Picasso married Olga Koklova, a dancer with the Ballets Russes, in Paris, July 1918. They honeymooned in Biarritz, the guest of the artist's patroness Eugenia Errazuriz, who introduced the couple to international society. On their return to Paris, Picasso moved out of his house in Montrouge, and they stayed at the Hôtel Lutétia. It was here on the evening of November 9 that Picasso received a telephone call telling him of the death of his old comrade the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who, weakened from his war wound, had fallen easy victim to the spreading influenza epidemic. The armistice ending the First World War was signed two days later, and shortly after Apollinaire's funeral, Picasso collected his last belongings in Montrouge, and settled in with Olga in a new apartment at 23, rue la Boétie. Next door was the gallery of Paul Rosenberg, to whom he had recently awarded first choice of his new works, and whose clientele was drawn from the upscale social milieu of this elegant neighborhood. Paul's brother Léonce had his gallery a couple of blocks away.
Picasso had been working alternately -- and, indeed, controversially -- in two styles for several years. He continued to paint in his cubism idiom, usually taking still-lifes as his subjects and less frequently the figure, which he generally preferred to treat in his newer classicizing manner (see lot 21). Picasso's cubist and classical styles attracted its own partisans, and this polarization was further aggravated when each of the Rosenberg brothers held exhibitions in 1919. Léonce included only cubist works by Picasso in the group installation at his Galerie de L'Effort Moderne in June. In October Paul Rosenberg held a large one-man show of Picasso's drawings and watercolors that emphasized his classicizing approach.
One camp of critics, on the lookout for a new post-war style, opined that cubism was by now old hat. The other side, including many major artists working in cubist modes, thought the classical works were an outright betrayal of the avant-garde. Few considered how one approach might be seen to influence and complement the other. Picasso himself put it most simply in a statement to Marius de Zayas, which almost anticipates the pluralism of our own postmodern era: "I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them. Whenever I have something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaptation of the idea one wants to express and the means to express that idea" (in "Picasso Speaks," The Arts, New York, May 1923; reprinted in D. Ashton, Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 5).
While cubist in overall aspect, the present painting contains elements of classicism as well, and may be viewed as an effort to integrate the two approaches. It depicts a dessert table set before the green shutters of an open window, which serves as the source of external white light that illuminates the tabletop arrangement. Receding diagonals have created a deeper interior space than was customary in Picasso's previous synthetic cubist still-lifes, and the cakes and candies at right have been rendered in a roughly realistic manner that also implies some illusion of depth. On the other hand, the bottle of Málaga (a sweet dessert wine from the region in Spain where Picasso grew up), glasses and folded newspaper are entirely flat. This manipulation of hybrid space looks forward to the celebrated series of balcony still lifes that Picasso painted in gouache soon afterwards, during the late summer of 1919 at the seaside resort of Saint-Raphaël. Many of these were included in the October exhibition at Paul Rosenberg's gallery, and attracted much attention.
The folded newspaper at lower right bears the final letters of the masthead of L'Intransigeant, the Paris daily for which Apollinaire had written much of his influential art criticism during the important pre-war period as the cubists struggled for ascendancy. The painting is perhaps a tribute to Picasso's recently deceased friend, a small feast of sweets and fine wine laid out as a parting gift to the great poet and advocate of modern painting.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Vase et fleurs, partition, cartes, a jouer, 1918 (National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C., Chester Dale Collection) ©c Succesion Picasso/DACS, London 2001