The subject of La Chouette en colère had a special appeal for Picasso who had rescued and cared for an owl that had fallen from the ceiling beams while the artist was painting at the Château Grimaldi in Antibes in 1946. In her autobiography, Picasso’s lover Françoise Gilot fondly recalled his combative relationship with the owl: “Every time the owl snorted at Picasso he would shout ‘Cochon, Merde,’ and a few other obscenities, just to show that he was even worse-mannered than him, 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” (F. Gilot, My Life with Picasso, New York, 1964). The owl was a subject which came to permeate Picasso’s visual language, providing a major motif through the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in his ceramics. In these exquisitely crafted ceramics, the owl became part of his personal iconography; Picasso was aware of the owl-like quality of his own face and thereby in extension the work can be read as a projection of the artist’s identity.
Executed in 1953, this unique work is one of a number of individually painted ceramic owls which were cast from an original white earthenware model. Long-celebrated as amongst the best examples of the artist’s playful and innovative approach, Picasso’s ceramics have undergone a crucial reassessment in recent years. Following a number of important exhibitions as well as series of critical studies, his ceramics have come to be understood as a key aspect of his wider artistic production. This has realigned his work in clay as an activity concurrent with his painting and sculpture and emphasized the important reciprocal links between them – in ceramics Picasso’s imagination was matched by the versatility of the medium. Picasso’s son Claude has vivid memories of the creative process involved in producing ceramics: “Working with the primal elements fire and earth must have appealed to him because of the almost magical results. Simple means, terrific effect. How ravishing to see colours sing after internal fires have given them life. The owls managed a wink now. The bulls seemed ready to bellow. The pigeons, still warm from the electric kiln, sat proudly brooding over their warm eggs. I touched them. They were alive really. The faces smiled. You could hear the band at the bullfight” (C. Picasso, in Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 223).