Picasso and the Women (and a few mirrors in between) (Part I)


It’s quite amazing that a relatively short visit to just one fairly small, museum (Courtauld Gallery) has already triggered so many postings in this blog! In some way this posting could also be seen as connected to this museum, as it was triggered by the painting below, by young Pablo Picasso. The painting itself it doesn’t have any mirrors (unless we hypothesise that the framed thing on the background is a mirror), but it lead to a whole range of explorations, and eventually to this multi-part saga about Picasso’s mirrors.

What has stricken me is a complete non-Picasso look&feel of this work, to the extent that I decided to check if it was really his one. When I found a copy of the book about Picasso in the Ludion set I just wrote recently about, I was happy to find it there, too, and I also learned that it’s one of the earlier works of the master, made in the same a realistic style similar to his Ciencia y Caridad; it’s called it Yellow Irises (1901).

More detailed exploration of the canvas has shown that it’s already more than ‘just realism’, as it includes much more expressive work with a brushstroke:

But to be honest, it is still not too far away, and I got interested in the question of when and how Picasso has developed his own ‘modern’ style, after such a realistic start.  And it is then that I decided that the time for the story about Picasso’s mirrors has come.

When possible, I tried to record my initial ideas about someone’s ‘art mirrors’ before I venture into any exploration – or in another words, try to record the Before before I arrive to the After.  With Picasso it was relatively easy (see also the picture I have started this posting with) – I didn’t have any particular Before.

I knew a lot of works by this famous Spanish painter, as they form an unavoidable part of the modern culture, but I didn’t know much about any specific details, besides very vague memories about his Blue and Rose periods, his Cubism and few similar factoids. I didn’t remember any specific ‘mirrors’.

I do know by a bit more about his life, and his art, and about more or less agreed periodisation (here it is, by the way):


But all that didn’t easy; I have to admit that this story was rewritten several times (or more precisely, arranged and rearranged many times, in my efforts to cope with the vast amount of materials).

The issue with Picasso is that there is always too much of it; there are so many images to arrange and rearrange that any story about them, about him,  inevitably gets long, and complex, and twisted (and boring), but then fun again, and then it still goes on, and one etc, etc.

Picasso has been a sort of a(rt)-bomb of modern art that filled the art world with so many of so very diverse works that this world has eventually been exploded from within (and in many respects continues to do so up until today).  During nearly a century-long life (Picasso lived 91 years) he has created more than 16,000 art works. The famous ultimate catalogue of his works, so called Catalogue Zervos, consists of 33 (!) large volumes. Even if I would have one (which is not very likely, the new edition costs around $US 20,000), just a simple thumbing through all these 33 volumes in the hope to find all the Picasso’s ‘mirrors’ could take a few days (and the result might be not much different from the notorious collection of underpants, with equally evasive chance of ‘profit’).

Ok, I don’t have this catalogue to hand. What I do is a large amount of online resources about the artist, including a very rich one I found when preparing this posting (including one very interesting website, PicassoLive.ru, which is available only in Russian, to my knowledge).  I have also admit that this story was written and rewritten several times, and its flow of images was  arranged and rearranged many times. The reason is that there are so many artworks made by Picasso that any story about them inevitable gets very long, and complex, and twisted, and boring, and then becoming fun again, and then it still goes on, and on etc, etc. Picasso has been a sort of a(rt)-bomb of modern art; he filled the art world with so many and so very diverse works that it has eventually exploded this world from within (and in many respects continues to do so up until today).

During nearly a century-long life (Picasso lived 91 years) he has created more than 16,000 art works. The famous ultimate catalogue of his works, so called Catalogue Zervos, consists of 33 (!) large volumes. Even if I would have one (which is not very likely, the new edition costs around $US 20,000), just a simple thumbing through these 33 volumes in the hope to find all the Picasso’s ‘mirrors’ could take a few days (and the result might be not much different from the notorious collection of underpants, and with equally slime chance of any ‘profit’).

I had to come with a more simple yet still meaningful framework to deal with this colossal volumes; I decided to describe the Picasso’s mirrors in relation to the women whom he lived with. This doesn’t replace a more traditional periodization of his art, but I feel that it can add a certain interpretative value when thinking about his ‘art mirrors’.

This progression of Women-Mirrors has one pre-(hi)story, namely the mirror (or may be ‘mirror’ ) I have described in my earlier posting, so I don’t describe it here, and instead start with his first woman.  The stories about Picasso’s women usually start with his mistresses and/or wives; I would actually start from Picasso’s mother, María Picasso y López:

As often happen with the future geniuses, even the birth Pablo was already legendary (or rather, the legend was born, perhaps in response to some events that could happen in reality). He was the first child of a young couple, and the delivery was very difficult – to the extent that he was stillborn, showing no signs of life. His uncle reportedly decided to put the child’s body out of the bedroom, but while carrying the baby accidentally blew a puff of smoke in the face of the infant. Young Pablo yelled, making clear that he is going to spend some time on Earth.

The mother was madly happy and till the rest of her life considered Pablo as a gift sent by God – it’s in gratitude for this miracle the boy was given his full name, that consists of the names of all appropriate saints:  the full version is Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuseno Maria de los Remedios Crispi Crispignano de la Santisima Trinidad Martir Patricio Ruiz y Picasso.

Usually historians write a lot about the impact of the father on the development of the future artist – he was a teacher of drawing, and gave Pablo the first lessons, and then encouraged him to study further (that’s the drawing of his father by Picasso, made in 1896, when he was only 15):

But we (the wannabe psychoanalysts, that is) know all too well who really influences the development of boys in a family. According to the information we have, the mother’s love to her son was of a cosmic scale – and apparently the feeling was very mutual (not to mention the fact that Picasso in his youth looked like a clone copy of his mother).

One of the earliest of his works is a portrait of his mother (painted in 1896,when he was just 15, and yet signed as Ruiz y Picasso – he will start signing his works as ‘Picasso’ much later, when he will move to Paris).

To my knowledge, there is no portrait of his mother with a mirror (which is itself an interesting – and symbolic – fact). But I found a work that is somehow connected to this theme, of Mother-and-Child, and the one that also foresees many works about this topic in the future:

It’s called Mère et enfant avec des fleurs (Mother with baby and flowers) (1901)

But technically speaking, it’s not the first mirror by Picasso – the very first one that I found so far is this painting, created circa 1900:

Sometimes it is named Woman in front of a mirror, but its official name in the catalogues En el camerino (In the dressing room).

By this time has already managed to go to Madrid, where he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts, and leave it, less than six months after the start of the studies, when he realised that there is nothing there for him to learn.

In Madrid he spent more time copying the old masters (his favorites are Velázquez, El Greco and Goya) than attending the classes.

Copy of a Portrait of Philippe IV, by Diego Velazquez, c.1653 (1898)

Portrait of an Unknown Man (in the style of El Greco) (1899)

Soon after he would go to Barcelona where he joins the circles of various “new artists”. Stylistically he parts with realism and experiments, often very passionately and uncritically, with all the new trends he is encountering, from impressionism to expressionism, to fauvism, and to many other -isms (he will start inventing his own a bit later). It is also experiments with new lifestyle, very bohemian, if to put it mildly.

Rendez-vous (1900)

Jeanne (1901)

The portrait above is called Jeanne, but we don’t know who is actually depicted here. The women of this period remain, for the most part, anonymous to us (and I can bet for young Picasso himself too, in many cases).  One of those ‘anonymous models’ below is a bit more interesting than the others, because we also see a mirror:

Or may be two mirrors, above the bedhead – but it could be also just a painting on a wall. Or may be we even see three mirrors, if we consider the rectangle near the window as a wardrobe mirror. The painting is called La chambre bleue, or The blue room (1901) (sometimes also called Le tub).

It’s true that many of these women could be just one-night muses for Picasso and his new art-friends; but sometimes the relationshiops became dramatic, and even tragic. Unable to cope with one of such romans, his close friend at that time, Carlos Casagemas, committed suicide. The death has shocked Picasso, he has fallen into a depression (and it is this state that gave the ‘color’ to his first art period, the sad and melancholic blue often associated with this tragic existential experience.

Picasso created a few paintings related, in one way of another, to the death of this friend, but I will show only one, so called Évocation (or the Funerals of Casagemas) (1901):

Notice a group of semi-naked women floating in the heaven. They are a Collective Woman of Picasso (and thus I skilled the specific name in my chart above).

I found only one small sketch of this period clearly depicting a women with the mirror:

Despite all these sad events (or perhaps because of them) the Blue Period of Picasso is one of the most beautiful in his entire oeuvre; he created dozens of art works that we now consider the absolute masterpiece (and that had been completely ignored by his contemporaries). Even if Picasso would create only these works and nothing else, we would still treat him now as a great master; he created a hundred times more.

Unfortunately for me, but despite the enchanting beauty of all these blue works, I have found no single one with a mirror (except those ‘potential mirrors’ in the Blue Room). All in all, here are the mirrors of this period:

After three not very successful earlier attempts, Picasso finally moved to Paris in 1904.  He managed to find some buyers of his work, and also his first Big Love, Fernande Olivier:

Bright, red haired, beautiful woman, almost a head taller than Picasso (although the latter wasn’t so hard to achieve, Picasso was very short, and as a young man suffered terribly from this fact), Fernanda was a model for many artists in Paris (for example, there are several portraits of her made by Kees van Dongen:

Picasso will also paint many portraits of Fernande – in fact, her portrait marks the beginning of new “color” in his art, the period often called Rose (sometimes Orange) one:

Nu assis (1905)

They lived together for almost six years, from 1904 to 1910, perhaps the most difficult years of his life: always poor, hungry, and – which was most painful for Picasso – unrecognized. Today we consider many works from this period as the true masterpieces, and some of us are willing to pay tens of millions (!) dollars for the pieces of canvas with a certain amount of paint on them (some are even ready to part with hundreds of millions dollars – few years ago the portrait below was sold for $US 104 million, until very recently the highest sum paid for a painting ever and the first painting sold for more than $US 100 million):

But back then the majority (including the majority of critics) considered Picasso’s works as meaningless rubbish. Fortunately, the ‘majority’ doesn’t mean all, and some people, including certain influential patrons, started to notice the talent of the young Spanish artist. One of them was Gertrude Stein, an American writer living in Paris and one of the key trend-setters of its intellectual and artistic life. Picasso painted her portrait in 1905:

But back to my mirrors: Picasso created a few of them during this period, including the two very interesting examples with Fernande:

La toilette (1906)

La toilette (Fernande) (1906)

Both paintings are called La Toilette, both created in 1906, and could be seen, in fact, as the versions of the same story, with some tint of Ancient Greece. In reality there is no story here, what we really see is the same girl (Fernande), depicted in two different poses. It is our mind that forms the ‘story’ here,  Picasso himself was simply experimenting with how to portray people’s (mostly women’s) bodies in various poses.

Here, for instance, is the same body, but without a mirror (though with a goat):

La jeune fille à la chèvre (1906)

We also have a drawing of a naked woman who holds a mirror, though it is left unfinished and we don’t know if the woman would be ‘dressed’ later on:

We know that Picasso had a plan to paint a large work under the name Harem (in some indirect competition with with the harems of Delacroix and Ingres). The plan remained unaccomplished, and we have one one study left (and it does depict a mirror, although a hand-held one,  hold by the girl standing near the wall):

Studies for The Harem (1906)

During these tough years Picasso also created my ‘circus’ paintings, depicting the backstage of the circus artists. The apartment where they lived at that time was very close to one of the Paris circuses, and they were going there almost every week. He had a few paintings of the circus artist already, created in his previous ‘blue period’, including this famous sad harlequin. This time his paintings are if not jovial, then at least more homey, and depict the artists’ family life.

The Harlequin’s Family (1905)

Le Toilette de la Mere, from La Suite des Saltimbanques (1905)

They both depict very similar scenes, though the two mirrors used by the women are different (one is hand-held, and another is a small wall mirror).

There is another work with a mirror from the period, which is usually referred to as Venus and Cupid (or else it risks to be seen an indecent):

Femme se regardant dans un miroir tenu par un enfant {Woman looking into a mirror held by a child} (1905)

“Indecency” aside, I tend to think that what Picasso really painted here is a play of a young mother and her baby (and a mirror); but perhaps I, too, attribute too much of the contemporary realities to the past).

Finally, there is one more painting with a mirror from this period, so called El Peinado (La Coiffure, or Hair-dressing) (1906)

Some of the works I’ve shown are small, A4-size drawings, and some are large paintings, which does impact the perception, of course; this one, for instance, is a fairly large work:

and the small hand-held mirror it depicts happens to be rather big, bigger than it would be in real life.   Picasso didn’t make any efforts to depict any reflection in this mirror, similar to the majority of his mirrors it’s just a sign of mirror:

It could be seen as if the mirror is hold by two women together – which is a rather awkward position, anyone who ever tried to held a mirror that another person look at would remember how difficult it is.

There are only very few paintings that use the same trick. One is very old work by Hans von Aachen, his Laughing couple with a mirror (1596) -Notice that the reflection is completely incorrect, in terms of optics:

Another is Titian’s Donna con gli specchi

But I have to admit that these are very stretched comparisons.

The climax work of this time is the famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a huge, 2.5 by 2.5 meters canvas.

I’d love to write more about this work, but perhaps not this time, also because it doesn’t have any mirrors (a great pity, really); the article in wikipedia does cover the basic facts about the painting.

There have been a few attempts to ‘correct’ the lack of mirror in this beautiful work – one is by some W.J. Solha, in his ‘Real Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (2006):

and another one by Herman Braun-Vega from Peru, in his cascade of re-appropriations:

If we stay on the reality side, here are all the mirrors of this period I found so far:

Quite a lot, I should say, and some are also very interesting. Worth noticing that until now mirrors stay firmly on the female side.

The Brothel of Avignon was a climax, but also a pivot; it manifested a shift to a very different style of Picasso, which critics usually refer as the Cubist period.  Some of critics also identify an intermediary style, often labelled as the African period, with its characteristic primitive, almost archaic shapes:

L’Amitié (1908)

which gradually evolved into a full motley of the Picasso’s classical cubist works:

Woman Resting on Her Elbow (Madonna) (1909)

The only trouble (for me) is that there are no mirrors in this period . Of course, and since the work above is often referred as the Madonna, I am eager to interpret the round object in the lower left corner as a “mirror” (= a well-known symbol of purity and innocence of the Virgin Mary). But something tells me that it is bit too far-fetched an interpretation.

I knew one work by Picasso of that period that gave me some hope, his Woman with a Mandolin (1909):

Both the reflection of red hair in a certain surface in the background and the feet of the Cheval Glass point to the ‘mirror direction’. And yet again, I won’t insist, this could well be ‘just a shape on a background’.

Already while working on this posting (i.e., this morning), I finally found one true mirror of the period, in the Femme au Mirior of 1909:

Which in turn gives me a chance to compile at least some mirror summary of that time:

With time the works of Picasso were becoming avant-gardier and avant-gardier, or in other words more and more abstract:

But as with any conceptual, non-representational art, there is no space for mirrors in them. Or may be there are there, but there is no chance to identify them as such (and what’s the difference, then?)

If I would really want to find something mirror-like, certain paintings do provide this chance – for instance, this unfinished rectangle held by the ‘harlequin’ could well be a mirror (we have seen this combination, of mirrors and harlequins before):

Harlequin (1915)

According to my initial plan, here I wanted to move to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife (and also move to the second part of this posting). But then I discovered, a bit suddenly for myself, that for almost four years, from 1912 till to her very early death in 1915, Picasso lived with another woman, called Marcelle Humbert:

She was better known as Eva Goel, and before Picasso lived with another artist, Louis Marcoussis. She was a complete opposite to Fernande, the latter always being a center of attention, while Eva was shy and hardly noticeable in a company. Yet she was very devoted to Picasso, and in many way helped Picasso to organize his life, including his always complicated financial relationships with art dealers and galleries. Apparently it was a beatiful love, which has ended so tragically: Eva died when she was only 30 years old.

According to my ad hoc theory (Where is Love, There Are Mirrors), we should see a lot of them during these years. Alas, there are none (or at least I didn’t find any, yet. There even are not so many known portraits of Eva by Picasso in general; below is one of a very few:

Femme en chemise assise dans un fauteuil (Eva) (1913)

Part II.


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