This lithograph depicts a jug, a human skull and an open book on a table. Picasso made it in the studio of the lithographer Fernand Mourlot in Paris using lithographic crayon and ink, which he scraped back with a tool in a number of areas to create highlights and sharp definition.
All angular rhythms, sharp edges and strongly contrasting areas of black and white, this macabre print was made on 20 February 1946 and can be seen as associated with the suffering and death of the Second World War. On the same day Picasso made another lithograph entitled Composition with Skull. Although identical in composition to Black Jug and Skull this second print was made with a lighter, more immediate touch, using lithographic crayon only, and does not convey the same menacing atmosphere.
The scene depicted here is sombre and restrained; it belongs to the tradition of the seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes known as vanitas. The name of these still lifes comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2), ‘Vanitas vanitatum ... et omnia vanitas’ (‘Vanity of vanities ... all is vanity’). Vanitas still lifes comment on the transitoriness of worldly pleasures and the inevitability of death through objects that function symbolically. The book traditionally alludes to excessive pride through learning and the wine jug to the transitoriness of worldly pleasures. The skull is a memento mori, a reminder of the inevitable approach of death. Picasso was superstitious about death, kept a skull in his studio and had included human or animal skulls in his work as early as 1908 (see Composition with Skull, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg).
This print was published by the Galerie Louise Leiris on white Arches wove paper in an edition that comprised eighteen artist’s proofs plus fifty signed and numbered prints, of which this is number thirty-nine.
Fernand Mourlot, Picasso Lithographe, Paris 1970, reproduced p.43
Brigitte Baer, Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection, exhibition catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas 1983
Giorgia Bottinelli, ‘Pablo Picasso’, in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Cubism and its Legacy: The Gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2004, pp.88-90, reproduced p.91
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