Picasso’s Kitchen

By Emmanuel Guigon

An exhibition on Picasso’s kitchen and cooking? Why not? There is nothing at all incongruous in the idea, because cooking is a subtle revelation of Picasso’s art: painting, sculpture, ceramics, poetry and theatre. What is more, we should not neglect the role of the restaurant as a meeting place for the avant-gardes, from Quatre Gats in Barcelona to Au Lapin Agile on Montmartre, where the bohemians of the time and Picasso’s little entourage would share a table. Food, utensils and places related to cooking have a tremendous power to evoke and link ideas. Indeed, the very act of eating and digesting is a metaphor for a creative artist. In the edible—and even the inedible—there is the joyful possibility of swallowing the world. Picasso had this taste for the world and every tangible thing in it, to the point of biting into it: “I can no longer bear the miracle of knowing nothing in this world and of having learnt nothing except to love things and eat them alive.” His endless inventions and the euphoria of his imagination bear witness to an insatiable appetite: Picasso enters the arena of the kitchen and the great ceremony begins. As Heraclitus said, the gods are in the kitchen, too.

Catalog cover of the exhibition Picasso’s Kitchen

“What could be more familiar to a painter, to the painters of Montmartre or Montparnasse, than their pipe, their tobacco, a guitar on the wall above the sofa or a soda syphon on top of the coffee table?” Picasso’s comment on the iconography of Cubism, a movement born in bars and kitchens, explains why his work is full of the simplest things in life: a real spoon for a glass of absinthe, a bottle of Anís del Mono or a restaurant sign with the bill of fare: wine, cured ham and a well-fattened chicken. This demystification of painting and sculpture—in the form of food and all the related objects and spaces—extols everyday life and roots Picasso’s art in the “flavour of real life”.

Picasso said that, for him, objects were the vehicles of thought. In a flash, he captured their evocative power. The rounded shape of a ladle, for example, could “signify” a human head; on other occasions, colanders might perform the same function. Picasso used an object’s power of suggestion in a given context to play with combinations thrown up by metamorphosis. In his still lifes, he captured simple things in an instant: breakfast, a plate of cheese, a lamb cutlet or fish wrapped in newspaper. In this way, he reaffirmed the poetry of everyday life in the most ordinary details.

On 30 May 1943, Picasso painted two versions of The Buffet at Le Catalan. This restaurant, run by a Catalan named Arnau, became Picasso’s regular lunchtime haunt and he often brought along several of his friends, including Georges Hugnet (who became its chronicler), Paul and Nusch Éluard, Dora Maar, Pierre Reverdy, Óscar Domínguez, Michel Leiris and Zette, Léon-Paul Fargue, Jacques Prévert, Apel·les Mestre and a number of others. In one of the last texts he wrote before being arrested by the Gestapo, Robert Desnos records this striking and illuminating remark by Picasso: “I had lunch at Le Catalan for months, and day after day I would look at the buffet there without being struck by anything in particular about it. One day, I decided to paint it, which I then did. The next day, when I arrived, the buffet was gone, its place was empty… By painting it, I must have taken it away without realising it.” The moment Picasso covets an object, he seizes it, he wrenches it from its world; he feeds on it, swallows it and incorporates it into the space of the picture. This recreated object, cooked and digested, then exists again, this time by the grace of the brush.

Picasso had already withdrawn to Royan when war broke out in September 1939, and he remained there for almost a year. He set up his studio on the upper floor of the seafront villa Les Voiliers, where he painted Café in Royan (dated 15 August 1940). On 25 August 1940, Picasso travelled back to Paris, where he would remain for the entire Nazi Occupation, seeking refuge in his studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins. Picasso took several cues from these war years, as reflected in his painting. Decor, furniture, utensils and food, as well as many other aspects of cooking and the kitchen, abound in his still lifes: pots and fruit dishes, fish and shellfish, sausages and artichokes, knives and forks, tables and chairs, blue checked tablecloths, the tomato plant from his studio. It looks like a Spanish inn where you eat what you bring with you. It is also the embodiment of a fabulous abundance in a period of scarcity. But this conspicuous consumption is thrown down as a challenge to the misfortunes of the time. “Look, even a saucepan can shout… Everything can shout,” he told Pierre Daix.

Petit journal’s cover, English version

«[Picasso] had just fileted a sole meunière with almost surgical precision, when he picked up the bones to finish off the last stray morsel.s It looked as if he were playing harmonica—and I grabbed this one shot, not aware of the distant look in his eyes […]. Picasso then put down the skeleton, diappeared into the front hallway of the villa, and returned with a slab of moist potter’s clay. He’d eaten the sole, now its skeleton was to be immortalized.» David Douglas Duncan, Viva Picasso. Nova York, Viking Press, 1980, p. 142

“Picasso’s Kitchen”. The exhibition was held at the Museu Picasso de Barcelona from 25 May to 30 September 2018, curated by Emmanuel Guigon, Androula Michel and Claustre Rafart. The project hosted the intervention «What is cooking ?» devised with Ferran Adrià.  

Guided tour of the exhibition Picasso’s Kitchen, with Ferran Adrià and Emmanuel Guigon. Museu Picasso, Barcelona June 7th, 2018 ©Oriol Clavera

Emmanuel Guigon
Emmanuel Guigon (Besançon, 1959) is a museologist, Doctor in Contemporary Art History (University of La Sorbonn, France), and is a specialist in historical avant-garde, surrealism, modern and contemporary Spanish art and post-war European art. He has been deputy director responsible for the museums of Besançon (France) and director and curator of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg (France), as well as chief curator of the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM). Currently, he runs the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and is member of various associations such as the Scientific Committee of the Musée Picasso (Paris) or the Real Acadèmia de Sant Jordi. He has the distinction of Knight of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques and Knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres granted by the Ministry of Culture of the French Government. As well as professor, he has published among other books: “Historia del collage en España”,El objeto surrealista”, “El surrealismo y la guerra civil española”, “Revoir Magritte” and monographs on, Picasso, Georges Grosz, Antonio Saura, among others.

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