PABLO PICASSO, VERRE ET COUTEAU, 1943
MAKHAI FAHIE, BALTIMORE SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS, CLASS OF ‘17
When first looking at Pablo Picasso’s Verre et Couteau (1943), a small still life depicting a glass, a knife, with a lemon on a small table, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly political about it. After all, compared to Picasso’s work Guernica, 1937, which reveals the brutality and horror of war by showing the Nazi Luftwaffe obliterating
the small Basque village on behalf of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist Defense Junta during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), this modest still life seems trivial at best. However, when one considers the political and and economic conditions surrounding the creation of Verre et Couteau, a powerful ideological message resonants from this seemingly simple painting.
Picasso painted Verre et Couteau in 1943, just three short years after the Nazi’s invaded Paris in May of 1940 at the beginning of World War II. While many artists, including Picasso’s close friend and rival
Henri Matisse, escaped the harsh conditions in Nazi-occupied Paris, by fleeing for the unoccupied “Free Zone” in southern France, Picasso remained in Paris. This showed enormous courage on Picasso’s part. Following the creation of the mural-sized oil painting Guernica in June 1937 and its exhibition at the Paris International Exposition in July of that same year, Picasso in
many respects made himself an enemy of fascists regimes not only in his own country, Spain, but also in Germany and Italy. This is particularly true since Guernica was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. By displaying the large painting
at the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition, Picasso was declaring his republican sympathies for the world to see.
Picasso was not new to this type of controversy. The same year that he showed Guernica in Paris, Picasso’s work was featured in another exhibition entitled “Degenerate Art.” Held in a gallery in Munich, Germany from July through November 1937, this exhibition was organized by the Nazi’s for the sole purpose of attacking modern art. In addition to Picasso, other modernist artists were singled out for scorn and ridicule, including Marc Chagall, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig von Kirchner, and Franz Marc. These were some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Yet, the Nazis throughout the rule of the Third Reich, these artists were forced either into exile or obscurity until the end of the War.
Under these conditions, Picasso’s decision to stay in Paris, and continue to practice his art seems all the more courageous. The everyday objects in Verre et Couteau symbolize Picasso’s feelings of anxiety, fear and defiance during the Nazi occupation of
Paris. Still in many ways the work functions as an allegory of hope during one of the darkest periods in human history. The table is empty of food except for a lemon, which symbolizes bitterness and deprivation. Alongside it is a glass filled with water, which
sustains life, and thus represents hope for the future. Picasso believed that is purpose as an artist was to unite mediate between perception and imagination. In this work, he takes ordinary things from the external world, and transforms them into signs of the
human soul’s resilience even in the face of tragedy.