Picasso painted this dramatic and enigmatically symbolic composition, a "living" still-life, towards the end of one of the most extraordinary years in his career. It was done less than six months after he painted Guernica in May-June 1937 (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 65; Museo del Prado, Madrid) and displayed it at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair, and following the powerful series of "weeping women" that he depicted in paintings, drawings and prints in June, July and October of that year. Picasso had been painting still-lifes with some regularity, in which he would normally employ traditional objects such as fruit and tableware, but none appear to have anticipated the present painting, which, as Alfred H. Barr, Jr., pointed out "stands out among the series begun late in 1936 because of its curiously uncomfortable subject matter" (op. cit.).
One key to its meaning surely lies in the troubling events of the day, namely the violence of the Spanish Civil War, which had compelled Picasso to paint Guernica and to create the weeping women. The black bird with outstretched, desperately beseeching wings recalls images from these earlier paintings (figs. 1 and 2). In a statement to the American Artists Congress published in The New York Times in December, Picasso declared, "It is my wish at this time to remind you that I have always believed, and still believe, that artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake" (quoted in R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 316).
As a respite from the overwhelming effort he had recently put into the making of Guernica, Picasso spent the summer of 1937 in Mougins, near Cannes, in the company of Dora Maar, Paul and Nusch Eluard, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller. He visited Matisse, who was living in nearby Nice. He was in a generally relaxed mood; he painted portraits of Dora and Nusch, and did some landscapes, a genre that features with relative infrequency in his work. But he could not ignore the war in Spain, which had not been going well for the loyalist Republicans as they resisted Franco's Fascist legions and their German and Italian allies. Picasso was worried about his family, who lived in Barcelona. By September, when Picasso returned to Paris, his painting was described as seeming "a new declaration of anguish" (P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 254). The imagery in the present painting conjures up a conflict between good and evil in the shape of the white dove and the raven-like black bird. The latter appears to menace the cowering dove, but in reality both birds are imprisoned within a wire market cage; their conjoined fate has been sealed but is as yet unknown. The peach-like fruit have been painted with pinkish tones of red and yellow, the national colors of Spain. The cage is set on a green, felt-covered gaming table (perhaps hinting at a possible visit to the Nice casino while calling on Matisse that summer), on which a rather unusual set of playing cards have been laid out in a game of chance. At stake in this game may be the fate of the hapless birds, or in allegorical terms, the destiny of Spain.
There is also another layer of coded meanings, unrelated to headlines of the day, which stemmed from a more personal, inner conflict of extraordinary emotional complexity. According to his own account, Picasso first met Dora Maar at the Café Deux Magots in the fall of 1935, during which she famously played at poking a knife between the fingers of her outstretched gloved hand, drawing blood. She was in Mougins in August 1936, when Picasso first vacationed there at Paul Eluard's suggestion, and her liaison with Picasso began soon afterward. This time, during the summer of 1937, they were openly staying there together. Picasso was still married to Olga Kokhlova, but they had been living apart since mid-1935. Their breakup had been precipitated by Picasso's affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso had known as early as 1925 when she was only fifteen. Their daughter Maïa was born in 1935. Daix noted that among Picasso's portraits of Dora and Nusch that summer, there is a single depiction, dated 9 August, of the blond-haired Marie-Thérèse (ed., Picasso Project, no. 37-175). Daix speculates that "This might be a souvenir or stirring of guilt or might indicate a secret meeting" (ibid.). It seems that Marie-Thérèse appears again in Portrait de femme à la guirlande, painted on 22 October (no. 37-209), and she is clearly the subject of a series of paintings done in December 1937 (nos. 37-232 - 37-241) as well as paintings done in early 1938, together with their daughter Maïa.
Picasso was clearly trying to sort out his feelings for these remarkably different women in his life. Brigitte Léal wrote, "if Marie-Thérèse incarnated a wild beauty, a sporty and healthy 'beautiful plant,' Dora Maar is the perfect prototype of the surrealist Egeria, capricious and eccentric, a direct descendant of the Baudelairean idol who is 'accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural'"(in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 387). Robert Rosenblum, writing in the same exhibition catalogue, noted that "[Picasso] continued to create more familiar and tranquil images of Marie-Thérèse until the end of the decade; but once more mirroring domestic realities, he would now make virtual pendants of these iconic images in which Marie-Thérèse, on her armchair throne, was challenged by Dora Maar, as if one playing-card queen were conspiring against her rival" (in ibid., p. 370). The black bird, then, may be associated with the dark-haired Dora, while the white dove represents the fair Marie-Thérèse. Both creatures are enmeshed in the cruel cage of Picasso's heart; his affections are the fruit painted in Spanish hues. The artist has engaged in a game of solitaire, wagering against himself, pitting one conflicting emotion against the other--which captive bird will he select, to whom will he turn, Dora or Marie-Thérèse? It was, of course, Dora, represented in the form of the stronger and more domineering of the two caged creatures, who would remain his mistress into the 1940s.
Elsa Schiaparelli, the celebrated fashion designer, was the first owner of this painting, and identified very closely with the imagery in it. Talking about herself in the third person in the forward to her autobiography, Shocking Life, she wrote, "There is a famous painting by Picasso. Her friends (oh, yes, she has many!) say that this picture is a portrait of her. There is a cage. Below it are some playing cards on a green carpet. Inside the cage a poor, half-smothered white dove looks dejectedly at brilliantly polished pink apple; outside the cage an angry black bird with flapping wings challenges the sky" (in op. cit.).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, detail from Guernica, May-June 1937. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, La suppliante, 18 December 1937. Musée Picasso, Paris.
(fig. 3) Photograph of Elsa Schiaparelli by Man Ray, 1932.