In the summer of 1919, Picasso and his new wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khoklova, sojourned to the South of France to enjoy their second honeymoon. There Picasso began a series of gouaches and drawings of guéridons, or pedestal tables, that would occupy him for much of the next two years. These guéridons were so central to his work at this time that John Richardson devotes a chapter entitled "Summer at Saint-Raphäel (The Guéridon)" to them in his definitive biography, explaining, "Picasso's traditional attitude toward the bride who loved to sit for him made it very difficult to portray her in any but a traditionally representative way. To reconcile conventional love for Olga with his pursuit of modernity, he turned to the subject of the anthropomorphic guéridon, which had preoccupied him the previous winter, and applied it to Olga instead of to himself. While the Smith College guéridon (Table, guitare, et bouteille, 1918) had been about the artist and his work, the works executed at Saint-Raphäel are about Olga and are intrinsically feminine, honeymoon images that radiate with love and sunny freshness and no hints of Picassian darkness" (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, vol. 3, p. 136). The best-known of these tables from that summer is the Nature morte devant une fenêtre à Saint-Raphaël in the Berggruen Museum, Berlin:
As exemplified by the Berggruen gouache, these works on paper of 1919 have relatively naturalistic backgrounds with cubist sleights of hand in the table and whatever Picasso chose to pile on top of it, generally including a guitar. Picasso at this time was well into his Neoclassical Period and nearing the end of his Synthetic Cubist Period, and he often chose to interweave these disparate and seemingly mutually exclusive styles in the same works to startling effect. (The distinction between Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, to the extent one can tease them apart, is that Picasso took things apart in the former and put them together in the latter.) In 1920, the following year, the Cubist elements trumped the Neoclassical ones in his still lifes, as Picasso deconstructed the picture window and assembled the table and its contents out of simple geometrical shapes. The resulting compositions were therefore more abstract than those of the summer before and, especially in the case of the painting at hand, enabled him to pull off a dizzying number of visual puns and unique contrivances. As Richardson best put it, these works were "booby-trapped with visual jokes." Synthetic Cubism, because of its many flat geometric shapes and implied volumes, was the perfect vehicle for Picasso's sleight of hand.
Le Guéridon is an exquisite, colorful painting, brimming with witticisms. Knowing Picasso's penchant for flattening volumes and upending tabletops, the central circle in Le Guéridon represents the top of a pedestal table with two legs, or perhaps three. On top of the table is the inevitable guitar--we see its head and neck, and its white soundboard shaped like the head of a bull. The head and neck of the guitar can be read as those of a man, and the soundboard as his chest and shoulders, while the teetering pink bottle would naturally represent a woman. The mirrored blue and red trapezoids represent light streaming in from the open window and onto the floor. And given that Olga was pregnant with Picasso's first child for the majority of this year (born February 1921), the tabletop may equally suggest her swollen belly. In a similar vein 15 years later, when Marie-Thérèse, his secret mistress at the time, became pregnant with his second child, Picasso made a cryptic metaphorical reference to the pregnancy, at a time when the world didn't yet know of the mother's identity, much less that she was pregnant, in the painting below:
As Richardson notes, "The development of this last great period of Synthetic Cubism can easily be followed through the Guéridons... No longer did Picasso feel obligated to investigate the intricate formal and spatial problems that preoccupied him ten years before. Instead he felt free to relax and exploit his cubist discoveries in a decorative manner that delights the eye... Never again did the artist's style recapture the air of magisterial calm that is such a feature of this last great phase of Cubism" (Picasso, An American Tribute, New York, 1962, p. 52).
Picasso must have loved his still lifes of the guéridon and four-legged tables, since he painted and drew quite a number of them during this time. But almost all of the other great ones are in the Musée Picasso Paris, attesting to the importance assigned to this series by the advisors of the French government at the time of the settling of Picasso's inheritance taxes (through which this museum's collection was established). Still lifes of these tables as beautiful, colorful, and compositionally interesting as this one are especially rare in the market today. In addition, this guéridon has more meanings and puns than any works in its genre and, for that matter, more than any other Picasso that I know of. Having poured through the catalogues raisonnés upon multiple occasions, I also believe that it is the finest composition of any of the guéridons that has not yet been acquired by a museum. Since this gouache escaped his chronicler Zervos' attention, Picasso presumably sold it early on. It took almost seventy years in order for it to first become known to the world, by virtue of its emergence at the Sotheby's 1989 sale.
One of the most touching testimonials to the power of Picasso's Synthetic Cubist guéridons comes from Louis Aragon, the French poet, who received a drawing or watercolor of a gueridon from Picasso. He wrote, "Picasso gave me this pedestal table in front of a shutter window in 1919 for the frontispiece of Feu de Joie: in fact, and by this very fact, it became the source of everything I wrote from this first book to the present day" (Louis Aragon, Je n'ai jamais appris a écrire ou les "Incipit", Paris: Skira Flammarion, 1981, p.39).