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8. Europe: years of conflict

The impact of war gave Picasso's work a dramatic quality that is indirectly reflected in several of his still-lifes by the presence of motifs such as roosters and human or animal skulls. These still-lifes  were his personal adaptation of the iconographic tradition of the vanitas in Spanish painting.  

“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” in San Francisco Chronicle, September 1944

Still Life with Rooster and Knife

21 February 1947 | Oil on plywood, 101 x 130 cm
Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte. On temporary deposit at Museo Picasso Málaga
© FABA Photo: Eric Baudouin © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2017


Read about Still Life with Rooster and Knife

A slaughtered rooster lies–neck slit, feet bound—on a table. Opposite are a knife and an empty bowl, ordinary kitchen utensils but also killing tools. Marie-Laure Bernadac in Picasso and Things discusses the artist’s “culinary obsessions” and cites his use of metaphors such as “the dance of household objects” (2 February 1937) and “the dangers of knives that get away” (8 November 1937) (Boggs et al. 1992, pp. 23, 26). Might these ideas help explain the mixed messages of this still life as a mundane kitchen scene, a ritual killing, or perhaps a cruel allegory of the need to kill in order to survive?

The three objects, occupying the upper half of the canvas, repose as if on an altar like the instruments for a sacrifice. As Bernadac points out, “The rooster, a symbol of Christ, is often shown butchered on a table in Picasso’s paintings” (Boggs et al. 1992, p. 28). The table legs and open drawer seem simultaneously to advance and recede in a Cubist manner, but the ultimately disintegrate into an agitated mass. The disjointed tabletop nearly floats from its base. [...]

In the Museum’s painting, the cross section of the rooster’s nearly severed neck is painted as a diagonally bisected quadrangle that cleverly provides a tube-like reality to what would otherwise be just a flat curve. Had the table edge not been compressed into the pictorial plane, the bird and other objects on the table would also have remained hopelessly flat. In forcing two planes to converge, Picasso has created the illusion of depth and enhanced the realistic sense of dimension essential to the impact of the painting.
Picasso frequently painted different versions of the same subject and often in pairs. The theme of the dead rooster appears in a nearly identical painting in which a rooster’s bound feet rise to the center of the work, much like the tied limbs of one of the human cadavers in The Charnel House, 1944-1945 (MOMA, New York), and those of animals to be slaughtered in works from 1938 (e.g., a rooster in Z.IX.109); a goat from Z.IX.116). Recent scholarship dates both still lifes with roosters to 21 February 1947 (Boggs et al. 1992, p. 312). The two works are so similar that it is difficult to tell which one was painted first to understand why he treated the subject twice on the same day. Based on its details and degree of stylization, Boggs has suggested that the Museum’s work succeeded the other one (Boggs et al. 1992, p. 312). Christian Zervos, despite the initial dating error, catalogued the work in the same order.

The subject of food and the overtones of domesticity implied in these two paintings announce the theme of the abstract masterpieces both entitled Kitchen, 1948 (MOMA, New York, Z.XV.106; Musée Picasso, Paris, Z.XV.107), glorifying the kitchen from the Rue des Grands-Augustins.

Text: Robert McDonald Parker