Pablo Picasso’s Bottle of Suze, 1912

The following essay written by Jean Sutherland Boggs can be found in A Gallery of Modern Art at Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, 1994).  Please note that the artwork referred to as Glass and Bottle of Suze is now titled La bouteille de Suze (Bottle of Suze).

Pablo Picasso, La bouteille de Suze (Bottle of Suze) (1912)

Pablo Picasso, La bouteille de Suze (Bottle of Suze) (1912)

In 1912 when Spanish artist Pablo Picasso made the papier collé, Glass and Bottle of Suze, he was thirty-one, had visited Paris for the first time in 1900 and had lived there fairly continuously since 1904.  By 1912 he had achieved a certain reputation, even internationally, and had a supportive dealer, D.H. Kahnweiler.  Even more significant is the fact that Picasso was at the apogee of his close relationship with the French painter Georges Braque.  It was in May of that year that Picasso had made the “first” collage, the famous horizontal oval, Still Life with Chair Caning (1912, Musee Picasso, Paris), with its pasted oilcloth and frame of rope.  In September of that year Braque limited a collage to pasted paper and produced the first papier collé.  Picasso soon followed Braque, even using the decorator’s tricks of combining paint to give effect of wood graining and of using decorators’ materials like wallpaper, devices Braque had learned from his father.  Picasso also ventured forth into another more daring (and less durable) form of paper – newsprint.  Often, as in Washington University’s Glass and Bottle of Suze, the newspaper came from the sensational Parisian daily, Le Journal, which he seems to have read voraciously, here using the issue of 18 November 1912.

Georges Braque, Fruit Dish and Glass (1912)

Georges Braque, Fruit Dish and Glass (1912)

Critics first viewed the use of newsprint as a formal element, adding a variation in texture to the works.  This seemed confirmed by the large drawings with newsprint, which almost immediately followed in December, and which Picasso photographed proudly pinned up together in his boulevard Raspail studio.  Critics may have been surprised that Picasso would use a material which would darken quickly and then inevitably disintegrate, but they probably saw this as almost a proto-Dadaist gesture of daring.[1]  It was not until 1971 that Robert Rosenblum suggested that the newsprint should be read, if only for puns and other witticisms.[2]  Daix and Rosselet in their catalogue raisonné of the artist’s cubist works in 1979 identified the issues of newspapers and the events described as a way of providing termini after which the works must have been made, but with the reasonable assumption that Picasso used the clippings very shortly after their publication.[3]  It was, however, only in the 1980s that Patricia Leighten read the newspaper clippings for their political significance.[4]

Three of the clippings in the Washington University’s Glass and Bottle of Suze refer to incidents during the First Balkan War in which Turkey was trying to defend the Ottoman Empire against Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece.  As Leighten has pointed out, the dispatches (two here by Pal Erio) are vivid and make the horrors of war, with winter and the wounded and dying, particularly harrowing.  Finally Leighten found even more significance in the fact that the newsprint that forms a left-hand column, as observed by Daix and Rosselet, records the meeting of 40,000 socialists at Pré-Saint-Gervais to protest any involvement in war.  These blocks of newsprint, now very much browner than they would have been but nevertheless shadowed by Picasso with touches of charcoal, cut or torn carelessly, pasted somewhat unevenly and certainly placed apparently haphazardly so that some have to be read upside down, do remind us of a world that is murky, disturbing and, in fact, disintegrating.  This is one level of meaning in Glass and Bottle of Suze.  Leighten ignores the fact that there are other pieces of newsprint which come from serialized fiction in Le Journal, a novel by Abel Herman (1862-1950) about some of the most snobbish and frivolous aspects of Parisian life.  In their very silliness they represent an antidote to the Balkan Wars and socialism, or at least an expression of the absurdity of contrasts in the society in which Picasso was living.

The excerpts from the serialized novel are not the only elements that lighten the effect of this papier collé.  The two pieces of wallpaper he cut and pasted crudely – and upside down – have a certain domestic charm that Picasso also employed in two contemporary works.  One is an expansive and almost square papier collé called Guitar and Sheet Music (1912, private collection), the other the simpler, more classic and resolved Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass (1912, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio), which does contain a small piece of Le Journal with a heading “La Bataille s’est engagé” (The Battle has Begun).  In neither, although the wallpaper is identical in all three, is there evidence of the same concern for social and political matters as in Washington University’s papier collé.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass (1912)

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass (1912)

Where are we with the seeming ambiguities of the Glass and Bottle of Suze in the contrasts between the serious if obscured images of war and demands for social reform suggested by the newspaper clippings, and the clarity and decisiveness of the world of frivolous fiction and the bottle of Suze? Did Picasso ever expect that someone would read those newspaper clippings which he pasted together almost illegibly and which only can be read with photographs or by taking the papier collé down from a wall and putting it on a table?  Perhaps he enjoyed the knowledge that certain secrets had to be unravelled before the work could be understood.  Over thirty years later his young companion Françoise Gilot asked him about his papiers collés, which she herself then believed was “a kind of by-product or perhaps even the fading out of Cubist painting.”  Picasso denied this and said,

We tried to get rid of “trompe l’oeil” to find a “trompe l’esprit.”  We didn’t any longer want to fool the eye; we wanted to fool the mind.  The sheet of newspaper was never used in order to make a newspaper… This displaced object has entered a universe for which it was not made and where it retains, in a measure, its strangeness.  And this strangeness was what we wanted to make people think about because we were quite aware that our world was becoming very strange and not exactly reassuring.[5]

We are still left uncertain that we have unravelled all the mysteries of this provocative work.  As we look at it we can even discover that its more frivolous parts form the image of a man, the table his torso, the light brown gouache vertical at the left a leg with a foot standing on the bottom of the sheet of paper, the black zigzag the other leg, the cork a head undeniably small and modestly bowed, and a spiral of black charcoal around the stem of the glass a hand holding it toward us in a toast.  The Glass and Bottle of Suze may reveal other secrets still.

By Jean Sutherland Boggs

[1] Interestingly one of the first to write about papiers collés and the use of newsprint was the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, but not for another nineteen years.  See Tristan Tzara, “Le papier collé ou le proverb en peinture,” Cahiers d’art VI, no. 2 (1931): 61-73.

[2] See Robert Rosenblum, “Picasso and the Art of Eroticism,” in Studies in Sex and Society, vol. 3, ed. Theodore Robert Bowie and Cornelia V. Christienson, of Studies in Erotic Art (New York: Basic Books, 1970), pp. 337-50; see also Rosenblum, “Picasso and the Typography of Cubism,” in Picasso 1881-1973 (London: Paul Elek, 1973), pp. 49-75.

[3] See Pierre Daix and Jean Rosselet, Picasso, the Cubist Years, 1907-1916: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings and Related Works, trans. Dorothy S. Blair (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1979), p. 188 n. 129, and entry 523.

[4] See Paricia Leighten, Reorganizing the Universe: Picasso and Anarchism, 1897-1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), and Leighton, “Picasso’s Collages and the Threat of War, 1912-13,” Art Bulletin LXVII, no. 4 (December 1985): 653-72.

[5] Quoted in Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 77.

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