The present picture is the last and most complex in a series of six still-lifes depicting a pitcher, glass, and fruit that Picasso executed in April 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War (fig. 1; Zervos VIII, nos. 358-359,364-367). On 26 April 1937, four days before Picasso painted this final version of the subject, the Basque town of Guernica had been bombed by Nazi forces, killing 1,654 civilians and wounding another 889. The day after he made the present picture, Picasso produced the first sketches for his celebrated mural Guernica, which was exhibited in the Spanish Pavilion at the World's Fair in Paris in the summer of 1937. Although the still-lifes lack the overt political content of Guernica, their jagged forms and acerbic colors nonetheless reflect the extreme tension of this period. Indeed, Picasso used still-life throughout the war years as an expressive vehicle, sometimes including traditional memento mori motifs such as the skull and the candle, other times relying solely on the emotive power of ordinary foods and household objects. Just days after the liberation of Paris in 1944, Picasso explained to an American war correspondent, "I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done" (quoted in S.A. Nash, Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, p. 13). Nash has written: "Aside from his great Guernica of 1937 and Charnel House of 1945-1946, Picasso's work from the war-torn years of 1937 to 1945 essentially ignores specific world events. Yet no other artist of the twentieth century left so sustained a moving visual record of the corrosive effect of war on the human spirit and its toll on human life. His achievement was to create a modern alternative to history painting. Through his treatment of quotidian subjects, refracted through the lens of private trauma, he captured a portrait of an era that rises above the strictly personal to comment memorably on life in the shadow of war" (ibid., pp. 13-14).
Picasso had explored the motif of a pitcher and fruit as early as 1931, in a series of still-lifes with swelling, organic contours that evoke the erotic energy of his burgeoning relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter (fig. 2; Z. VII, 317, 322, 326-327). He returned to the theme on several occasions during the war years, replacing the sensuous curves of the earlier paintings with more assertive and angular forms. In addition to the April 1937 series, there is a group of six pitcher-and-fruit still-lifes from January of the same year (Z. VIII, 325-330), executed just days after Dream and Lie of Franco, Picasso's scathing indictment of Fascist rule in Spain. The motif also forms the basis for a sequence of paintings that the artist made in July 1944 (Z. XIV, 1-12), during a particularly anxious period leading up to the liberation of Paris. Finally, the same type of pitcher that appears in the present painting--an Art Deco ewer with a full body, prominent handle, and angled spout--features as well in two of Picasso's most important series of wartime still-lifes: three paintings from January 1939, in which the pitcher is paired with a bull's skull (Z. IX, 237-238), and nine from March 1945 that juxtapose the pitcher with a human skull and a cluster of leeks (fig. 3; Z. XIV, 88, 93-100).
The present painting is noteworthy for its combination of expressive strength and simplicity of means. The still-life objects--the pitcher, a small glass, and an assortment of round fruits--seem to teeter on a tabletop that pitches forward into the viewer's space. The background consists of a series of flat vertical zones in varying shades of blue, identifiable as a window only by the inclusion of the knob for a French door. Several triangular passages of light fall across the scene, slicing the interior space into jagged fragments. The glass seems to dissolve into the blue background, while the spherical fruits (either apples or oranges) are punctured by the sharp planes of colored light. Describing Picasso's work from the war years, Leo Steinberg has written, "The still-lifes are extraordinary--craggy and stark, and the few edibles on the table assembled under powerful stresses. These dire pictures profess none of the noble delights Picasso spread forth in the still-lifes of the 1920s; none of the spirited elegance that distinguished those of Synthetic Cubism. The fare on his wartime tables is not rhythmically patterned within the picture plane, but trapped in a rigid web and held down as if to forestall resistance. The objects within these spaces--lean vegetables, baskets of eggs, and green pellets of fruit--one can sense that they matter" (in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, Oxford, 1972, pp. 213-214).
Picasso's own statements and writings also attest to the expressive power that he accorded to his still-life objects. Describing a painting from 1945 of a pitcher and a casserole, the artist told Pierre Daix, "You see, a casserole too can scream" (quoted in S.A. Nash, op. cit., p. 14). Elsewhere, he explained, "The objects that go into my paintings are common objects from anywhere: a pitcher, a mug of beer, a pipe, a package of tobacco, a bowl, a kitchen chair, a plain common table--the object at its most ordinary. I want to tell something by means of the most common object; for example, a casserole, any old casserole, the one everybody knows. For me it is a vessel in the metaphoric sense, just like Christ's use of parables" (quoted in F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 74). Picasso's poetry too is filled with anthropomorphic references to quotidian household objects. In February 1937, for instance, just weeks before the present painting was executed, Picasso described the "great interior dance of household objects," "shocking feasts of imprisoned objects and illiterate vegetables," and "stifled cries of forks and spoons" (quoted in J.S. Boggs, Picasso and Things, exh. cat., Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1992, p. 26). As Marie-Laure Bernadac has concluded:
"Picasso was particularly attentive to the domestic and utilitarian aspect of objects, their familiar beauty, their humble yet necessary existence. In his view, things participated in their own way in the universal laws, the biological processes of life and death, the circulation of energy between objects and beings. His animistic concept of the world made him give a human status to whatever he saw and touched; all of these homely objects--and the rooms in which they were used--lived, moved, and expressed feelings. It was as if Picasso identified himself with everything that was around him, transmitting an inner part of himself to a multitude of fragments of the external world, while receiving part of their own identity in exchange" (ibid., pp. 25-26).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte, 1937. Sold, Christie's, London, 6 February 2001, lot 23. Barcode 23670945
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Pitcher, Bowl of Fruit, and Leaves, 1931. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. Barcode 23670952
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Death's Head, Leeks and Pitcher, 1945. Claude Ruiz-Picasso, Paris. Barcode 23670969