How Modern is Modern Art: Thoughts on Picasso’s Composition with Skull


Composition with Skull by Pablo Picasso is a still life painting of 1908 (Kostenevich, 1982) imbued with the spirit of modernism and, nevertheless, containing a combination of both innovative and traditional artistic means.


The painting has received comparatively little attention in scholarly literature, as far as it is possible to judge from the available publications. It is mentioned along with other works of the same period or genre, but there is no deep and separate analysis available. Nevertheless, Albert Kostenevich, an art historian of Picasso's works, believed that without acquaintance with this painting one could not commence their study of Cubism (Kostenevich, 1979, p. 156). Kostenevich has ascertained the year the painting was finished and studied the origins of the artistic inspiration that led to its creation, comparing and juxtaposing two differing scholarly opinions of Douglas Cooper and Theodore Reff. If Cooper connects the coloring of the work, which was unusual for Picasso, to the influence of Fauvism, then Reff is inclined to consider the color and content of the painting as the result of the artist’s negative emotional experience (Kostenevich, 1982).


Numerous were indeed the sources of influence and inspiration around an artist in Paris at that time. In the history of French art, the beginning of the 20th century - the years that precede the First World War - is named the "happy era" (German, 2003, p. 40). Representatives of the artistic avant-garde, flocking to Paris, entered into friendly and creative contacts with each other and formed the Paris School of Painting. Picasso met with other artists in the famous Bateau-Lavoir (French for washhouse boat) in the Montmartre neighborhood. The dilapidated building had very modest living conditions and was originally inhabited by poor factory workers. Gradually, the artists occupied the building completely, worked there day and night, and significant ideas for contemporary art were born in their ongoing discussions. At that time, new trends entered the artistic arena from Bateau-Lavoir (German, 2003). There was also the Salon d'Automne, founded by the architect Frantz Jourdain. The artists presenting their works at the salon in 1905 were named the Fauves (French for wild) for their love of pure, resonant color by the hostile critic Louis Vauxcelles (Elderfield, 1976).

Bateau-Lavouir in circa 1910

The acquaintance of Picasso with African sculpture had a big impact on the development of modern movements. The expressive simplicity of shapes was striking artistic imagination. Picasso's passion for the culture of the African continent was even reflected in the name of one of the periods of his work, African. Picasso manifested the appeal to African and Iberian sculpture in the schematization of forms, the use of symbolic images, and the ethnic ornamentalism of the composition (German, 2008).

The African masks seen by Picasso at the Museé d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1907 made a strong impression on the painter (Rojas, 1895). It was then that the artist had the idea of ​​painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a piece that seemed to reconstruct the sultry magical air of some ancient land. Picasso's confessions published by André Malraux (Flam & Deutsch, 2003) contain the following words of the artist:

[then] I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting – yes absolutely. (p. 33)

Picasso P., (1907). Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. [Oil on canvas]

However, artists of that period were attracted not so much by specific objects, but by folk art in general. The interest in the art of other European countries and non-professional painting also increased at that time. As a result, it was France that began to be considered the birthplace of primitivism. The pioneer of the movement was Henri Rousseau, discovered by avant-garde artists at the end of his life. A banquet in his honor was held in Picasso's studio in Bateau-Lavoir in 1908 (Roe, 2016). So, after the influence of these trends, evolving from Paul Cézanne's constructing his artworks with basic shapes, cubism was developed by Picasso and Georges Braque around 1908. It was called Cubism due to Louis Vauxcelles describing the paintings of Braque as bizarreries cubiques (French for cubist oddities). There were no cubes as such in cubist paintings. The objects were formed using geometrized planes, similar to stereometric projections, painted from several points of view. Attempts to move away from creating the illusion of reality were also carried out by the predecessors of the Cubists, however, this new movement finally opposes the pictorial material to the figurative form (Cooper, 1970). A Cubist painting is a thing-in-itself and a result of the desire to reproduce an object of consciousness that is more authentic than its physical appearance. Guillaume Apollinaire wrote: “Cubism differs from the old schools of painting in that it is not an art of imitation, but an art of conception which tends towards creation” (Brodin, 1968, p. 10).

Cézanne P., (1904). Three Skulls on an Oriental Rug. [Oil on canvas]

Apollinaire also claimed that due to the friendship between Picasso and Derain in 1906, “almost immediately Cubism was born” (Cooper, 1971, p. 65). An additional confirmation that the incredible achievements of artistic thought, which radically changed the face of art in the 20th century, were impossible without the constant and open interaction of artists, or without analyzing both previous experiences and modern trends, combining and rethinking these ideas.


The Composition with Skull refers to the period of Picasso’s so-called early or analytical cubism (1907-1909). It is devoid of illusory space or air, the objects are depicted flatly and superimposed in the manner of a theatrical scenery from a conditional background to the compositional center of the picture. The painter chose an open composition. The sharp lines in some kind of senseless and helpless fuss flock, run to the monolith of the skull. In the best traditions of a still life of the vanitas type (Latin for vanity), the viewer is reminded of the inevitable end of the earthly life.

Claesz P., (1628). Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait. [Oil on wood]

Picasso painted this work with sharp broad strokes, leaving open areas of the primer. The harsh expressiveness of the bright geometric planes, as if falling out of the painting, has a powerful effect on the viewer. There are no straight horizontal or vertical lines. Due to the color and volume of the objects depicted, the bottom of Picasso's picture is perceived as heavier than the top. Also, with the help of color and the movement of lines, the image in the lower half of the canvas is pushed forward to the foreground. There is no sense of stability in the painting. On the contrary, not finding a place for themselves in the space of the canvas, the depicted objects are ready to splash out on the viewer. However, with all the complexity of the emotional work that might occur during the viewer's interaction with the picture, one cannot fail to note its strange, primitive life-affirming power. Where there is death, there is always new life.


The painting is dominated by cold colors, emphasizing the sharpness of a fragmented, faceted pattern: anxious pink, and tragic red. In the early stages of Cubism, the painter still does not renounce the generous use of color, with which he emphasizes the weight of the masses. Brown objects tend to load down the canvas. The lighter, ochre frame and the image of a female figure on an ultramarine background seem to help illuminate the heavy golden skull, around which the tension is created. The rhythm of the broken diagonals that repeatedly divide the canvas vertically is echoed by the color dialogues: blue and green at the top of the canvas are put in constant interaction with pink and red at the bottom.


Since the analyzed work uses the language of a vanitas still life, it is mandatory to turn to the problem of the semantic reading of the still lives of such type. Julia Zvezdina in her book Emblematics in the World of Ancient Still Life (1997) proposes a solution to this problem, based on the study of materials from Western European painting tradition and the written compendiums of emblems that were popular in the Baroque era. The materials of this study will be used below for the semiotic analysis of Picasso's Composition with Skull.

Picasso P., (1908). Composition with Skull. [Oil on canvas]

The skull is the center of the composition, serving as a traditional reminder of the futility of fleeting earthly pleasures and the inevitability of death. The skull is a lifeless form, part of the empty shell of a once-living person - the most accurate and powerful symbol of the frailty of being. A massive object is advanced toward the viewer from the lower right corner of the painting. This is arguably a hollow pot, which, as a symbol, also takes place in traditional semiotic symbolism. Like the skull, this pot is only a form that does not retain any connection with the former contents and is therefore devalued. Picasso emphasizes the importance of this subject in the composition, highlighting it with the zigzag lines of the tablecloth folds. Further, the gaze, again passing through the “ingot” of the skull, as the source of all the main lines of movement of the inspection, turns to a stack of books topped with a smoking pipe in the lower left part of the canvas. Books are science, acquired knowledge, but above them is a pipe that offers the experience of worldly pleasures, fleeting, like tobacco leaves burning to ashes. Then, along an ascending diagonal, the viewer's gaze is directed to the upper part of the canvas. Symbols of liberal arts are concentrated there: a palette and brushes, a fragment of a painting, and an object that resembles a violin in its outlines. Picasso puts art in its rightful place above ephemeral earthly glory, as eternal over perishable. Here one could be reminded of the Latin proverb: Vita brevis ars longa (Latin for "Life is short, art is eternal).


The comprehensive continuity of art, preserved in modern artworks, manifests itself in artistic quotations and in the assumed or documented inspirations. Picasso in his Composition with Skull renounces figurativeness, organizing the canvas like a patchwork quilt, woven not from reproduced objects, but from their signs endowed with symbolic meaning (Rojas, 1984). The contemporaneity and the uniqueness of the painting with its analysis reveal its consistency of a complex mix of education, artistic search in other cultures, and open dialogue with both fellow artists and the viewers. Thus, the availability of knowledge about different cultures and openness become powerful catalysts for creative development.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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