It could have been a reference to an ancient or biblical theme, the good shepherd or the calf bearer. An image of a man carrying a calf or a sheep on his shoulders, having just rescued it, and returning it to the flock. Pablo Picasso used many such themes and ideas in his work, however, he usually denied it in reference to this particular piece. “The man could just as well be carrying a pig as a sheep! There is no symbolism in it. It is just something beautiful.”[i]
Shifting back and forth from serious to playful, perhaps he is being sly or evasive? Or surrealistic and poetic like his friend of more than forty years, Max Jacob? Picasso and Jacob met in 1901 and became fast friends. Jacob was the first Parisian to teach Picasso French. And, as an early art critic, he wrote enthusiastically about Picasso’s work. Jacob was also a painter, cubist/surrealist poet, bon vivant, homosexual and a Jew. As described by Roger Shattuck, the beginning of the 20th Century was an exhilerating time: “In its early demonstrations the avant-garde remained a true community, loyal to itself and to its time…. Painters, writers, and musicians lived and worked together and tried their hands at each other’s arts in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration.”[ii]
“When you paint a picture, it completely changes with each brushtroke, turning like a cylinder, almost interminably. When it stops turning, it’s finished. My latest was a Tower of Babel made of lighted candles.”[iii]
Max Jacob was originally from Quimper in Brittany, France. A street, a bridge, a high school and even the courtyard of the house at 8, rue de Parc, in Quimper bear his name. The Musee des Beaux-Arts in Quimper even has a room dedicated to Jacob featuring his drawings, paintings, and manuscripts. It was there, during the summer of 1997 that I first learned about several details of his life. In Quimper and in Paris during the summer of 1994—the 50th anniversary of Jacob’s death, there was an exhibition documenting this almost lifelong friendship between Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso.
“All it takes is a five-year-old in pale overalls drawing in a coloring book for a door to open into the light, for the house to be built again and the ochre hillside covered with flowers.”[iv]
Picasso claims to have completed “The Man with the Sheep” in a burst of spontaneous energy in just one day. It was first in plaster, with the legs a bit too thin to support the upper half, so he and an assistant hoisted it up with ropes, he finished what needed to be done, and then had it cast in bronze right away. However, there are several drawings made as studies for this piece from the previous year. Not only was the position of the sheep not to his liking, but the head of the figure went through several stages: a younger man, then an older one; a clean shaven figure, then a bearded one, and so on.
At the end he, Picasso, modelled the face of his friend Max Jacob onto this figure. When the piece had been cast, Picasso placed it at the top of the stairs to his studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins. Often SS Officers would climb just to the top of the stairs in surprise inspections and be met by the “Man Holding a Sheep.” They looked quickly around and returned down to the street, not realizing that Jacob had been looking down on them. Max Jacob had been arrested by the SS earlier, and was in the process of being shipped to Auschwitz, however, he died from bronchial pneumonia while in one of the deportation camps at Drancy, France.
“The Yellow Star Again”
“Are those beets your dog’s eating?”
“No, it’s a Jew who fell in the snow.”
“They could find some other place to faint instead of my sidewalk.”[v]
[i] Bernadac, Marie-Laure; Picasso Museum, Paris: The Masterpieces; Reunion des Musees Nationaux and Prestel; Paris and munich; 1991; p. 162.
[ii] Shattuck, Roger; The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I; Vintage Books, Random House; New York, New York; 1968; p. 28.
[iii] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; Oberlin College Press; Oberlin, Ohio; 1999; p. 57.
[iv] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; p. 129.
[v] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; p. 122.