This painting has been requested for the exhibition Picasso and the War: 1937-1945, to be held at the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco, Oct. 1998-Jan. 1999, and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Jan.-April 1999.
The present picture is one of two canvases that Picasso painted in April 1939 which show a cat devouring a bird. The other version (fig. 1), now in the Muse Picasso, is dated April 22, 1939; it is likely that the present picture was made at the same time, and possibly on the same day. The Ganz version is larger and more fully worked, its composition is more successful, and its level of expressiveness is far higher. Therefore, it is almost certain that the Muse Picasso version was the preliminary canvas, and that the present picture was the second of the two. Both versions are startling images of animal ferocity, especially the present one. Here, the cat, arching its back as if in the act of pouncing, seems to spring across the canvas, holding the bird down with one paw and tearing at its flesh with its mouth. The cat's head is a mask of terrifying savagery: the mouth filled with carnivorous teeth as big as a shark's, the eyes spinning with bloodlust, the whiskers bristling like wire. The bird, rigid in death, was alive and struggling only moments ago.
Four published pen-and-ink drawings record Picasso's early thoughts for these pictures. The first sheet (fig. 2), dated April 6, 1939, concentrates on the bird, who seems to be still squawking and fighting as the cat's teeth sink into his body. A second sheet (fig. 3), dated April 22, contains four studies of the head of the bird, emphasizing its terror; at the right edge of the sheet is a male head in profile. In a number of paintings, Picasso included himself as a profile in shadow, and that seems to be the case here. (Why he is here we don't know. Does he identify with the bird, the cat or both? We cannot say.) He drew two other studies that day, the last of which (fig. 4) appears to have been made after the Paris painting and before the present one. In this sheet the cat still faces to the left, but his head is now closer in design to the head in the present picture, and he now holds the bird down with his left paw. It is a brutal and powerful drawing.
When plannning this series, one source which Picasso definitely had in mind was a Grebo mask in his collection (fig. 5); Picasso used it in a different way in the two paintings. In the Muse Picasso version, it served as the model for the chevron-shaped head of the cat. In the present painting, it instead stimulated Picasso to render the beast's eyes as two protuberant, spinning disks.
The immediate inspiration for these images of predation may have been the political events of early 1939. In March, Hitler entered Prague. Moreover, the Spanish Civil War was then grinding to its grim conclusion: on January 26, Barcelona fell to the fascists; soon after, the Republican troops collapsed after five days of bloody, internecine street-fighting in Madrid; and on March 31, the fascists occupied Madrid and Franco declared victory in the war. In his 1937 masterpiece Guernica (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 65; Museo del Prado, Madrid), Picasso created an explicit political allegory to protest the brutality of the fascists; but his response to this kind tended to more personal, more generalized images which nevertheless expressed his outrage. In 1944 Picasso told one reviewer, "I have no doubt that the war is in paintings I have done;" and in an interview with John Pudney that year, Picasso pointed to the direct connection between history and some of his works. It may be that Le chat l'oiseau is another example of the symbolic images which Picasso made in reaction to war.
It is also true, however, that Picasso was fascinated by the savagery of animals and by the brutality that they suffered, and saw in it a broad significance that suggests another interpretation.
In 1938 Picasso had made a painting (fig. 6) and several drawings in which a cock appears trussed up for slaughter. At the same time, he created five paintings of a spectral cock shrieking with fright. The paintings and drawings of April 1939 continue the theme of avian violence, but in a more graphic and unsettling fashion. Fourteen years later, in 1953, Picasso again returned to this theme, making a large suite of drawings and several paintings that show a cat either killing or eating a rooster. His 1941 bronze sculpture of a pregnant feral cat (Spies, no. 195) may also relate, if in a more general way, to the present painting.
Picasso's poetry is also full of images of cats eating birds. His 1947 text, Les quatre petites filles, contains several descriptions of this:
The cat has taken one of the birds from the nest in its jaws and strangles it with its big fingers carrying it off behind a lemon-colored cloud. (Translated by R. Penrose, The Four Little Girls, London, 1970, p. 18)
You mustn't believe that the cat has gone off behind the carrots to eat its eagle with fear or remorse. The blue of its cry for pity, the mauve of its leaps and the violent violets of its claws tearing Veronese-green rays from the sulphur yellow of its rage, detached from the blood spurting from the fountain full of vermillion...the cat gathers together and lets go its shadows and its words on each floor, confused and confounded in the fall of verticals squashing themselves drop by drop on the olive-green curtain. (Translated in ibid., p. 24)
Moreover, we know that Picasso was fascinated by feral cats, and by their life-and-death struggles. Franoise Gilot has written:
After dinner at the Caf de l'Union we would walk to the other caf...and on that road almost invariably, we would see two or three fights between owls and cats. The stars were very bright and the air clear, so although the night was dark there was almost a transparency to the darkness. Then, too, every fifty yards or so there was a street lamp. Suddenly one of the owls would swoop out of the dark. The tops of his wings were a grayish beige but his front was golden white and he would make for a cat skulking along the roadside ahead of us. Sometimes he would manage to pick the cat up in his claws and carry it off to eat somewhere else. But if the cat was big one, the battle would last a fairly long time. Pablo would stand there, fascinated, as long as the fight lasted. He made at least five or six drawings of those fights. (F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 128)
And Brassa has recalled that Picasso said to him:
I don't like pet cats, purring on a couch in a living room, but I adore cats that have gone wild, with their hairs bristling on end. They hunt birds, stand on ledges, run through the streets like demons. They turn and stare at you with those ferocious eyes, ready to leap at your face. And have you ever noticed that female cats--free cats--are always pregnant? Obviously they don't think of anything but having sex. (Quoted in Brassa, Picasso and Company, Garden City, New York, 1996, p. 52)
What was the attraction? Professor Lydia Gasman has suggested that Picasso was profoundly interested in the brutality of nature and the interdependence of life and death: "Picasso was fascinated by demonstrations of the cruelty of nature... He felt that cruelty is a biological necessity just as it is a fact of social and political reality. Picasso said that 'life and death are inseparable' and that the latter nourishes the former" (L. Gasman, Mystery, Magic, and Love in Picasso: 1925-1938, Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1981, p. 607). Moreover, she has argued, Picasso attempted to control his deep, abiding fear of death by depicting death as primitive and sacrificial, Dionysian: "Picasso's conception of sacrifice as primitive ritual...is the key to understanding some of his greatest works. His bullfights, crucifixions and scenes of cruelty, killing, dying and death...cannot be understood without considering that conception" (ibid., p. 572).
There is evidence that he may have felt something like this regarding his images of cats eating birds. His 1947 play, Les quatres petites filles, contains the following action:
A little cat holding a canary in its teeth jumps from branch to branch [of a tree]. (Translated by R. Penrose, op. cit., p. 65)
Since this tree is at the center of a garden and since the play is an allegory, one might suppose that Picasso here imagines the cat on the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. One would be right, for in the next lines, a character specifically speaks of "the Tree of Good and Evil." At the center of the universe, creation and destruction, death and regeneration are inextricably interconnected, and thus the violence of nature is both good and evil. In the present work, there is the suggestion that the cat is pregnant (its belly is distended). If the artist indeed intended this, then the cat here would fully embody the principle that Picasso later explicitly expressed in Les quatres petites filles.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Chat saisissant un oiseau, 1939
Muse Picasso, Paris
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Etudes, 1939
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Etudes, 1939
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Etude pour "Chat l'oiseau," 1939
(fig. 5) Masque Grebo, Ivory Coast
Muse Picasso, Paris
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Etude pour "La femme au coq," 1938
Oil on canvas
Signed 'Picasso' lower right
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Sept.-Oct. 1946, p. 7, no. 150
Venice, XXIV Biennale Internazionale d'Arte, 1948, no. 19
Lyon, Muse, Picasso, June-Sept. 1953, no. 65
So Paulo, Museu de Arte Moderna, Picasso, Dec. 1953-Feb. 1954, p. 31, no. 36 (illustrated)
Marseilles, Muse Cantini, Picasso, May-July 1959, no. 42 (illustrated)
London, National Gallery, Picasso, July-Sept. 1960, p. 49, no. 158 (illustrated, pl. 37a)
Paris, Grand Palais, Hommage Pablo Picasso, Nov. 1966-Feb. 1967, no. 186 (illustrated)
New York, Marlborough Gallery, Inc., Homage to Picasso for his 90th Birthday, Oct. 1971, p. 69, no. 59 (illustrated in color)
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective, May-Sept. 1980, p. 363 (illustrated)
Cologne, Museen der Stadt, Westkunst: Zeitgenssische Kunst seit 1939, May-Aug. 1981, p. 339, no. 11 (illustrated; illustrated in color, p. 25)
Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Creation: Modern Art and Nature, Aug.-Oct. 1984, p. 74, no. 95 (illustrated; illustrated in color opposite p. 64)
London, The Tate Gallery, Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, Feb.-May 1994, p. 282, no. 131 (illustrated in color, p. 147)
Princeton, University Art Museum, In Celebration: Works of Art from the Collections of Princeton Alumni and Friends of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Feb.-June 1997, p. 269, no. 250 (illustrated in color)
38.1/8 x 51.1/8in. (96.8 x 129.8cm.)
ed. Edizioni del Milione, Picasso: Sei Tavole a Colori, Milan, 1950 (illustrated in color)
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1958, vol. 9 (Oeuvres de 1937 1939), no. 297 (illustrated, pl. 139)
R. H. Wilenski and R. Penrose, Picasso: Later Years, London, 1961, p. 6 (illustrated in color, pl. 2; illustrated in color on the cover)
F. Russoli, "Tra le due guerre: La libert espressiva nella conquista del vero," L'Arte Moderna, 1967, vol. X (no. 82), p. 15 (illustrated in color)
L. Wertenbaker, The World of Picasso, New York, 1967, pp. 140-141 (illustrated)
A. Fermigier, Picasso, Paris, 1969, p. 277 (illustrated, p. 278, no. 177)
"Anatomy of a Minotaur," Time, Nov. 1, 1971, vol. 98 (no. 18), pp. 68-78 (illustrated in color, p. 73)
J. Cassou, "Le cri et la piti," Jardin des Arts, July-Aug. 1971 (nos. 200-201), p. 28 (illustrated in color)
C. de Lys and F. Rhudy, Centuries of Cats in Art and the Written Word, Norwalk, Connecticut, 1971, p. 83 (illustrated)
ed. A. Mondadori, Conoscere Picasso, Verona, 1973 (illustrated in color)
R. Penrose, "Beauty and the Monster," in eds. R. Penrose and J. Golding, Picasso in Retrospect, New York, 1973, pp. 164 and 279, no. 275 (illustrated, p. 165)
D. Porzio and M. Valsecchi, Understanding Picasso, New York, 1974, no. 104 (illustrated in color)
J. Russell, Picasso, Paris, 1974, p. 161 (illustrated in color)
T. Hilton, Picasso, London, 1975, p. 248, no. 183 (illustrated)
D. Thomas, Picasso and his Art, London, 1975, p. 72 (illustrated in color, p. 79, pl. 66)
R. Goetz, "The Passion of Picasso," The Christian Century, Oct. 1980, vol. XCVII (no. 30), p. 909 (illustrated)
ed. Kodansha, Ltd., 25 Great Masters of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1980, p. 117, no. 31 (illustrated; illustrated in color, pl. 31)
M. Jardot, S. Hosoda and D. Rawson, Pablo Picasso: The Fantastic Period, 1931-1945, Tokyo, 1981, pl. 51 (illustrated in color; detail illustrated in color on the box)
S. J. Checkland, "New Habitat for a Powerful Display of Creativity," Time, Aug. 17, 1984 (illustrated)
E. Lucie-Smith, 'Art,' Illustrated London News, Aug. 1984, p. 69 (illustrated)
W. Packer, "Visual Feasts of the Festival and Beyond," Financial Times, Aug. 28, 1984, p. 13 (illustrated)
"Red in Tooth and Claw," London Observer, Aug. 12, 1984 (illustrated)
J. S. Boggs, exh. cat., Picasso and Things, Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1992, p. 357 (illustrated)
Y. Otaka, Picasso, Tokyo, 1992, pl. 44 (illustrated in color)
C.-P. Warncke, Pablo Picasso 1881-1973, Cologne, 1994, vol. II (The Works 1937-1973), p. 436 (illustrated in color)
P. Daix, Dictionnaire Picasso, Paris, 1995, p. 185
Perls Galleries, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owners in 1963 for $29,000