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1936-1943 The Anatomy of Terror

The terror of impending war is evident in Picasso’s nudes of the late 1930s. Remaining in occupied Paris, he continued to work, but a grey veil of despair descended over his paintings. His small sculptures of heads resemble carved pebbles; despite their size, they powerfully convey the anguish of the era.

“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 I have done.”

[Peter D. Whitney. “Picasso is safe”. San Francisco Chronicle, September 1944]

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Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher, a 1945 painting on temporary loan from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, provides an exciting addition to Dialogues with Picasso. Collection 2020-2023. Painted in the final months of World War II, it offers a revealing comparison to the 1944 canvas Still Life with Jug, Glass and Orange(1), hanging nearby in Room 7.

The skull and the pitcher in the new loan are drawn from a repertory of significant motifs that Picasso assembled over four decades. The skull, a traditional symbol of death, first appeared in Picasso’s work in 1908. Beginning in 1925, he often exchanged it for the severed head fresh from the butcher’s shop: a sheep, a goat, a steer or a bull.  In several paintings from 1938, such as the Still Life with Minotaur and Palette(2) in this exhibition, the lifeless head of an animal metamorphosed into the living head of the Minotaur – but a redeemed Minotaur, pensive instead of brutal.  With the outbreak of World War II, the Minotaur was banished. Picasso resumed painting animal heads and skulls.

In early 1945, as the war approached its end, he invented a new motif: a skull perched atop a bunch of leeks. The fresh, undulating roots of the leeks suggest new growth. The skull with leeks is also a variation on the familiar emblem of a skull with crossbones.  In the late Middle Ages, this emblem could be found on tombstones. After 1600, with the rise of global trade, it became the symbol of piracy. In Picasso’s paintings of 1945, it might be read as a disguised self-portrait: the artist as pirate, ransacking the history of art. 

Beginning in 1919, pitchers also played an important role in Picasso’s imagery, joining the wine glasses, fruit bowls and guitars found in earlier still lifes like the Cubist pictures in this exhibition. The rounded ceramic pitcher evoked the classical trope of woman as a source of life and love. The vessel on the right side of Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher is decorated with striations like those of the basket-weave figures in the Picasso’s pictures of 1938. It might be seen as the female partner to the piratical skull at left. 

Many of Picasso’s still lifes from 1939 through 1945 are painted in shades of black, white and gray, evoking the deprivations of the war years. Others, like Still Life with Jug, Glass and Orange, utilize a rich palette of browns, greens and yellows, recalling the style of Spain’s Golden Age. In canvases of both types, Picasso fragments the objects in the foreground -- pitchers, skulls and tables – into geometric facets bordered by heavy black lines. The backgrounds are divided into larger versions of the same facets, distinguished by contrasting colors rather than black borders. 

At first glance, Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher seems to belong to the cold, monochromatic group of wartime still lifes. On closer inspection, it reveals a rich play of color. The large facets of the background are coated with pale tints of pink, blue and turquoise, bordered by luminous bands of color. The skull, leeks, pitcher and table in the foreground come into sharper focus, defined by black lines and painted with stronger colors. The pitcher is decorated with the red, white and blue of the French flag. Modulating from the indefinite to the distinct, from pallor to saturation, the painting shakes off the cold of the war years and prepares to spring back to life.   

Source: Text by Pepe Karmel, Professor of Art History at New York University, USA.