During the early 1920s, Picasso repeatedly explored the formal and expressive possibilities offered by the juxtaposition of two still-life elements, a stringed instrument—either a guitar or a mandolin—and a fruit-bowl, placed together on a sideboard, an ornate pedestal, or a simple wooden table. In these extraordinarily inventive paintings, with their transparent, overlapping planes and unexpected conjunctions of form, Picasso continued to investigate the seemingly unbounded potential of the synthetic cubist idiom that he had originated before the First World War. “One senses that Picasso was primarily concerned with the creation of balanced, although asymmetrical, compositions,” Elizabeth Cowling has written, “ingenious combinations of rhyming shapes, and contrasts of tone and color and plain and patterned surfaces. In their poise, control, and subtlety, they remind one of Chardin’s kitchen still-lifes, in which a limited repertoire of everyday objects is shuffled and reshuffled to form a series of variations on the same melodic theme” (Picasso, Style and Meaning, London, 2002, pp. 381-382).
Picasso painted the present still-life during winter 1922, in the apartment on the rue La Boétie that he shared with his wife Olga and their infant son Paulo. The composition plays upon the structural similarities between the compotier and the mandolin, each of which is comprised of two contrasting elements: a globular body with a central hollow, and a projecting, flanged foot or neck. Picasso here rendered the still-life objects as twinned forms rotated ninety degrees one from the other, positioned on a guéridon that repeats their prevailing, rounded profile; the elongated blue form between them may be another musical instrument, possibly a violin. The table occupies an elegantly appointed interior, defined by panels of rectilinear wainscoting and the swags of a heavy curtain; the dominant colors are dark blue and green, with contrasting accents of bright white and yellow, suggesting that Picasso painted the canvas late at night, by artificial lamplight. Several horizontally striated passages, possibly developed from the wood-graining of the tabletop, unite the still-life objects with swelling pools of yellow light and blue shadow, as well as lending the composition a pulsating energy that evokes its musical impetus.
The prevalence of the mandolin in Picasso’s imagery from this period suggests its rich signifying potential for the artist. The instrument’s Italianate origins—the teardrop-shaped form has its inception in 18th–century Naples—resonated with Picasso’s wide-ranging exploration of the classical tradition during the post-war period. In particular, the mandolin featured prominently in the art of Corot, whose work occupied a key place in Picasso’s personal trove of artistic sources at this time. “They are paintings about paintings,” Picasso had marveled when he first saw Corot’s hushed, meditative images of studio models holding mandolins, at the Salon d’Automne of 1909 (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Early Years, New York, 1996, vol. 1, p. 149). Picasso also seems to have found a compelling sexual suggestion in the physical form of the mandolin, comprising a phallic neck conjoined to a curvaceous, womb-like body with a suggestive sound hole. In the present painting, the neck of the mandolin probes the folds of the blue curtain at the right, which part solicitously to receive it.
By the time he painted Mandoline sur une table, Picasso had for several years been pursuing two distinct stylistic avenues in his work—cubism, as here, and classicism, the antipodes of pictorial representation as they existed in modern painting at that time. The genre of still-life, in which everyday objects were arranged at will in static compositions, lent itself to exploration in a cubist mode, while for figure subjects Picasso most often worked in a naturalistic manner, having studied models from antiquity, the masterworks of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and the classicism of Ingres. This openly bifurcated studio production was extremely controversial in the wake of the First World War, with partisans of each manner working zealously to discredit Picasso’s efforts in the other. The contrasting notions of cubist and classical were to Picasso’s mind, however, dual sides of the same coin—the totality of Western art in its most provocative, modern form, capable of generating a potent dialectic from which new and transformative ideas might issue forth.
“We all know that Art is not truth,” Picasso insisted. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies” (quoted in D. Ashton, ed. Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 4). Observers held there to be an irreconcilable contradiction between the representation of a subject by means of naturalist illusion on one hand, and the inventions of form arising from cubism on the other. Picasso, though, declared both conceptions equally a “lie”—for such was the condition of all art. “They speak of naturalism in opposition to modern painting. I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art. Nature and art, being two different things, cannot be the same thing. Through art we express our conception of what nature is not” (quoted in ibid., p. 4).