Friday, April 2, 2010

Decoding Picasso

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse as Female Torero June 20, 1934 (sheet: 17 5/8 x 13 3/8"), from the Vollard Suite. 
Click on the photo to enlarge it. If you want even more detail, MoMA’s website has a good reproduction.

The new print show at MoMA, Picasso: Themes and Variations (until September 30th), was curated by Deborah Wye, a friend from my undergraduate days at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I spent a lot of time trying to decipher Picasso’s imagery, and I thought it might be interesting to illustrate what I came up with by outlining the images in photoshop.
I found it useful, in my detective work, to study several versions of the same subject in order to get a general idea of the way Picasso treated it. So, for example, I learned from Picasso’s etching Marie-Thérèse as Female Torero that he will intertwine the horse (outlined in red), bull (in blue) and torero (pink). See below:

Marie-Thérèse is lying splayed out on her back with and arm and leg around the bull’s neck. One hand is held above her voluptuous exposed breasts with her fingers resting in a mortal wound. There is also what appears to be a banderilla, a decorated harpoon, stuck behind her right shoulder just under her hombrera, or matador’s epaulet. She is either dying or, knowing Picasso, in post-coital repose -- or most likely, both. The bull doesn’t seem to mind it either; at least he’s not in a ferocious rage the way Picasso often depicts him. What we have here is an erotic fantasy of Marie-Thérèse sprawled out naked and sandwiched between a horse and a bull.
Marie-Thérèse as Female Torero was relatively easy to decipher, but trying to crack his etching, Large Bullfight, September 8, 1934, is another matter. Picasso was influenced by Surrealist automatic writing in this work, so it’s wild and chaotic even for him. But Picasso’s lines are never arbitrary -- everything has a basis in representation and is there for a reason. I think I have most of it figured out, but I keep discovering new things all the time -- even as I write this.

Pablo Picasso, Large Bullfight, September 8, 1934 (etching, sheet: 22 3/16 x 30 1/4")
Click on the photo to enlarge it. If you want even more detail, the MoMA website has a 1.9 MB reproduction.

The bullfight arena (plaza de toros) (outlined in red) forms an armature for the composition. Dozens of people (in blue) fill the arena, every one different: both men and women, each with different expressions, gestures and clothing. The bull (brown), and the horse (green). The horse is rearing up on his hind legs and is draped with a peto - a mattress-like protective padding. (I found it necessary to teach myself a bit about bullfighting.) Significantly, a lance thrusts diagonally from the top of the female head (Marie-Thérèse?), past the horse, and into the bull.

The next photo outlines imagery that’s more difficult to see. The torero (outlined in red) is lying on her back on the bull (like Marie-Thérèse as Female Torero), one leg thrown over the side. A possible other leg (outlined in red dashes) is pretty twisted (appropriate for a violent bullfight), and hard to make out, but its placement is such that it could conceivably be a pair with the other leg.

Even harder to decipher (dark blue), on the lower right side, are two comical flying figures holding on to, and being dragged by, a rope (perhaps tied to the bull). They might be charlotadas, clown bullfighters, usually midgets (in case you’re not already offended enough by the violence). Also dark blue, at the top, is a strange boat with a person in it, some umbrellas and a large ball of something. I have no idea what that could be about.

The rest is conjecture on my part. In addition to the other possible leg (pink) mentioned above, there are two legs and a possible torso of a matador (on the left side, also in pink) with one arm growing out of the top and another arm to the right of it, possibly holding a banner. Between the two arms, in blue, might be the head and torso of the matador, or it might be a voyeur peering in at the exposed female torero.
On the other side of the print, in green, might be a picador holding on to the lance from under the horse’s head and neck. It’s difficult to distinguish between the top of the picador’s head and the horse’s open mouth -- maybe that’s the point. And really stretching it (one starts to imagine things after a bit) is a bizarre, ghost-like figure (also in light blue) toward the right, center. It’s virtually an hallucination, if it’s there at all.
I remember Clement Greenberg wrote something to the effect that all a critic can authentically ever do is point out things about the work that may have been overlooked. So that’s what I did here.


BillAbq said...

Hi, Charles:
Enjoyed your take on the Picasso prints now being exhibited at MoMA. I regret I'm not there to see the show myself.
Your idea of outlining major shapes in different colors not only paired well with your textual analysis but ended up being unique art works by themselves.
As you're no doubt aware, Picasso had a profound appreciation for ancient art and was said to have commented upon exiting the Lascaux Caves that "It's all here; we've invented nothing new". His analysis has been borne out a number of times, the most recent being the use of perspective by artists who painted a group of animals on cave walls 33,000 years ago. (Move over Paulo Uccello.)
One of the oldest forms of ancient art are "meanders", dense, successive layers of jottings, lines and symbols. Picasso's etching "The Large Bullfight", 1934, demonstrates an affinity to the ancient meanders. The "ghost" images that puzzled you may in fact be "artifacts" from previous states which Picasso included in the final state. Perhaps a look at the earlier states might help answer the question.
Always enjoy your blog; keep up the good work.

BillAbq said...

Hi, Again: 4-22-10
At your suggestion during our recent phone call, I enlarged the "Large Bullfight" print from 1934, and wanted to mention several other things I noticed or thought of since we spoke.
To the left, is an upside down head of a woman, which I hadn't noticed initially and which you hadn't commented on either, but is symbolically important. I was also intrigued by the rearing horse on the right whose rear hooves seemed to be, curiously, on "rollerblades".
The print's theme relates to the old Greco/European mythological subject of "Europa and the Bull", with the Bull already impaled and Picasso's lover of the moment in a state of panic because of it. Since the print was created in 1934, the image is an allusion to the ominous events percolating in the Europe of that time. The Bull has been seriously wounded, Europa screams, the horse rears in alarm, the upside down head represents a world seemingly being turned on its head. And the worst was yet to come.

Charles Kessler said...

A few people mentioned (via email -- I don't understand the reluctance to comment) the Rape of Europa as a reference, but tying it to Europe of that time is a good insight. It certainly would be typical of Picasso to be multi-layered like that.