Unlike many of his contemporaries, Picasso had no urgent need to leave Paris during the German occupation, and continued to work in his studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins. Despite a four-year hiatus from public exhibition, Picasso dedicated most of his days to painting, visiting his lovers past and present and spending time with his two children Paulo and Maya. Frankly Picasso’s life retained a sense of normalcy in the occupied city, even as his fellow artists took a more active role in the Resistance. While some of his contemporaries criticized Picasso for the lack of open political engagement in his art, others such as Alfred Barr deemed his wartime output heroic. Barr wrote: “He was not allowed to exhibit publicly and he made no overt gestures but his very existence in Paris encouraged the Resistance artists, poets and intellectuals who gathered in his studio or about his café table” (quoted in Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945 (exhibition catalogue), California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco & The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998-99, p. 118).
Similarly, Frances Morris summarized the symbolism of Picasso's still lifes of the early 1940s as “a tool capable of evoking the most complex blend of pathos and defiance, of despair to hope, balancing personal and universal experience in an expression of extraordinary emotional power. The hardship of daily life, the fragility of human existence and the threat of death are themes that haunt Picasso's still-life paintings of the war and Liberation periods” (in Paris Post War, Art and Existentialism 1945-1955 (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1993, p. 155).
The significance of Nature morte à la chaise et aux glaïeuls must also be contextualized in the larger trajectory of Picasso’s oeuvre and that of Western Modern art. For as long as he was an artist, still lifes remained a favored channel of artistic experimentation. His evolution of styles in this genre is distinctly visible in the present work. The pot of gladiolus flowers, with its dynamic upward energy, evokes the floral compositions that Picasso completed during his first months in Paris as a nineteen year old, while the geometrically fractured chair contains vestiges of Cubist technique. Picasso’s treatment of the chair and stylization of the tiled floor and pastel-colored walls recall the still life composition that van Gogh completed of his chair, pipe and straw hat in his yellow house in Arles (see fig. 1). In both works the artists seem interested in distorting perspective while using simple strong lines to harmonize the composition. In the 1980s, David Hockney too practiced the fragmenting of interior spaces in his large-scale canvases upon his return to California. In his seminal work Large Interior, Los Angeles, completed in 1988 (see fig. 2), Hockney employs a combination of van Gogh’s radiant palette and Picasso’s deconstruction of one-point perspective to create a monumental interior still life of his own living room “where the viewer’s eye could be made to move in a certain way, stop in certain places, move on, and in so doing, reconstruct the space across time for itself” (the artist quoted in David Hockney (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2017, p. 145).
By the outbreak of the second World War, Picasso was an international celebrity and financially secure. Without a critical need to sell his works, many paintings from this period remained in his studio, and were first exhibited to the public only after the liberation of France in summer 1944. At the first post-liberation Salon d’Automne held that fall, a room was dedicated to Picasso’s wartime canvases. The present work and many others were exhibited to great fanfare as symbols of cultural endurance, though not without controversy (see fig. 3). In a letter dated November 16, 1944, Henri Matisse wrote to fellow artist Charles Camoin, "Have you seen the Picasso room? It is much talked about. There were demonstrations in the street against it. What success! If there is applause, whistle" (quoted in M.C. Cone, “Matisse and the Nationalism of Vichy, 1940-1944” in Artnet Magazine, 2005).
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