The Picasso Committee confirmed the authenticity of this work in 1977.
Painted on the ninth of May 1942, Nature morte au crâne de taureau emerged during a period of intense reflection in Picasso’s painting, as he stoically endured the hardships and claustrophobia of life in occupied Paris. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Picasso had chosen to remain in France, refusing offers of sanctuary from friends and supporters in the United States and Mexico, instead settling into a life of isolation in his studio at 7 rue des Grands-Augustins. His presence in Paris did not go unnoticed by the occupying forces. Labelled a ‘degenerate’ artist during the Nazi campaign against modern art, several of Picasso’s artworks had been confiscated from German museums, while the success of his epic painting Guernica led him to be considered a champion of the intellectual resistance to Fascism. Although he was allowed to continue to work, the occupying forces forbade Picasso from exhibiting publicly, and he remained under close and constant observation by the Gestapo, who visited his studio on a number of occasions.
In this climate of fear and oppression, Picasso’s artistic vision turned inwards, away from the overtly political tone of the paintings he had previously created during the Spanish Civil War. As he later explained, during the occupation it seemed ‘there was nothing else to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly, and look forward to freedom’ (Picasso, quoted in H. Janis & S. Janis, Picasso: The Recent Years, 1939 – 1946, New York, 1946, p. 4). Focusing on the ordinary objects that graced his studio, the people closest to him, and the comings and goings of his daily experiences in Paris, his paintings, drawings and sculptures chronicle the everyday stoicism and small feats of endurance that marked the lives of the citizens of France as they struggled to survive under the oppressive atmosphere of the German invasion. As he later explained, these subtle allusions to the realities of life in occupied Paris were his own highly personal response to the conflict, shaped not by the grand events which marked the war, but rather his own unique experiences: ‘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 that I have done’ (Picasso, quoted in F. Morris, Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945 – 55, exh. cat., London, 1993, p. 155).
Throughout the war, still life subjects became a central focus of Picasso’s paintings, offering a glimpse into the Spartan conditions under which he lived and worked, as restrictions and rationing hit food and electricity supplies across Paris. Humble foods such as sausages and leeks appear alongside animal carcasses, while the dim glow of candles punctuate the darkness and cast their light on the meagre collection of objects assembled before the artist. Coffee pots, small bowls of rare treats such as fresh cherries and brightly coloured blooms make sporadic appearances, their presence suggesting the sudden availability of longed for items on the black market perhaps, or in the small gardens that dotted the neighbourhood around Picasso’s studio. The sharp gleam of cutlery, meanwhile, along with the bones of sheep, bulls and goats, allude to the violence and death that remained ever present during this period, despite the apparent normality and gaiety promoted by the German occupiers. Through the adoption of these ordinary objects that pervaded his life during the war, Picasso captures a sense of the haunting deprivations, the struggle for sustenance and the dark, threatening atmosphere that hung over life in the French capital for the duration of the conflict.
In the spring of 1942, the highly sculptural skull of a steer became the centrepiece of a number of these still lifes, the dramatic curving profile of its horns, its hollow eyes and elongated nasal cavity dominating several compositions. The motif of the crâne de taureau had previously appeared in the artist’s oeuvre in January 1939, in two closely related paintings (Zervos IX, nos. 237 & 238) which paired the sharp planes of the animal skull with the elegant, voluminous curves of a water pitcher. However, the true spark of inspiration had come during a chance encounter while on holiday during the summer of 1937 in Mougins, near Cannes, when Picasso had discovered an ox skull on the beach. He was delighted to imagine, in these broken and weathered bones, a ‘relic’ of the Minotaur, the mythical chimera of a bull’s head joined to the body of a man, which he had adopted in 1933 as his surrealist avatar. Playing with this dual identity, Dora Maar photographed the artist with his find several times. In one image Picasso held the skull up before his head, savouring this moment in which life magically imitated the content of his art.
Two years later, the emergence of the haunting skull in the artist’s work came during a period of intense melancholy for Picasso. Bookended by his mother’s death on 15 January and the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s forces on 28 January, the 1939 bucranium studies have been interpreted as an artistic response to the deep sense of loss and despair that Picasso suffered during the opening weeks of the year, a series of momento mori reflecting on the death of his beloved mother, the fall of his homeland to Fascism and his own mortality. Similarly, the reappearance of the steer’s skull during the spring of 1942 has been connected to the death of Picasso’s close friend and artistic collaborator, Julio González, who had passed away on 27 March. A trio of paintings in which the bucranium appears before the window of the artist’s studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins emerged at the beginning of April, the stark, melancholic beauty of the skull emphasised by the artist’s choice of dark colours and sharply contrasting passages of light and shadow.
Painted a little over a month later, Nature morte au crâne de taureau moves beyond the sense of darkness and despair that flooded the paintings created in April, transforming the bovine skull with its use of vibrant, clashing colours and visceral, energetic brushwork. Focusing his attention on the dynamic analysis of the sculptural, three-dimensional quality of the crâne de taureau, Picasso dissolves its form into a complex interplay of intersecting, angular lines that seem to radiate outwards into the studio space, an impression enhanced by the dense layering of thick, linear strokes of pigment that surround the bucranium. Shifting his viewpoint so that the skull appears against the walls of the studio rather than the window, the artist increases the sense of claustrophobia within the composition, condensing the space in such a way as to make the walls, table, ceiling and floor appear to converge and overlap upon one another. In this way, Nature morte au crâne de taureau echoes the intense atmosphere of the grand composition L’ Aubade (Zervos XII, no. 69), which had occupied Picasso in the days leading up to the creation of the present composition. Balancing the darkness of its subject matter with the play of discordant, bright colours, the work presents a subtle meditation on the precarious balance of life and death, a modern vanitas that reflects the troubling realities of life during in Paris during the Second World War.