By 1919, the year following the end of the First World War, Picasso was clearly travelling two different stylistic avenues in his painting. The older approach represented a continuation of Synthetic Cubism. Picasso generally retained this approach when painting still-lifes, in which inanimate objects were subject to analytical scrutiny
and reconstructed in ways that bent traditional formal values in varying degrees. The problems of depicting objects in space continued to intrigue the artist. While Picasso had by this time heavily mined the stylistic possibilities within Cubism, one further direction remained: that of simplifying his formal language to the barest essentials of shape and color. The danger of this tendency was the formulation of an empty decorative style. But this was nevertheless a path worth investigating, especially within the context and developments of the artist's newer formal interest, in which tradition was paramount--a Neo-classical approach to form and composition.
Picasso realized that Neo-classicism was best suited to portraiture and the figure. As if to counter the seemingly mechanical and analytical character of Cubism, which appeared to many like an uncomfortable mirror of the breakdown of traditional order during the war years, Picasso sensed that the time was right for a new approach to the figure. He took as his models the linear precision and balance of Ingres and various old masters, and later incorporated a ripely sensual and volumetric aspect that he admired in the late work of Renoir.
The present painting utilizes the Cubist approach that the artist normally reserved for his still-life subjects. It is one of four oil paintings documented in the Zervos catalogue that the artist painted in Paris in early 1919 and incorporates dead fowl among other still-life elements, set on a table (the others are Zervos, vol. III, nos. 283-285). In this version two birds lie on the table: a gray pigeon with its wings outspread is situated on the left side of the table, and the other, which is perhaps a rooster, is seen head down on the right side. A serving dish containing biscuits and wafers is set at the center of the composition.
Jean Sutherland Boggs proposed that a gouache of a dead pigeon in the Musée Picasso, which is related to this series, might represent "a ritual of death and expectation and hope" (in Picasso & Things, Cleveland, 1992, exh. cat., p. 178). In the present work this symbolism is perhaps reinforced by the serving dish, which recalls a communion chalice the Eucharistic host. The dead birds are emblematic of a sacrifice, perhaps representing the toll of the many dead and wounded of the recently concluded war, in which many of Picasso's friends participated. The rooster is traditionally a symbol of Christ, the bread and cookies in the dish may stand for a promise of resurrection, renewal and a happier future.
If the subject of this painting portends a transition, its style also reflects a changing direction. The birds and biscuits are painted with the stippling characteristic of Picasso's earlier Synthetic Cubist pictures; the multiple plans and outlines of the table as it recedes into the background are also consistent with his customary Cubist manner. A newer approach may be seen in the depiction of the serving dish, which is completely reduced to its linear contours, and bisected schematically into areas of light and shadow. There is no modeling or attempt to specify the nature of the surface of the object, which is reduced to two flat areas of color. It is this aspect of the picture that looks forward to stylistic development in Picasso's still-lives during the next decade, and would remain an essential characteristic of Picasso's later painting as well.