Pablo Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe is a series of six sculptures created in the first half of 1914. The sculpture depicts a drinking glass with the front cut away to reveal the liquid inside, and perched on the rim is a sugar cube atop an absinthe spoon. Each is painted differently on an identical bronze form. For the current exhibition Picasso Sculpture (through February 7), they are shown together for the first time since they were cast and painted, offering a unique opportunity for study and comparison.When conservators examine a sculpture, we often begin by asking questions: “What was it before it was a bronze?” or “How did the artist make this?” As part of the curatorial and conservation dialogue about this sculpture, we wanted to understand how Picasso actually made the first Glass of Absinthe, and how it was cast into bronze. The overall sag of the shapes and the pinched quality of the modeling suggest that Picasso used a malleable material such as wax or clay. In contrast, the stiff rectangular shapes at the back suggest thin pieces of cardboard or wood, though they also could have been wax. In an interview with his friend and photographer Brassaï (Conversations with Picasso, University of Chicago Press, 2002), Picasso confirmed: “I modeled it in wax. There are six bronzes of it. I colored each one differently.” Following Picasso’s lead, I hand built a similar wax maquette. Picasso did not mention that he also used a dowel as a central support; however, on the bronze we can see the replication of that stem between the two circular disks and even the round shape of the top surface of the dowel at the bottom of the cut-away glass.
We warmed a block of French casting wax under an infrared heat lamp, until it was workable. The cone shaped base and glass were built up by “pinch building” around a wooden dowel and flat wax shapes were applied at the back. We imitated the actual size by measuring with calipers, but to avoid touching the original with metal tips, we retrofitted the calipers with bamboo skewers. Another bamboo skewer serves to pin the sugar cube to the glass through a hole in the spoon.
The sugar cube was a second wax element and a separate bronze piece in the casting. Rectangular sugar cubes are still available today, sometimes wrapped in paper. There is no suggestion of paper wrapping on the bronze so it is likely that Picasso fabricated the sugar cube shape in wax himself. To create the dent that suggests the dissolution of the sugar when the water is poured over, the artist pinched the wax.
The third piece used to make the final sculpture was the incorporation of a cheap, mass-produced metal absinthe spoon, a radical deviation by Picasso from conventional sculpture practice of the time. The foliate shape is derived from wormwood plant, which is the flavoring in absinthe. The spoon is pierced to allow sugar water to drip into the bitter liqueur and sweeten it. Among the six sculptures, the handle has often been bent to stabilize it on the rim of the glass. The handle of each of the six spoons in the series is different.
How were these three metal elements assembled? Cleverly, the foundry utilized the holes in the absinthe spoon to secure an attachment pin that descends from the sugar cube and fits nicely into a sleeve on the inner rim of the glass.
With this exercise—recreating the wax model for Glass of Absinthe using French casting wax, a wooden dowel, a bamboo skewer, and a modern commercially available absinthe spoon—we were able to understand more about Picasso’s working methods
For our next post we’ll show how a mold was made from our wax model, which was then used to create a polyurethane cast.