Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
‘Painting is poetry and is always written in verse with plastic rhymes, never in prose’
(Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 120)
A sinuously interlocking composition of colour, planar form, line and pattern, Pablo Picasso’s Le coq saigné (‘The bled cockerel’) is one of the most visually complex and arresting works of the large series of still-lifes that the artist painted during and immediately following the Second World War. In a manner rarely seen in Picasso’s still-lifes of the 1940s, the subject itself becomes almost entirely abstract, as Picasso, the consummate master of form, weaves a labyrinthine composition of striking visual force. Rendered in places with thickly textured, richly impastoed paint, the web of lines and composite planes of colour that constitute Le coq saigné conceal the more sinister subject matter that lies at the heart of the painting. A rooster with its throat cut is laid across a table, its neck hanging lifelessly from the tabletop, while to the right of the composition, a knife is balanced on a bowl filled with what appears to be an orb-shaped pool of blood. Painted on 27 February 1947 and subsequently finished over a year later, on 13 October 1948, Le coq saigné is one of three works from this time to take this striking subject, and is the most abstract and compelling of this dramatic trio. It was in 1951, just a few years after Picasso completed Le coq saigné, that Antoni Tàpies met Picasso for the first time in his studio on the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris. Tàpies remained an ardent admirer of the Spaniard for the rest of his life, and Le coq saigné was said to be his favourite work of his large and diverse collection.
At the time that Picasso painted Le coq saigné, the rooster had become one of the artist’s favoured motifs. According to Zervos’ dating, just six days before Picasso began the present work, he had depicted the same subject in a painting entitled Volaille et couteau sur une table (Zervos 15, no. 41; Sold Christie’s, New York, Ganz Collection). Here, the same dismembered rooster and knife appear in an almost identical setting to that of Le coq saigné. Leaving the majority of the canvas unpainted however, Picasso painted this version of the scene in a far more legible, albeit stylised and simplified style. This sombre subject matter and dramatic composition must have resonated with the artist as he chose to return to it just over a week later when he painted the present work. This time using plywood instead of canvas, he dramatically altered his conception of the scene, transforming both the objects and their setting into an abstract array of intersecting planes. The rooster has become a multipartite combination of pattern and line, its feathers rendered with patterns of striated black lines and red dots, while the empty, negative space surrounding it has been depicted with orb-like forms of radiant blue, white and black. Picasso would return one final time to this composition almost a month later, when, on 21 March he painted another version of the previously mentioned Volaille et couteau sur une table (Zervos 15, no. 42; Fundación Almine & Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte). Remaining distinctly representational, neither of these paintings shares the same visceral power of the interlocking, colour-filled interwoven forms of the present work.
According to Picasso’s close friend, the photographer Brassaï, the artist, ‘always wanted a [pet] cockerel...somewhere near him’ (Brassaï, Picasso and Company, New York, 1966, p. 196). Like the horse or the bull – both of which are central symbols in Picasso’s oeuvre – the rooster was imbued with connotations of masculinity and virility. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, this animal proliferated in Picasso’s work, and, in the context of the turbulent, traumatic times in which he was painting, it can be seen to take on an even greater symbolism. Recognised as a national emblem of France, throughout the Second World War, the Gallic rooster served, as it had for many years previously, as a powerful symbol of the indomitable French spirit. Pictured in a variety of ways throughout Picasso’s painting, sculpture and drawing of the war years – resolute and defiant, or as the victim of cruelty or sacrifice – in Le coq saigné the rooster is dismembered and lifeless, an embodiment, it has been suggested, of the brutality and oppression that had been unleashed on the French, and indeed mankind as a whole, by the Nazis, and the violence from which the world was still recovering.
Picasso remained in occupied Paris for the duration of the Second World War, and, though he never directly depicted the unfolding horrors – save for Guernica and Le charnier, two works that stand at either end of the conflict – his work of the war years is steeped in the darkness and angst of war. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the proliferation of still-lifes that dominate his output of the war and immediate post-war years. Picasso used an array of quotidian objects– food, animals, jugs, candles or books – which, though seemingly arbitrary, in fact served as powerful allegorical vehicles to evoke life, death, despair or hope. ‘I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict’, he later explained. ‘But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done’ (Picasso, quoted in S. A. Nash, ed., Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, exh. cat., San Francisco & New York, 1999, p. 13). Though at the time he painted Le coq saigné, the Second World War had ended and Paris had been liberated, the artist was by no means devoid of worry and, as the present work shows, violence and death were not far from his mind. Deprivations continued to endure in Paris, and the nation was still coming to terms with the sheer scale of the loss, violence and tragedy that the war had inflicted. Yet, in many ways, the abstract idiom that Picasso has used to depict the macabre scene of Le coq saigné transforms it from being simply a still-life that embodies the idea of death. Instead, with its complex construction of form, bright colour and line, the work transcends the symbolic violence of the subject to become a near abstract vision based upon the powerful and resonant qualities of paint, material and matter itself.
The pared back and simplified style that Picasso has used in Le coq saigné, was, the artist explained, a reflection of post-war sentiment: ‘A more disciplined art, a less out-of-control freedom, this is the defence and the concern of the artist in times like ours’ (Picasso, quoted in B. Léal, C. Piot & M-L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2003 p. 359). At this time, Picasso increasingly focused on the pictorial construction of his compositions. Gone are the frenzied, angular lines and clashing forms of his earlier wartime works, and in their place, a more lyrical and balanced pictorial language. The composition of Le coq saigné is carefully composed, each undulating curve and geometric black outline placed to create this mesmerising still-life scene. Here, as in many of his still-lifes, Picasso has placed the organic object in the left half of the picture and the inorganic in the right half, constructing the isolated setting from contrasts of white and black that unite the fragmented composition. Leaving behind the despair of the war years, Picasso has immersed himself in the expressive power of colour and form, looking forwards to a new era of hope and possibility.