Although it was painted in October 1948, four years after the Liberation of Paris, Tranche de melon is profoundly indebted to the austere still-lifes that Picasso produced during the Nazi Occupation about which he declared, ‘I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done’ (quoted in Picasso and the War Years, New York, 1998, p. 13).
Picasso's statement attests to the expressive power that he accorded to his still life objects. In 1944, he confided to his companion Françoise Gilot: ‘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). To Pierre Daix he declared, ‘You see, a casserole too can scream’ (quoted in op. cit., 1998, p. 78).
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’ (Picasso and Things, exh. cat., Cleveland, 1992, pp. 25-26).
The diagrammatic representation of a slice of melon and prickly pears also recall the wire armatures of Picasso's earlier three-dimensional works created with the sculptor Julio González. The origin of these forms of line in Picasso's collaborations with González relates to a more general development that took place in his work during the late 1940s. In November of 1948, shortly after the present work was painted, Picasso created two versions of a large-scale picture entitled La cuisine (Zervos, vol. XV, nos. 106 & 107). In those works, he showed the interior of the kitchen at his apartment on the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris, rendered with a near monochrome background upon which were a number of lines, circles and grids, resembling a circuit board. These shapes in fact mark out the space of the kitchen, as well as the birdcages and Spanish plates within it; one of these pictures is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Zervos, vol. XV, no. 106) while the other is in the Musée Picasso in Paris (Zervos, vol. XV, no. 107).
The armature-like forms, with lines leading from circle to circle as though tracing the movements of particles, recall diagrams of atomic movements, a pertinent subject during the late 1940s when the Cold War was becoming increasingly tense. Picasso must have been aware of this simmering conflict and of the escalation of the nuclear standoff in his capacity as a member of the Communist Party whose First International Peace Conference he was due to attend in New York a few months after Tranche de melon was painted. However, the veneer of the scientific is deliberately disrupted by the intensely subjective and stylised manner of presentation. In 1948, Picasso had moved to the south of France and the pastel palette potentially attests to the new source of light, the fruit also relating directly to a ceramic service he created at the Madoura pottery studio entitled 'Fruits de Provence', suggesting cacti, melons and other fruits abundant in his new sun-drenched environment.
The first private owners of Tranche de melon were the renowned American designers Charles and Ray Eames. Among the most influential creative partnerships of the Twentieth Century, their rational yet playfully eloquent designs were emblematic of post-war optimism, yet robustly grounded in democratic pragmatism. Ray Eames, a painter who trained under Hans Hofmann, and her husband Charles, an architect who studied with and then taught for Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy, were pioneers in developing new technologies and compelling designs in furniture and diverse other arenas - ways of elevating the everyday objects of homes, much in the same way Picasso elevated the ordinary objects of his still-lifes. The Eameses had a deep respect for the made object and felt strongly that beautiful design was not a matter of ornamenting a functional object, but demanding of themselves function and aesthetics simultaneously. Charles and Ray were great admirers of Picasso whom they met around the time they acquired Tranche de melon. They felt a kinship to the artist's creative approach - so much so that in a 1956 letter to crafts educator Wayne Chezem, Charles Eames wrote: ‘I cannot conceive of Picasso thinking of a good chair being first made, and then made beautiful’ (Letter from Charles Eames to Wayne Chezem, 29 November 1956, in C. & R. Eames, An Eames Anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, Speeches, New Haven & London, 2015, p. 154).