Picasso’s Owls

The artist’s connection to the mysterious creature was more than just symbolic

Picasso’s ceramic owl vases were a technical achievement, in terms both physical and decorative.

Picasso’s affinity for incorporating owls into his work could derive from multiple sources. In classical mythology, the owl was known as the sacred bird of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who disguised herself as a bird and defeated the Persians at Marathon. (Owl symbols, therefore, appeared on Athenian coinage and on antique Greek vessels.) Picasso often referenced classical themes in his work and, in that context, the motif could stand as a timeless symbol of courage and tactical intelligence. The owl was also the ancient totemic bird of Antibes, located on the French coast. That fact likely resonated with the artist as well, who, from 1947, spent many of his remaining days in nearby Vallauris creating colourful and vibrant ceramic works at the famed Madoura studio.

But Picasso also had a personal connection to the nocturnal predator. He kept many birds in his own home, and during one period that veritable bestiary included an owl. In her autobiography, Life With Picasso, Picasso’s longtime partner Françoise Gilot recalled the now famous tale of Picasso and his soon-to-be pet: "While Pablo was still working at the Musée d’Antibes [in 1946, the photographer Michel] Sima had come to us one day with a little owl he had found in a corner of the museum. One of his claws had been injured. We bandaged it and it gradually healed. We bought a cage for him and when we returned to Paris we brought him back with us and put him in the kitchen with the canaries, the pigeons and the turtledoves. He smelled awful and ate nothing but mice.

"Every time the owl snorted at Picasso he would shout, ‘Cochon, merde,’ and a few other obscenities, just to show the owl he was worse-mannered than he was but Picasso’s fingers, though small, were tough and the owl didn’t hurt him. Finally the owl would let him scratch his head and gradually came to perch on his finger instead of biting it, but even so, he still looked very unhappy."

Below are five examples of how Picasso boldly—and cleverly—paid homage in clay to this most mysterious of creatures, part of our online auction of Picasso ceramics, on sale from 24 October to 7 November 2014.

— Edited from an interview with Imogen Kerr, Head of Sale, Picasso Ceramics