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20 Mar
Tue / 2012

Lizards, Cats & Owls

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Andria Derstine reflects on her residency . . . 

Being a Brown Foundation Fellow at the Dora Maar House is a magnificent experience, both professionally and personally. My project involves research and writing on 24 paintings and drawings given to the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) by the mid-20th-century art collectors Enid and Joseph Bissett, including multiple works by Dubuffet, Matisse, Modigliani, Miró, and Chagall, among others. While I expected this month to be a time of intense work and personal renewal, I didn’t realize how much I would be taken by the—to me—palpable presence and lasting influence of Dora Maar, for whom Picasso bought the house following their break-up and the start of his relationship with Françoise Gilot. I am greatly enjoying perusing the many books here about these three artists, especially as one of the Bissett works about which I am writing is Picasso’s painting Chair and Owl, of early 1947. I had long known, from Gilot’s reminiscences about the autumn of 1946, which she and Picasso spent in Antibes and Golfe-Juan, that the owl in the AMAM painting is the one that photographer Michel Sima found, wounded, at the museum in Antibes, and that Picasso nursed back to health and brought to Paris. What I didn’t realize until I started reading more about Dora Maar and her house—being now on the spot—is that Picasso and Gilot spent July 1946 here, just before heading to the Côte d’Azur. Gilot recounts that Picasso was fascinated by the large owls in Ménerbes that would swoop down at night to catch (and eat) the prowling cats, who themselves had been feeding on lizards. Since the owl is a symbol of the Roman goddess Minerva, for whom Ménerbes may be named, and is also associated with Antibes, which was founded as a Greek colony and thus linked to Athena (the Greek equivalent of Minerva), it seems only appropriate that the bird should link, via Picasso’s life and art, these two cities as well. But while cats and lizards have been frequent visitors here, I have yet to see an owl.

Thank you to the many colleagues who helped me to receive and partake of this fellowship, and to Nancy Negley, Gwen Strauss and Katherine Howe for supporting this wonderful and productive time.

---Andria Derstine, Curator of Collections and Curator of European & American Art, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio, USA



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