Paris was liberated from the Germans in August 1944, and the war ended in Berlin in May of the following year. The worst privations of the war years diminished as time passed, but the scars of devastation remained in evidence, and even as people rebuilt their lives, the full extent of wartime atrocity and displacement was gradually coming to light. In 1945 Picasso painted Le charnier (C. Zervos, vol. 14, no. 76; coll. The Museum of Modern Art, New York), which represents the aftermath of the almost ten years of murderous violence in Europe, beginning with the Spanish Civil War. Above the pile of the dead Picasso places an outline of an incongruously domestic still-life. It is intended to show how the disasters of war reached into every household, and at the same time symbolize how "things" persist, even as human lives pass into oblivion. During the war years and well into the 1950s the still-life subjects provided a significant means for the artist to reveal his most private state of mind as he pondered questions about hope and loss, and his own mortality.
Such burdensome thoughts persisted, even while the artist's outward circumstances seemed positive and optimistic. Françoise Gilot moved in with Picasso in Paris in December 1945. They spent much of the time in Golfe-Juan on the Mediterranean, and in May 1947 their son Claude was born. The present work incorporates the complex mixture of emotions that characterizes the post-war period. The still-life is composed of a bowl of cherries and a glass on a table, with a mirror set on the wall in the background.
The cherry motif is seen occasionally in Picasso's still-life paintings from 1943 onward, and appears to represent feelings associated with Françoise's presence. Gilot recalled how she met Picasso while having dinner with a friend at the restaurant Le Catalan in Paris in May 1943, "As the meal went on I noticed Picasso watching us, and from time to time acting a bit for our benefit. Whenever he said something particularly amusing, he smiled at us rather than just at his dinner companions [among whom was Dora Maar, Picasso's current partner]. Finally he got up and came over to our table. He brought with him a bowl of cherries and offered some to all of us, in his strong Spanish accent, calling them cerisses, with a soft, double-s sound" (F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 14).
The cherries and glass (which may contain milk or cream) represent the sensual pleasures of life. As Jean Sutherland Boggs suggests in her discussion of the 1953 painting Le compotier de cerises (Zervos, vol. 15, no. 290) (op. cit., p. 324) the round shape of the compote is a female symbol. The dish in the present work may be similarly interpreted. In the 1953 painting the bottle takes a male role, as does the tall glass in Le miroir.
Darkness intrudes, however, in the form of mirror on the wall. One might expect to see a reflection of the artist's visage as paints the scene, however, within the mirror there is nebulous shape of gray pigment, which Boggs describes as "a reflection of almost terrifying vacancy" (ibid). During the summer of 1947, after the birth of Claude, Picasso's wife Olga, from whom he had been separated since 1935 and who had become a desperately isolated and lonely woman, continually pursued and hounded the painter in Golfe-Juan. As was the case in the mid-1920s, when his relationship with Olga began to founder and he took up with Marie-Thérèse Walter, Olga's presence is usually coded in sinister terms, and the dark cloud in the mirror may refer to her, or the negative mood she has brought on. The situation became so bad that Picasso had to move from the house he had leased from Louis Fort in Golfe-Juan to a villa in nearby Vallauris. Gilot recalled Picasso saying, "If I had to move every time women started fighting over me, I wouldn't have had time for much else in my life" (F. Gilot and C. Lake, op. cit., p. 210).
Whatever the direct impetus for the disturbing mirror imagery in the present painting, with these still-life paintings the artist has entered a profoundly reflective and contemplative phase in his work. In these paintings he relives and sublimates the accrued pain and pleasure of five decades as an adult, "achieving in a multitude of ways the transformation of things into metaphors" (J.S. Boggs, op. cit., p. 20).