Appearance and Disappearance

Picasso's 'Head of a Woman' 1926
The conceit of the 'imaginary journey' suggests something of the engagement a work of art demands from its viewers. Yet engagement with a work of art involves physical as well as imaginative journeys. This much is made clear if we consider two photographs of Pablo Picasso's 'Head of a Woman' of 1926. The first view was taken at a distance of over twelve feet and the second at a distance of approximately three feet. Yet the short physical journey between these points radically transforms one's experience of the object.

The painting measures 5 x 4 inches and so of course when seen from a distance is discernible only as a representation of a human head. However, contrary to normal experience, one's initial identification of the work is not confirmed simply by drawing closer to it. It is necessary to approach the work in order to clarify one's first impressions, in order that certain markings resolve themselves into discrete areas of hatching for example, yet to reach this point of optical resolution is also to reach a point of conceptual confusion. For as the work is brought into focus, so a number of incompatibilities register themselves. One discerns that various details are presented in such a way as to depart from the conventional schema for the depiction of the human face. Thus the frontal presentation of features is undermined by the inclusion of a profile view of the left eye. Even a viewer well versed in the conventions of cubism will confront difficulties in offering an account of the work. To describe the image 'as a head shown in simultaneous profile and full face' seems to me somewhat hasty, not least because this ignores the fact that the 'profile' at the right possesses a frontally presented eye [1]. Drawing attention to this fact is simply a means of noting that the work resists easy categorisation and description: I have preferred to begin by dwelling on the difficulties presented by Picasso's work.

But why begin here at all? One response to this eminently sensible question would be that art historians tend to use the term 'approach' metaphorically. This usage sometimes still betrays a belief that physical proximity to an object is somehow a secure basis for the acquisition of knowledge of the object. I hope I have already shown that Picasso's 'Head of a Woman' is organised so as to undermine this belief. In the remainder of this brief essay I would like to suggest something of what was involved in Picasso's choice.

Most accounts of Picasso's work acknowledge a significant shift in the artist's style around 1924 and most link this shift to the advent of Surrealism [2]. There is no reason to contest this linkage; rather the difficulties lie in defining the project of Surrealism and in establishing how this project conditioned Picasso's work. However they treat these difficulties most commentators agree that Picasso's involvement with the circle of writers around André Breton led to the abandoning of the practice the artist had developed in the immediate postwar period. In the period after 1918 Picasso had alternated styles, employing both his prewar cubism and a form of classicism responsive to Jean Cocteau's 'call to order'. Between 1918 and 1924 these styles remained autonomous, but from 1924 onwards Picasso permitted them to contaminate each other. To use a verb such as 'contaminate' might seem a little strange, yet all I wish to suggest is that the relationship between Picasso's styles was not straightforward and that the work produced after 1924 should not be taken as a happy reconciliation of earlier modes. Rather let us say that at on the 20th March 1926, when Picasso produced the image which concerns us, he had at his disposal a set of resources which he chose to combine in a quite specific manner. A cursory examination of related works may clarify this point.

A small oil produced towards the end of 1924 (now in the collection of Marina Picasso) offers an example of Picasso's classicism whilst also presenting its negative. The left of the canvas has been produced in the traditional manner whilst the right has been covered with black paint and this paint scored through to complete the image. Thus the work inverts a traditional technique and in so doing inverts a European convention of representation. This convention is that a series of marks on a surface indicates a figure against a ground and that the limits of this figure correspond to the physical limits of a body in space. Now, this convention had already been explored in Picasso's prewar cubism but this had been done through abandoning European traditions in favour of novel modes of depiction: this is clearly not the case for the work of 1924, which is both within and without the European tradition. In the work of 1924 a convention of representation is tested against itself. And I would like to suggest that Picasso pursued this testing over the course of the next few years and that the work of 1926 was one culmination of this project.

Consider now a drawing from the second half of 1925. 'Head of a Boy' (owned by the artist's heirs) also employs the vertical division used in the work of 1924, but complicates the earlier image with a suggestion that the 'head' is in fact two heads. Such an interpretation is certainly supported by the treatment of the lower part of the image, where it is easy to read the representation of two necks. If this interpretation of two figures is more difficult to sustain for the upper part of the image this may also be taken as a complication of the earlier work. The work of 1924 juxtaposed two modes of representation which nevertheless remained coherent in their own terms, as they both employed conventional schema for the representation of the human face. However, the work of 1925 no longer obeys the conventions for the relative disposition of eyes, nose and so forth. The organisation of the image is not to be resolved through any appeal to human physiognomy. We have already seen that this is also the case for the 'Head of a Woman' of 1926.

Let me offer one further example: a work of the winter of 1925-26, 'Light and Semi-Darkness of a Face' (Musée Picasso, Paris). This small drawing may appear at first glance less complex than the image of 1925 for it is without the intricate patterning of the earlier work. Yet it is this patterning which permits the work of 1925 to be read as a surface whereas the hatching used in the later drawing suggests the modelling of a form in space. However this suggestion of a physical form is undermined by the delineation of features which once again offers an impossible physiognomy.

At this point a summary is required. Taken together the three examples I have discussed represent the testing of a whole range of conventions, conventions of technique, of delineation, of modelling. What is significant, for our purposes, is that all of these conventions are exploited in the work in the Sainsbury Collection but none predominates to provide a secure basis for the interpretation of the image. Thus the work employs an implicit vertical division but this cannot be used to divide a frontal presentation from a profile view. Nor can the vertical division be taken as a basis for the distribution of light and shade, for whilst a light source to the left of the image is implied the wash of white at the right of the image ensures a more even distribution of light. Equally the hatching on the 'profile' at the right is balanced by a denser hatching of the hair at the left. The work cannot be anchored as presentation of human features, as was the case for the painting of 1924. But nor is it primarily a patterned surface, as was the case for the study of 1925. This is because the work of 1926 presents a set of emphatic contrasts in the application of paint: there are large areas of black and white blocked in, but also an area of lighter wash, there are variations in the hatching, and also in the use of line. The work thus exploits a distribution of physiognomic features, a distribution of techniques as well as a distribution of light and shade. And as a consequence the work cannot be reduced to one category of visual experience.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. However, as I have already suggested, this difficulty seems central to the image. One piece of evidence in support of this contention is a poem entitled 'Pablo Picasso' composed in 1926 by a member of the Surrealist group, Paul Eluard. A literal as opposed to literary translation of the poem might run as follows:

The weapons of sleep have ploughed in the night
The marvellous furrows which separate our heads.
Through a diamond, all medals are counterfeit,
Beneath the blindingly bright sky, the earth is invisible.

The face of the heart is drained of colour
And the sun seeks us and the snow is blind.
If we abandon it, the horizon takes wing
And in the distance our sight banishes error.


Eluard is clearly responding to works such as those discussed in the present text. In the poem these representations of the human face are implicitly set against the images of power engraved on medals and coins. Such images imply a recognition of authority, as when one renders unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's. Yet this recognition is surely frustrated in Picasso's work. Instead, Eluard concludes his poem where we began by noting how the position of the viewer conditions the meaning of the work.

I believe that this poem does suggest something of the relationship between Picasso's work and Surrealism. It suggests that the Surrealist project provided a space between the atrophying modes of cubism and classicism precisely because of its engagement with subjective experience. For this subjective experience is perhaps minimised in the fiction of classical representation, in which pictorial order is simply a reflection of the disposition of bodies in space. And if cubism seemed to offer an alternative to this model it was itself becoming absorbed into the practice of abstraction, a practice which would become codified as Modernist for its exclusive concentration on the medium of painting. Such a concentration would also exclude significant aspects of subjective experience. Picasso's work offers a resistance to the alternatives of cubism and classicism, by exploiting both. As a consequence the painting cannot be secured either as a reflection of the world or as an examination of material processes: traversing the space between these positions is the imaginative journey the work proposes.

Simon Dell | May 2003