The Phallic Club: The Iconography and Symbology of Pablo Picasso's Ace *

By Hardin, Michael | Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

The Phallic Club: The Iconography and Symbology of Pablo Picasso's Ace *


Hardin, Michael, Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art


In his long and varied career, Pablo Picasso experimented with numerous media and motifs, some of which spanned his entire oeuvre, others which appeared for only a few years. One motif, which is limited to the second decade of the twentieth century, is the ace of clubs. It first appeared in Picasso's work in 1911, at the end of his analytic cubist phase, thrived during collage, and last appeared in 1920, during the synthetic cubist period. The greatest number of works containing the ace of clubs was produced in the years 1913 and 1914. Although Georges Braque and Juan Gris also painted the ace of clubs in their cafe still-lifes, Picasso's is much more prominent because it rarely appears with other cards, and only once did the artist include cards without the ace of clubs being present. Given Picasso's fondness for layering his text with meaning and references, we should not be surprised to find that even something so innocuous as a particular playing card may have a special importance. Examining the iconographic and symbolic elements of the works that include the ace of clubs and Picasso's personal relationships at the time shows that this card, for Picasso, was phallic.

During the years of cubism and collage, Picasso was working with Braque in the formation of these styles and was maintaining close relationships with some of the literary avant-garde, including the poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. Although Picasso had reached a level of success that would have allowed him to leave the surroundings of this group, he stayed, dividing his time among the cafes, Fernande Oliver, Eva Gouel (Marcelle Humbert), and his studio. This period was also one wrought with troubles: his relationship with Fernande was deteriorating as was her health, his father died, Eva experienced a span of poor health, the First Balkan War erupted, and Braque, Apollinaire, and other friends were drafted into World War I.

Although still-lifes had been an important part of art for hundreds of years, they generally depicted flowers, fruits, and/or dead game. As Modernist innovators, Picasso and Braque changed the setting of the still life from the home to the cafe and the tavern; thus, the content of the still-life changed to include musical instruments, pipes and tobacco, bottles and glasses, cards, and dice. As such, the content of Picasso's still-lifes is almost identical to that of the Dutch and Flemish tavern scenes of the seventeenth century, representing a blending of genres. But, while the objects in these still-lifes were not new, the meaning of the cards changed from that in Dutch and Flemish tavern scenes. Although there is little in Lucas van Leyden's The Cardplayers (c.1517) to suggest that the artist was making a moral statement, shortly thereafter, Dutch and Flemish masters began more frequently to include cards in tavern scenes to suggest dissolution and debauchery. (1) In 1536, Frans Pourbus, for example, painted The Prodigal Son, which contained cards on the table as warning against the dissolute life. In the seventeenth century, Jan Steen produced a number of paintings--The Dissolute Household (c.1661-1663), The Dupe (c. 1672-1675), Wine Is a Mocker (c.1671-1674), and two versions of Card Players (c. 1660-1661 and 1661-1663); all present the same moral, and all associate playing cards with a dissolute life. In his Card Players, for example, seduction and treachery go hand in hand. Gestures and glances establish the primary trick, perpetuated on the victim by a young lady who holds all the aces. (2) Clearly, playing cards are representative of an individual's downfall, a vice to be avoided, and frequently the moral downfall is not just gambling, but it also involves sexual promiscuity.

Reading the still-lifes by the Cubists, two schools of thought have emerged. John Golding, committed to the philosophy of Cubism, considered it to be purely formal. (3) And Edward Fry stated that one of the assumptions about Cubism is that it "has, supposedly, no iconography, only motifs. …

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