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Picasso and Ancient Greek Vases

In his quest for a modern aesthetic, the 20th-century artist Pablo Picasso looked to the art of the ancient Mediterranean.

Though he never traveled to Greece, he studied Greek antiquities at the Louvre, including Cycladic sculptures and Greek vases painted in the black-figure technique. Picasso was also a frequent visitor to France’s Mediterranean coast, where he spent time in Antibes and Ménerbes, cities that were founded as Greek trading posts in the 5th century B.C. and where Roman ruins, including two aqueducts, still remained. Picasso himself noted, “Whenever I arrive in Antibes . . . antiquity takes hold of me again.” Mythological characters such as fauns, satyrs, and centaurs appeared in works throughout his career. For Picasso, there was a fruitful relationship between the Classical world and his own era. The playfulness and exuberance displayed by satyrs and fauns became poignant symbols in Picasso’s personal iconography.

In antiquity, the faun was associated with Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and flocks who wandered the countryside playing his panpipe and chasing nymphs. By the Roman era, the frolicking fauns had become conflated with satyrs, from whom they gained goat-like features such as horns and a tail. Satyrs were half-man, half-goat creatures that represented the animal side of human nature. They were said to be lustful and violent, which often resulted in unbridled and base behavior driven by their insatiable appetites for food, sex, and wine. Thus satyrs became a popular subject for ceramic vessels used for serving wine at Greek banquets. The nearby case includes five vessels that feature satyrs engaged in various shenanigans. These images would have entertained banquet guests as they noticed the mischievous details on their wine cups.