Thursday, April 10, 2014

Picasso's Hidden Pictures

I'm pretty sure this was one of the analyzed photos.
Picasso is on the right.
When I started this blog over a year ago, Pablo Picasso was not someone I thought I’d find myself writing about.  I try to bring attention to things that are forgotten or little-known, and Picasso doesn't even come close to fitting that description.  I can’t think of a 20th century artist who is written about or discussed more than him (Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol may come close, but Picasso’s got them beat by a long shot). Google “Picasso” and you’ll get millions of hits.   Literature (both books and magazines) have seemingly covered all aspects of Picasso’s life and art, and these explorations can get incredibly specific at times.  For example, I was looking through an old Art in America a number of years ago and found a very curious article about photos that had been taken of Picasso and some of his friends in Paris.  The author had looked at the series of pictures and figured out exactly where each picture had been taken as well as the exact timing of each one (I remember there were in-depth explorations of the angles of the shadows, which had helped determine time of day).  It was fascinating in a way, but also interesting because it was such an in-depth exploration of something so seemingly minor.  The article didn’t offer any insight into Picasso’s artwork, but really highlighted the cult of personality that still surrounds Picasso today.  Every aspect of his life is studied with almost scientific precision.

 [As a complete side note that highlights Picasso’s impact, I just forgot to capitalize his name a second ago and Word corrected it for me.  Even computers know Picasso is important!]

So why Picasso this week?  Is Cultural Ghosts turning into the Superstar Artist Worship Site?  Hardly.  I’ve chosen him (specifically, one painting of his) to discuss this week because there’s an aspect of Picasso’s work that seems to be marginalized (or ignored completely) by art historians.  Picasso hid pictures in his paintings, and I have the evidence to prove it!
Before I get to that, Introducing a painting by Salvador Dali might help establish my point here.   Look at this painting and ask yourself what you see:

 The painting is called Apparition of Face and Vase on a Beach, and was painted in 1938.  You probably see a landscape, but you most likely see other things as well.  A face?  A bowl of fruit?  A dog?  They’re all there, and Dali really doesn’t work too hard at hiding them.  He wants you to see something besides the landscape.  There are multiple interpretations and multiple hidden images and everyone who looks at the painting may focus on different areas.  Dali was extremely influenced by psychoanalysis, and the painting is sort of a Rorschach test.  What you see or focus on says something about you.  Surrealist paintings often create a sense of mystery or at least the sense that there’s something else there, just under the surface.  Creating paintings that could be two (or three, or four) things all at the same time was a common theme for Dali.  It was kind of his thing, as evidence by these other Dali paintings that do the same thing as Apparition:

Context is what I’m getting at here.  Picasso and Dali were living in Paris at the same time, and Surrealism and Cubism were happening concurrently.  The two artists certainly knew each other (at least informally) and Dali at one time admired Picasso greatly. There is precedent for surrealists being influenced by cubism (take a look at the Magritte painting on the right), so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that relationship to be a two way street.  Considering that both of these movements existed at the same time in the same place, is it any wonder that Picasso created a painting like this:

The painting is called Mandolin and Guitar and was painted by Picasso in 1924.  It is currently in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.  On the surface it’s a still life featuring two instruments, but do you see something else too? 

Red lines drawn by the author.  Sort of creepy skull-like face provided by Picasso.

It’s a face, right?  I know I’m not the only one seeing this.  Not only is it a face, but it’s a highly detailed face.  The eye on the left even has an eyelid.  I knew of this painting before but saw it again recently and the hidden face jumped out at me almost immediately.  Now I can’t un-see it.  It almost functions better as a portrait than as a still life.  Is this a cubist painting, a surrealist painting, or both?  Picasso is often discussed and revered as an innovator (which he certainly was) but also was open to influences just like everyone else.  Is this painting evidence of that?  I wanted to find out if this aspect of Picasso’s work had been studied by scholars, as well as see if there were any other hidden objects to be found in his work.  What I found out surprised me a little.

Simply put, art historians haven’t discussed it much.  The official description of the painting on the Guggenheim's website (read it here) doesn't mention it, nor could I find something written by an art historian on line that mentioned this aspect of his work.  I did find a few blogs that mentioned it (read one here) but that was about it.  Art historian T.J. Clark, who has written extensively about this painting in depth, seems reluctant to talk about this aspect of the work and actually marginalizes the importance of the face (he chooses to focus more on formal properties of Picasso's work).  Why is this?

Before I go any further, I should state that I merely scratched the surface as I researched information for this topic.  There are literally thousands of articles (perhaps tens of thousands) that have been written about Picasso over the last hundred years or so, and it makes researching him a pretty daunting task.  Even just beginning to try to find information in old books and journals would be a full time job (if anyone thinks the majority of scholarly research on Picasso can be found online, they’re wrong).  Perhaps there is a whole corner of the Internet I missed in my search, and I know there’s probably written material out there, I just haven’t been able to find much.  If any readers know of anything specific, please kindly point me in the right direction.  I will gladly post a correction or update a post.

But, I digress.  Why isn't there any information out there concerning this aspect of Picasso’s work, and why do even scholarly explorations of the painting omit it?  After doing a little digging, it’s seems that Mandolin and Guitar is kind on a one-off.  There aren't many other Picasso paintings that contain hidden images.  So perhaps it’s not seen as an important aspect of his development.  The hidden image thing really didn't go anywhere, so why dwell on it?  I would counter that argument by asking, then, why it’s there in the first place.  If Picasso didn't want it looked at, why did he make the face so obvious.  And if you still aren't convinced of its obvious-ness, have another look:
Hello again.  Did you notice that I have cheekbones and teeth?
But, art historians can be a pretty stubborn lot sometimes.  They can stake whole careers on a theory about someone’s work, and then they will defend that theory.  Bringing in competing ideas can be seen as threatening an entire career of research.  The restoration of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is a great example.  When the frescoes were cleaned 30 years ago, bright, vibrant colors that had been hidden under dirt for centuries were revealed.  Some scholars were shocked.  Historians had spent hundreds of years talking about how Michelangelo didn't know how to use color, and now they were being proven wrong. 

Maybe seeing the face in the painting forces us to reconsider Picasso a little.  Was he the serious innovator who created completely new styles of seeing, or could he be influenced by others?  Is the piece meant to be funny?   Is Picasso trying to out-surreal the surrealists?  Regardless of why Picasso hid the face in the painting, it’s there all the same.  It might not be an important aspect of all of Picasso’s work, but it’s certainly a big part of this one.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of (or seen).

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