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The Black Pitcher and the Death's Head, February 20, 1946

Pablo Picasso

Spanish, 1881-1973
12-3/4 x 17-1/2 in. (32.4 x 44.5 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation, Gift of Jennifer Jones Simon
© 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Reproduction, including downloading of ARS works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Not on view

Humankind’s preoccupation with death has taken various forms in the visual arts since antiquity, but the image of the skull remains the most universally recognizable motif. Mortality and the fragility of life remained a preoccupation for 20th-century artists, especially those who witnessed the tragedies of World War II.

Picasso, who was deeply rooted in European artistic tradition and conscious of his contribution to it, frankly adopted the conventions of the 17th-century vanitas still life. In addition to the memento mori (remember you must die) iconography of the skull, the open book may refer to another vanitas theme of learning as futile, since it was limited to one person’s lifetime. The worn pages also testify to the passing of time.

The lithograph’s angular rhythms, sharp edges and strongly contrasting areas of black and white only intensify the sense of foreboding. Created in February 1946, this image could be read as an expression of the unease and anxiety in Europe after the war. Since Picasso was based in Paris, a perilous city during these years, he was well aware of the deprivations and hardships wrought on citizens. The year prior, in 1945, his friend, the poet and writer Robert Desnos, had perished in a concentration camp.

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