characterises [the Cité Poussin] are the visible beams, on the surface of the walls, which thus emphasise that “flat space”. Most of the beams are horizontal or vertical, although there are some that are oblique or slanting, intersecting and forming crosses which are reminiscent of the extreme simplicity of some papiers collés, in which Picasso might unwittingly have obeyed the beam pattern... This almost monastic frugality, so befitting Picasso, is found also in the beams and the apparent framework of the set of studios he occupied’ (J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso Cubism 1907-1917, New York, 1990, p. 296). Away from Braque and perhaps inspired by his new environment, with works such as Bouteille et verre sur une table Picasso was able to turn collage into a new and exciting development in the history of Cubism.
Compared with the destabilising clutter and hermetic complexity of Picasso’s most recent Cubist paintings, the present work deploys a striking simplicity of means. It is as though Picasso had suddenly wanted to strip down his Cubism to its most essential elements. Around the time Picasso executed Bouteille et verre sur une table, the artist had also explored the possibilities of richer papiers collés, in which he had masterfully combined multiple sheets of printed and textured paper. Yet, in Bouteille et verre sur une table and the rest of the series, the artist specifically decided to rely on a single scrap of newspaper, cut into an abstract form and dropped onto the page. The spare character of works such as Bouteille et verre sur une table, prompted Palau i Fabre to perceive in these early collages an expression of Picasso’s Catalan identity: ‘On contemplating the most austere, the most naked of his papiers collés, I believe we must still insist on the eminently Iberian (Catalan, Castilian, or Andalusian) nature of his enterprise. Such extreme sobriety is imaginable only in the work of a man who has seen poverty all around him and who has learnt to appreciate even the most insignificant objects’ (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., p. 300). On an artistic level, however, these works resemble personal challenges, in which the artist – granting himself the minimum support possible from the inclusion of extraneous paper – defied himself to bring it alive, through the use of a few, well chosen, loquacious lines.
Disguised in works such as Bouteille et verre sur une table lay another character trait of the Spanish artist: his pleasure in playing with images, his predilection for puns and visual ambiguities which signalled his total mastery, not only of the medium, but of the mechanisms of representation itself. It is in this dimension that works such as Bouteille et verre sur une table find their most entrancing quality. Cubism’s most important revolution had been to proclaim the relativity of vision and the arbitrary nature of representation: by fracturing the visible works into a myriad of conflicting points of view, Picasso and Braque had showed painting’s shortcomings in confronting the complexity of human vision and offered a new, more compelling way to approach representation. A few years later, collages tackled the implications which Cubism’s new mode of representation had brought about. By dismantling the traditional rules of naturalistic representation, Cubist paintings had shown how malleable and indeed resilient human interpretation of signs can be: although devoid of all predictable guidance, the beholder could still ‘read’ Cubist works, ascribing meaning to its symbols. With collages such as Bouteille et verre sur une table Picasso emphasises this very point.
Embedded in these earlier collages, one can find ‘visual puns’, in which signs acquire double meaning. In Bouteille et verre sur une table, Picasso has fractured the fluted form of the glass in a series of shapes, each of which expresses a physical characteristic of the object. Our eyes peruse these successive shifting perspectives, constructing a mental, three-dimensional image of the glass. Yet, the human eye cannot resist the temptation to let signs take over and suggest other possible meanings. As observed by Christine Poggi in her careful study of Cubist collages, in the present work the glass assumes an almost acrobatic role: ‘the glass, now converted to a monocyclist, speeds off the edge of the table’ (C. Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism and the Invention of Collage, New Haven, 1992, p. 56). From the apparent visual restraint of works such as Bouteille et verre sur une table Picasso was able to conjure even richer interpretative possibilities, wittingly commenting on the arbitrary nature of representation and the inevitable participation of the viewer in constructing the meaning of imagery.
Collage’s inclusion of extraneous material, moreover, allowed Picasso to push his reflection on signs and meaning even further. In Bouteille et verre sur une table, Picasso used a newspaper to outline the silhouette of a bottle. Visible on the cutting, the printed headline ‘Grande Liqueur Cherry-Rocher’ may be taken to represent a label. Picasso, however, undercut the literal suggestion that this advertising listing creates. Just above it, the artist stencilled – scattered like a rebus – the word ‘OLD’ and the letters ‘J’, ‘A’ and ‘R’. Meaningless on their own, these letters acquire their meaning only if the newspaper gives up its material identity as newspaper to signify instead the body of a bottle, whose neck Picasso has sketched on the cutting itself. Then, the mysterious riddle is solved and meaning is inferred: OLD JA[MAICA] R[UM], the popular brand that Picasso had included in other Cubist works. Printed advertising and hand-painted letters, literal representation and constructed interpretation fight for meaning at the core of Bouteille et verre sur une table, exemplifying the complexity and subtlety of Picasso’s Cubist collages. Visually, as well as linguistically, the elements of Bouteille et verre sur une table draw their meaning from their proximity and interaction with the other elements in the collage. In this regard, the work seems to echo one of the most influential theories of the time, Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistic, which came to be regarded as the founding principle of semiology in the Twentieth Century. In its subtle subversion of signs, Bouteille et verre sur une table offers an example of Picasso’s outstanding visual intelligence, while illustrating the artist’s immediate grasp of the potential of collage in the pursuit of Cubism’s radical revolution.