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THE STORY OF A GLASS OF ABSINTHE

21.07.2022

In Room 3 of Museo Picasso Málaga, there is a small masterpiece by Pablo Picasso on display, to your left as you enter the room.

The little cubist sculpture Glass of Absinthe (1914), shows the typical conical glass, spoon and sugar cube associated with the drink, which was very popular in Paris’s bohemian circles. In collaboration with his art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso made six versions of this sculpture, each decorated differently so that it became a unique object. This is the example that Picasso kept for himself and that Brassaï photographed when he visited the artist at home.

In the spring of 1914, Pablo Picasso made a series of six bronzes depicting an absinthe glass. Cast from the same wax maquette, they are identical in shape but each bronze is painted differently. These six versions of the Glass of Absinthe are perhaps the most interesting example of Picasso’s cubist polychrome sculpture. In his Cubist paintings, Picasso often used different colours to create variations on the same underlying composition. However, this was the first time he created a series of variations in the medium of sculpture. Each of the six bronzes is a unique work, with different areas highlighted by colour, pattern and texture.  

Absinthe, or La Fée verte (the Green Fairy), was a favourite drink in bohemian Paris. Flavoured with wormwood and other herbs, it was believed to cause hallucinations, mental disorders and even death among those who drank it assiduously. Artists such as Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso himself frequently depicted drinkers numbed by its effects. Absinthe’s danger only made it more alluring. There was heated public debate regarding its toxicity and, a year after Picasso made these six small sculptures, it was banned by the government, both in France and in its colonies. (Modern science suggests that the only dangerous element of absinthe is its high alcohol content.) 

Drinking absinthe required an elaborate ritual. A small amount of the bitter spirit was served in a tall conical goblet. The drinker placed a flat, delicately pierced spoon on the rim of the glass, with a cube of sugar perched on the spoon, and then poured water through the sugar into the absinthe, diluting and sweetening it. As if by magic, the absinthe turned from clear to a sinister, milky green.  An 1887 painting by Vincent Van Gogh shows a glowing green glass of absinthe next to a sparkling carafe of water. 

From 1910 onwards, the glass was one of the favourite, and most frequent, subjects of the cubists’ pictorial experiments. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the cubists’ dealer and the first important interpreter of their work, wrote that the great revolution of 1910 cubism was the breaking open of the closed form. A transparent glass, simultaneously open and closed, was thus an ideal subject for cubism. Picasso’s cardboard and metal Guitars of 1912 and 1914 showed how the idea of open form could be applied to an opaque object. In spring 1914, he also made a series of painted reliefs using bent sheets of tin to represent the bowls of wineglasses. 

The bronze Glass of Absinthe is radically different from these contemporary works. The heavy, noble metal reasserts the idea of sculptural solidity. It is shocking, therefore, when Picasso cuts open the bowl of the glass to reveal a metal disk representing the surface of the liquid contained within it. As the poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in 1912, “Picasso studies an object the way a surgeon dissects a corpse.”  Thick horizontal flanges materialize the cubist grid of his drawings and paintings.   

 

However, the greatest novelty of the sculpture lies in the intersection of an artistic object and a real object - the famous slotted spoon, which Picasso bought to add to each of his six sculptures. “I am interested in the relationship between the real spoon and the modelled glass. In particular, how they react to each other”, he later said. A bronze sugar cube rests atop the real spoon, waiting for a drinker to add water from a carafe. Picasso had introduced collage in a painted still life of spring 1912. Now, two years later, he extended collage into three dimensions.  With different materials and on three planes, the artist brought together the bronze representation of the glass and the liquid, the reality of a silver metal spoon, and the imitation, also in bronze, of a lump of sugar. It may be considered one of the earliest uses of the objet trouvé in modern sculpture.

Picasso’s dealer Kahnweiler had the Glass of Absinthe cast by Florentin Godard in an edition of five examples meant for sale, each stamped with the dealer’s hallmark, D.K. The sixth cast, exhibited here, is an artist’s proof without a number or a hallmark, retained by Picasso himself.  Painted with red oil paint at the bottom and white at the top, it is also differentiated from its siblings by the two right-angled bends in the handle of the spoon.

The spoon’s handle is still straight in photos taken by Brassaï in 1943 in Picasso’s apartment on the Rue des Grands Augustins. The Hungarian photographer, in a conversation with the artist years later, remembers the impression it made on him: “I now discover the glass of absinthe, a highly daring work for its time. It was the first time that such a simple object had been turned into a sculpture!”.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the art dealer who fostered the cubist movement, was a German citizen. Because of the outbreak of WWII, he went into exile in Switzerland in 1914. The stock of his gallery, including the five editioned versions of the Glass of Absinthe, was confiscated by the French State, and, after the war, his works by Picasso, Braque, Léger, Derain, Vlaminck and other artists were sold at auction at Maison Drouot for derisory sums. Today, three casts of the Glass of Absinthe are in the USA: in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York, and in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The other two editioned casts are in Europe: at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Berggruen Museum in Berlin. The unique Glass of Absinthe retained by Picasso himself belongs to the Fundación Almine y Bernard Picasso para el arte (FABA). Having been shown at a number of major international exhibitions, it is now on display at the Museo Picasso Málaga as part of “Dialogues with Picasso. Collection 2020-2023”.

 

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29015 Málaga

T. 952 12 76 00

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