Picasso painted this robustly extrovert still-life centered around a candlestick and coffee pot on 11 April 1944, amid some dangerous, but nevertheless auspicious developments in the course of the Second World War. The Allies were advancing on Rome, and Russian armies were relentlessly pressing westwards, reclaiming their lands from Nazi subjugation. Expectations in Paris were running high that the Allies would soon cross the Channel to invade northern France. American and British planes were bombing German military targets in and around Paris almost daily, resulting in numerous civilian casualties. Flying glass from an explosion damaged one of Picasso's still-life paintings that was hanging in the studio of his printer Lacoutière. While the raids caused widespread consternation, they also meant that the eventual day of liberation was surely closer at hand.
Picasso commented on 9 April to the photographer Brassaï, "All these scenes remind me of the carnage of the Spanish Civil War. Guernica..." (quoted in Brassai, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 154). Such terrible moments, however, did not find their way into Picasso's paintings. Themes that dealt directly and explicitly with the war were out of the question--this would have to wait until after the Liberation. Nazi officials had kept the creator of the anti-fascist mural Guernica under surveillance, and his residence and studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins were subject to random and unreasonable searches. Picasso also had to put up with less menacing but still annoying visits of curious German officers who claimed to have an interest in art. Picasso had been amazed, earlier during the Occupation, that he was allowed to paint at all. But paint he did, and in his customary manner, he worked almost daily and without let-up. Painting was resistance. Mindful of official scrutiny, however, he coded the messages in his paintings, as if he were a clandestine agent in the underground.
Picasso's most frequent subjects during the Occupation were the figure and still-life. In some ways these genres were virtually inter-changeable. A war-weary, catatonic Dora Maar seated in a chair might appear as solemn and grave as a pitcher set on a table, or the pitcher might take on anthropomorphic qualities, and be seen to interact, or even "converse," with neighboring inanimate objects in the composition. The heroism of the indomitable human spirit was equally manifest in the monumental gravitas of the object. Indeed, within Picasso's subjectively instinctive and fluid means of late cubist pictorial representation, similar forms were frequently common to both figures and objects. The table-top kitchenware in Nature morte à la cafetière resemble standing people, with a lid as a head, a spout for an upraised arm, or a handle as an arm held akimbo.
A figure might appear especially plaintive in its expression, or display a myriad of other emotions. The objects in Picasso's still-lifes also appear to possess a sentient life and character all their own. In their simplicity and humility, they recall the paintings of Chardin, the 18th century founder of the French tradition of the nature morte, and in their austerity, those of the 17th century Spaniard Zurbarán. Picasso confided to Françoise Gilot in 1944, "The objects that go into my paintings are common objects from anywhere a pitcher, a mug of beer, a bowl, a plain common table. 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" (in F. Gilot, with C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 74). Picasso declared to Pierre Daix, "You see, even casseroles can scream" (quoted in Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, p. 78).
Picasso painted Nature morte a la cafetière as the culmination of a series of ten large horizontal canvases he began almost a month earlier, on 13 March 1944 (Zervos, vol. 13, nos. 238-241, 249, 253-256 and 264-265). The candlestick and coffeepot were the constant elements in these table-top arrangements, accompanied in the present painting by a cup, saucer and a halved apple. Elsewhere the artist included a wedge of Gruyère cheese, or the upper part of a chair and a mirror, and a glass. He also painted during this period a series of five vertical still-lifes on a smaller-sized canvas, in which he also employed the same coffee pot, cup and saucer or a glass (Z., vol. 13, nos. 246-250; fig. 1). In two of the horizontal pictures Picasso's dining room is dark, in deep shadow; the candle, a household necessity during the Occupation in the event of an electrical outage or blackout, has been lit (nos. 255-256). Elsewhere in the series the candle is unlit; these paintings appear to have been done in daylight, or under the light of a strong lamp, for which Picasso adopted a suitably lively and colorful palette. In each of these canvases the artist outlined the objects in black, creating swirling, rhythmic arabesques that knit the objects together and unify the composition.
The coffee pot has a roughly figural shape and may represent a human presence, it also exemplifies a daily ritual, a small customary pleasure that one might enjoy in good times or bad, even if the wartime coffee was of poor quality or might even be a barely palatable ersatz concoction. The candle is the most potent symbol of all; in the traditional scheme of classical vanitas painting, it suggests the fragility and shortness of life. The overall thrust of his symbolism, however, is not a melancholy contemplation of human sadness and misfortune that had prevailed in earlier wartime still-lifes (fig. 2). The vernal green hue and the brightly tinted viridian background tell otherwise, and proclaim a renewal of joy in the pleasures of simple routines and familiar objects. Jean Sutherland Boggs has written about a similarly titled companion painting in the series (fig. 3), which she says possesses "an ebullience an enthusiasm for life It may have grown out of a preoccupation with vanitas, which may have been natural after the memento mori of 1943 with the human skulls, but here there is a genuine relaxed joyousness. When it comes to color it can even suggest the hedonism of Matisse" (in Picasso & Things, exh. cat., The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992, p. 284).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Le cafetière bleue (Cafetière et tasse), 3 April 1944. Sold, Christie's London, 7 February 2005, lot 42. Copyright 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York BARCODE 20625245
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte au crâne et au pot, 15 August 1943. Private collection. Copyright 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York BARCODE 20625252
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte a la cafetière, 8 April 1944. Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Copyright 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York BARCODE 20625269