Still lifes preoccupied Picasso at the time of the death of so many people in the last years of the Second World War. These works are powerful meditations on mortality, combining a sense of despair and melancholy with Picasso’s political resistance. By evoking the traditional form of vanitas and momento mori, he follows in a long tradition of reminding the viewer of the transience of human existence.
The vanitas still life, with its roots in Dutch and Spanish art, employs a formal language of symbols – such as candles, skulls, books, food, flowers or insects – to warn against pride and material pleasures. Still life paintings traditionally also celebrate the kitchen, the table and the fecundity of nature. Spanish still lifes in particular celebrate the simplicity of peasant life.
Many of Picasso’s still lifes feature human and animal skulls, often those of goats, owls and bulls. Each has symbolic significance. Human skulls symbolise death from age, war, famine and pestilence. The goat is the scapegoat and the owl a symbol of death. The cockerel is the symbol of the free French.
Some of the most haunting still lifes are those of slaughtered cocks. In the late Rooster under a Chair under a Lamp 1962 the bound legs that point upwards recall both Guernica and the tied victims’ limbs in The Charnel House. The still lifes depicting a fighting cats and lobsters were painted during the Cuban Missile Crisis in autumn 1962. It is in this context of the rich symbolic meanings of animals, birds and fowl that Picasso drew his Doves of Peace.