Pablo Picasso Girl Before a Mirror

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Girl Before a Mirror shows Picasso's young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of his favorite subjects in the early 1930s. Her white-haloed profile, rendered in a smooth lavender pink, appears serene. But it merges with a more roughly painted, frontal view of her face—a crescent, like the moon, yet intensely yellow, like the sun, and "made up" with a gilding of rouge, lipstick, and green eye-shadow. Perhaps the painting suggests both Walter's day-self and her night-self, both her tranquillity and her vitality, but also the transition from an innocent girl to a worldly woman aware of her own sexuality. It is also a complex variant on the traditional Vanity—the image of a woman confronting her mortality in a mirror, which reflects her as a death's head. On the right, the mirror reflection suggests a supernatural x-ray of the girl's soul, her future, her fate. Her face is darkened, her eyes are round and hollow, and her intensely feminine body is twisted and contorted. She seems older and more anxious. The girl reaches out to the reflection, as if trying to unite her different "selves." The diamond-patterned wallpaper recalls the costume of the Harlequin, the comic character from the commedia dell'arte with whom Picasso often identified himself—here a silent witness to the girl's psychic and physical transformations. Of all the women that Picasso painted, I think that the images of Marie-Thérèse Walter are the most extraordinary. She was very young when Picasso met her in the late 1920s—in fact a teenager. And they began a secret love affair, which produced in 1932 an amazing sequence of paintings. It is a curious painting, visually so splendid that we might forget the way in which the anatomy is broken apart and separated. The woman seen on the left could be pregnant. At least there is the implication of fecundity, of someone who is very beautiful, very vital, very sexual. In the mirror a different image appearsthe figure seems sorrowful, expressionistic and even distorted compared to the clarity on the left. The woman on the left is given two faces. The profile view is very youthful, the full face slightly carnival-like, with bright yellow and the red of the cheek. One can produce a lot of narratives, which are all quite plausible, and maybe contradict each other. Great modern pictures combine patterns of signification that keep us entranced in them; and its no surprise that this is one of the most popular pictures in the Museum. Pablo Picasso was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and some of Europe’s greatest impressionist painters. Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror reflects a woman looking not out to her viewers as the Ramos women do, but rather into the mirror, and into herself. Introspective and contemplative, this woman is concerned with her own inner self, her fragmentation, and her mysteries, but not her sexual allure. Her body is not a thing of beauty in the painting, because Picasso wanted to show that perception changes everything. Ramos’s women perceive themselves to be beautiful objects for men to desire and appreciate. Picasso’s girl may or may not be speculating about her allure, but she certainly is looking inward at a fragmented self. What viewers see in the girl and her experience may be quite different from what Picasso saw. Ramos’s woman is a representational artistic expression, whereas Picasso’s girl is an abstraction, a woman removed from herself and from the viewers. Early twentieth century society emerged from a century of civil strife, developing social responsibility and a clear demarcation between the haves and the have-nots; and it still embraced sexual repression. Freud would have everyone believe that the subconscious is the critical part of human motivation and directs humankind in ways that is not understandable. Yet, the subconscious stores the repressed thoughts and desires, creating great tensions on men and women who want to passionately express themselves, but are held back. This tension...
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