Picasso’s depictions of animals are among the most moving of his works and, for Picasso lovers at least, rank among the most moving animal portraiture in the history of Western art. In addition to his beloved dogs, Picasso kept a wide variety of animals through much of his life. A goat slept outside his bedroom. He boarded doves and famously nursed an injured owl back to health. He painted cats, primates, and all sorts of birds. He deeply identified with the circus since a young age, and painted its entire complement of animals repeatedly. He was an avid bullfight spectator, and that spectacle featured prominently in his work as well. Picasso’s father was also an artist, whose major artistic focus was (amazingly) the pigeon.
It is worth noting that Picasso’s depiction of animals is not at all anthropomorphic. He clearly does not attempt to imbue his zoo with human feelings or expressions. The rooster crowing its head off is just being a rooster, and his gripping expression conveys his essential “roosterness” so deeply. If anything, there is a “reverse anthropomorphism”; in Picasso’s art, in which the viewer, much as Picasso himself, is encouraged to identify with the animal. It is widely acknowledged that Picasso identified with his depictions of bulls and minotaurs. Does his art not also encourage us to empathize with his suffering horses, goats, and lambs?
Why is it that we love animals in art? Animals are pervasive in the art of all ages, but this fundamental question has scarcely been addressed. In ancient art, which reflected hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies, animals provided a ready artistic motif perhaps more compellingly than in the modern world. Yet today we still love our animal portraiture. Would it be truistic to attribute its appeal solely to our love of animals? And even though we may not love particular animals, say spiders, the form of these animals and, in the case of spiders, their creations (spider webs) appeal to our curiosity as well as to our aesthetic sense. Animal portraits can also convey emotion, simple yet profound, which, in turn, can be very evocative of our own emotions.
Part of the charm of animal portraiture may be related to our understanding that the animals’ facial expressions and the emotions that they convey are simple, direct, guileless and uncomplicated, and thereby reach deeply into our psyche. (We may have similar reactions to a baby’s facial expressions for possibly similar reasons.)
We are interested in further probing the psychological appeal of Picasso’s animal portraiture. We encourage you to take stock of your own reactions to his work. To aid you in this quest, should you undertake it, below is a list of URLs relating to Picasso’s animal portraiture which I have found to be of interest. –Kobi
http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/morgue/2003/2003_02_21.creatures21ja.html This is the URL to a recent Palo Alto exhibit called Animals of Imagination which hints at what I’m trying to investigate.
http://www.pets-in-the-news.com/html/search2.php3/entryID=49 interesting short essay on Picasso’s love for animals and the animals he kept
http://www.tamu.edu/mocl/picasso/works/1923/opp23-45.html provocative comments in the form of an auction lot caption
http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/guernica/glevel_1/5_meaning.html nice discussion in general and of the animals in Guernica in particular
http://www.tamu.edu/mocl/picasso/tour/t91d.html. Excerpt from The On-Line Picasso Project: “Picasso’s relations with his animals were very close: he had an extraordinary gift for entering into direct contact with them…. He had in fact a most luminous and striking eye, a singular, penetrating gaze, always the first thing that people noticed…. Picasso did not shift his animals to a semi-human plane–he met them on their own.” (cf. O’Brian 1994, 37)