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Animals were always a part of Picasso's life. His father was a painter of pigeons, Picasso himself shared his studio with an array of birds: pigeons, doves and owls, as well as cats, a mouse kept in a draw, and now and then a monkey. He always owned a dog of some sort, generally a crossbreed. A goat might be seen wandering through the house, and all this menagerie appeared in his work.
Fish swim off his dinner plates into his art. Horses and bulls, not part of the household but of the bullfight, were a major obsession; he was an aficionado. All aspects of the corrida proliferated throughout his oeuvre. The presence of these creatures in his life shows an aspect of his character not always brought into sharp focus: his wit and humour. Although his first partner, Fernande Olivier, said she was never quite sure why Picasso loved animals at all, and mused that while he ‘had a childish and tender side, which he seemed to resist accepting. Yet perhaps he loved animals because of their appearance, out of a love of art, just as he loved clowns and boxers – not so much out of kindness’.
Accessibly written – with a chapter each given over to pigeons and doves, cats, dogs, monkeys, horses, owls, goats, fish and bulls – birds flitter and animals prowl throughout. The text is replete with anecdotes and quotes that are drawn from the publications of artist’s biographers and commentators. Not the first to look at this aspect of Picasso's work, Friedewald confines himself to the actual animals Picasso shared his life with and depicted in his art, rather than the mythic creatures that were also often his subjects. Hence one will find no centaurs, fauns or minotaurs.
In choosing which anecdotes to recount the author perpetuates certain myths. Among them is the one that Picasso and Alfred Jarry, playwright creator of the anarchic figure of Pere Ubu (protagonist of Ubu Roi, performed 1896), were great friends. Jarry did drink with Picasso's good friend Guillaume Apollinaire and Picasso's biographer Roland Penrose did maintain that Picasso and Jarry were friends, but John Richardson, whose in-depth biography of the artist is testament to a great deal of research is unequivocal; they did not meet.
Where the story that Picasso owned a meerkat came from I cannot tell, nor the claim that a meerkat is a type of monkey. Meerkats are a type of mongoose, they are not monkeys! Perhaps translation is the culprit. It would not be the first time. There is a story that the meerkat, native to South Africa, got its name from a Dutch adaptation of the word for monkey mangled by Indian sailors on Dutch East India Company ships. But where that tale came from I cannot tell. Picasso did own a Chinese monkey.
He also owned Milanese Frillback pigeons, given to him by Matisse. It is that very type of pigeon, with its graceful feather-swathed feet and feathers curling up round its head like Jacobean ruffs, that he drew for the lithograph that was to become the poster for the Congrès mondial des partisans de la paix held in Paris in April 1949. This became the image for his famous dove of peace.
Whilethe book's analysis is not deep, Picasso's eye for capturing an animal's defining spirit and characteristics is spot on, from the page of drawings of cockerels, mice, flamingos, deer, penguins, cows, and Lump the dachshund captured with just one line, the image of a plaice identified simply by the placing of its eyes, or Picasso’s own piercing gaze looking straight at us through the eyes of his spare drawing of an owl. This beautifully illustrated book would be a great pleasure to receive as a gift.
Picasso's Animals by Boris Friedewald is published by Prestel, Munich, London, New York, 2014. 120 pp., fully illustrated, £14.99. ISBN 978-3791349909