Night Fishing at Antibes: the analysis & meaning of Picasso’s anti-war painting

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The most famous painting in history able to condemn the horrors of war is certainly Guernica, the monumental painting by Pablo Picasso exhibited at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Nearly eight meters wide, symmetrical in an almost geometrical way, abandoned to that monochromatic blue distribution that drags the viewer in a well of apathy, the work was painted by Picasso in 1937, as a message against the bombing of the Nazi-Fascist aviation on the small Basque town Guernica. The message against war in Guernica is clear even if you are not an art expert: the dismembered bodies, stacked up, rebuilt under the sign of cubism, the avantgarde aesthetic that tries to represent a reality that has now become incomprehensible. The light falls on the disaster, wound in the center of the canvas and that dove, annihilated under the blows of violence. Guernica is art that reflects the evil of reality, and it’s not surprising that it is the most mentioned among Picasso’s paintings.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

But the madness of the European man didn’t stop after Picasso’s masterpiece. The tensions grew steadily, and all countries were already clearly directed towards a global conflict that would have indelibly marked the contemporary and future artistic production. Picasso spent that period in the coast of the South of France, far from Paris where he had lived so long. He felt like Paris was in some way responsible for the artistic block that marked the years before Guernica.

The new production phase came to life on the Côte d’Azur and certainly had its peak with Guernica. But the military conflicts influenced another great work of the mature Picasso, less famous but in some ways even more astonishing: Night Fishing at Antibes.

Pablo Picasso, Night Fishing at Antibes, 1939

That choice of colors never happened in Picasso’s artistic production. The prevalence of blue, violet and green is once again a choice in favor of cold colors. It is again an extremely sad canvas, but this time in a completely different way than Guernica. The structure is much smoother, the figures are softer, somehow dreamy, somehow related to the representation of the unconscious sensations in front of the madness of the world. The central figure is the fisherman: determined, with his head down, in the act of attacking the fish in the mirror of water. However, the act is not completed, the arrows stop exactly when they touch the fish. A choice that seems to offer some optimism: the attack has not yet happened, man still has the possibility to choose. And this means hope. On the small boat there is another human figure, smaller, worried: he is observing, passively, what is about to happen, overwhelmed by the consequences of what can be.

The vanishing point of the whole painting is the fist of the fisherman closed on the weapon, which is also the most realistic element in the canvas. The farther away you are from the fist, the more abstract objects become, in a way that is not a deformation of real shapes, but a representation of human sensations. There is also the representation of a real landscape, something quite rare in the aesthetics of Picasso: on the left is the Chateau Grimaldi in Antibes, the place where Picasso painted this canvas, represented as a distant and unreal place. On the right, two women try to capture the attention of the central subject with their sensuality. If the human figures are interpreted in an unconscious key, it is likely that the women are the image of Picasso’s feminine passions of that period, including his wife Olga (from whom he was already virtually separate, although still legally together) and Marie-Thérèse Walter, mother of Picasso’s second daughter Maya. In this sense, the two figures on the boat could represent Picasso, or the human condition according to his vision of that moment: floating halfway between the solidity of reality and the uncontrollable instinct, divided between determination and uncertainty, on the act of making a choice that can be decisive, but not yet completed.

Night Fishing at Antibes was completed in August 1939. Two weeks later, the Nazis invaded Poland, officially starting the greatest military conflict in history, which ended six years later. The choice had been made, and the concerns of the small individual on the boat were true. That little man had his body huddled in an impossible position, and his falling face was a hair’s breadth from the water and the fish. That painting was the representation of the world on the edge of the abyss, just a moment before the step forward.

At that moment colours were cold, but they were still alive and present. After that moment, it will be just darkness.

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