Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Blue Kismet

(Portrait by Picasso is described within the text of the blog. Picture clipped from an Internet source, if there are copyright concerns, let me know and it will be taken down immediately. )

"Kismet," niece Shannon declared on her arrival, explaining that she had wanted to see the Picasso show when it was in Seattle but had not been able to get to it, the fact that it was here at the Art Gallery of Ontario seemed like destiny had bought her a ticket. We met there at the gallery in the early afternoon and headed in to see the exhibit. I admit that I don't know much about Picasso, and like a kid that is sure she doesn't like broccoli without tasting it, I was pretty sure Picasso wasn't my cup of tea. However, once in, very early in the show there was a piece entitled, "Woman with One Eye." It's an arresting painting but when seeing the title I was annoyed - the woman clearly has two eyes, one typical, one atypical. I am assuming, by the title, that she saw out of only one of the two eyes. So, I'm also assuming that if Picasso had painted a similar portrait with a woman in a wheelchair it would have been called, "Woman With No Legs." But ... enough of that.

We were all quite taken by the portrait. As we stood and looked at it, we all heard people referring to this painting as 'creepy' or 'disturbing.' We chatted briefly about the effect that this painting was having on many, though not all of course, of those viewing it. From that we ended up discussing what she may have been feeling, or what emotion Picasso was intending to show on her face, a face much, much, more enigmatic, in my opinion, than the Mona Lisa. Shannon thought that her mouth was set with bitterness. I was quite surprised by that because I thought that she was looking out from the portrait with defiance. Her eyes look straight out at the viewer, challenging them to look at her, really look at her.

So we ended up with a lively discussion, looking at her, trying to see her ... really trying to see her. Trying to see how Picasso saw her ... how he tried to paint her. Our discussion caused people to be a little uncomfortable. The placing of humanity into her, a woman with two eyes - one different from the other - and trying to value what she was saying to us seemed important part of interacting with the picture. She sat for the portrait. She clearly knew that she would be seen forever more. She had a shawl. A shawl not pulled over one eye. She had hair. Hair pulled back, exposing her face, her eyes.

Shannon, who stood looking at the picture for a very long time, stopped because she noticed that people were beginning to stare at her and her deep consideration of the portrait. Our interest in her, the woman, as a person rather than the portrait as a picture ran counter to most who whipped by the picture, some not able to engage with her, others creeped out by her. 

In the end we had a terrific time at the exhibit. Shannon and Joe, sharing DNA, are both hearty laughers and we had great chats and lots of giggles. After we left, the "Woman With Two Differing Eyes" was a subject for conversation every now and then. I'm glad we went because art did what art is supposed to do - provoke thought, provoke conversation and, maybe even, provoke revelation.

Note: I have steadfastly resisted looking up the painting on the Internet. We did not buy the audio tour of the show. I have no idea what others think I should think about the picture. I am, however, interested in what YOU think.


Belinda said...

I have never seen the painting before but I too, found it arresting. She is beautiful--and I think that I must succumb to the temptation to find out who she is.

Shan said...

I got a kick out of the 'one-eye' thing too. But when I was looking at the book in the gallery shop I noticed that Picasso's title for this work is actually "La Celestina". I am not sure who added the subtitle "Woman With One Eye", nor am I sure why the exhibit omitted "Celestina" from the placard on the wall. (Unless it was there and I just didn't see it.)

And look at this very interesting excerpt from an article written when the painting went up for sale 30 years ago:

Who was this beautiful, yet repulsively flawed, figure, the one-eyed woman with graying hair and chin hairs who at the same time is pink-cheeked and almost coquettish?

Picasso provided a clue to her identity by writing a name and a Barcelona address--"Carlota Valdivia, Calle Conde Asalto, 12-4"--on the stretcher of the canvas.

But he preferred the painting be called "La Celestina," an infamous name in Spanish literature, the scheming procuress described as a sorceress in Fernando de Roja's 1499 "Comedia de Calisto y Melibea."

"Repulsively flawed" would certainly resonate with the people whose comments I heard in the gallery on Saturday. I found this painting totally engrossing - could hardly look away, in fact. Belinda's word "arresting" is very apt. I was shocked at how few people really looked at it.

If I was going to assign the words "repulsively flawed" to a Picasso, it would be to the one with the woman whose gaping anus is where her face is supposed to be. Now THAT, I don't want to see coming down the street towards me.

CapriUni said...

"Mona Lisa's" beauty is easy: The smooth, unwrinkled beauty of a life of staid and protected privilege ("wrinkled" as in our skin's sags, and also life's complications).

It looks to me like she is lost in thought (as tends to happen when you're sitting for a portrait, and have to keep still for a long time). Based on the way the light is cast in the painting, I'd guess that she's facing a large window.

I wonder what she's seeing out that window, and if she's thinking about what's there, now, or if she's engrossed in a memory evoked.

(I also wonder how Picasso invited her to sit for the portrait, and how she excepted his invitation. What was his relationship to her).

@Shan -- well, you know the art-critic types would argue that the anus-faced woman is not repulsive because it's abstract -- a way that Picasso expressed an idea that just couldn't be rendered by depicting things with literal realism. But they feel free to call this woman "repulsive" because she's too real -- that Picasso was deliberately throwing real life's weakness and mortality in our faces. So the art is not "Transcendent," the way we expect art to be.

... or something.

Or so the "art appreciation" argument might go.

Happy said...

To me, her expression looks like she's humouring him.

Like, "Uh, okay, crazy artist guy. I guess I can sit right here while you use up all your blue paint, but I was about to head to the market, so you'd better not take too long. All the best fish will be gone as it is."

Rosemary said...

I spent quite a while in front of that same portrait. I think she was a very strong and self-confident woman., probably the matriarch in her family. She has one eye that is different and another that contemplates us as we contemplate her . The lady's mouth does not look bitter to me, merely relaxed.

Ashley's Mom said...

The traveling Picasso exhibit was in our area a year ago, and my kids and I loved it, especially that picture.

You may have noticed that Picasso has many paintings and sculptures in which the subject is shown with similar eyes to the blue woman.

We loved it especially because my dear daughter, Ashley, has eyes that are very, very similar. Ashley only has vision in her right eye, and her left eye is small, clouded over, and completely blind.

I see defiance and challenge in the Picasso subject's eyes - the exact thing I see in my Ashley's eyes.

They are both works of art!

Shan said...

'Happy' made me laugh.

The Shorter Bloggess said...

I agree with Rosemary, she looks sure of herself and basically happy too.

Myrrien said...

I am not a fan of Picasso and must admit when I saw the picture at first I didnt like it and found it "repulsive" but after I read your post I went back to look at it in more detail. She isnt ugly at all and I dont see any bitterness in that smile just amusement. Interesting.

Shan said...

Great discussion!

I forgot to say before - Dave, I couldn't agree more with your assessment of defiance: her gaze is very challenging.

I must say, I'm so baffled by people seeing "amusement" and "happy" and "relaxed"?! Good God!

Okay, question. Pretend her left eye is just a regular eye, it matches the right one. Do you still interpret her expression the same way? I think we ought to be careful not to endow her with all the virtues just because she has a disability. Here's a relevant quote from Barnaby Rudge:

Have I no feeling for you because I am blind? No, I have not. Why do you expect me, being in darkness, to be better than men who have their sight …. It's the cant of you folk to be horrified if a blind man robs, or lies, or steals; oh yes, it's far worse in him, who can barely live on the few half pence that are thrown to him in the streets, than in you who can see, and work, and are not dependent on the mercies of the world. A curse on you! You who have five senses may be wicked at your pleasure; we who have four, and want the most important, are to live and be moral on our affliction.

Do you see the point here?

To me, she looks pissy. Naught to do with the eye whatsoever - she just looks like a right bitch. Maybe that's why I loved this painting so much: she reminds me of my Grandma. Feisty, and she'll clock you one if you don't mind your p's and q's.

I'm getting a kick out of everybody seeing sweetness and light, though. In the context of the blue period, you don't expect it. Google "Picasso blue period" and try to get a look at the other subjects: he was painting addicts, drunkards, prostitutes, villains, and, in this case, pimps. She's a pimp. "La Celestina" the character was a pimp, and the woman who sat for the portrait was a pimp, too. Now, I don't know for sure, but I suspect that a life of prostitution and exploitation hardens a person.

Hence the cynicism I see in the face.

But heck - that's art. What I see and what you see won't be the same.

Again I say, GREAT discussion!

PS: Just because she's not happy, doesn't make her ugly. And if you think she's ugly, that's okay: in a way she IS ugly. And just because she's ugly, doesn't make the picture a bad picture. I could look at this amazing portrait for hours and hours. In fact Picasso kept this one in his own collection for 30 years so apparently he liked it too.

There's a really interesting essay to be found here.

CapriUni said...

@Shan-- Not having the context of other Blue Period paintings, Here are the two things I noticed first:

1) Her "working" eye is actually looking at a point over my right shoulder, and not directly at my face, so she was probably looking at something over Picasso's shoulder, too.

2) Just like with all humans, the "expression" in the two corners over her mouth are different (because each half of our faces is controlled by a different half of our brains) -- the right corner of her mouth is almost smiling; the left is drooping. This kind of asymmetry is most evident when we're not thinking about what our faces are doing.

So I concluded that she's looking out the window, and engrossed in the thoughts triggered by what she sees.

Interesting that you say she was a pimp, because the corner of her mouth stuck in a grin is controlled by the part of the brain that uses language, rationalizes behavior, and tells lies. I was thinking just today that she probably spent a lot of energy using language to put on an air of happiness, and to persuade others to do her bidding.

Which is just the sort of work a pimp would have to do...

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. I feel the woman has great resolve. Note that the hood of her cape and her hair fall naturally on her right side, but the hair and hood have been pulled back on her left as if purposely exposing her "flaw".

Personally I don't find her ugly at all. Rather like a matriach of a grand family. I see pride in her.

(PS: you do know that Picasso didn't not paint the Mona Lisa)

Compared to many of Picasso's other works - especially the abstracts - she is wonderfully full of life.

Aly said...

I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but I looked at it and thought that the woman either didn't exist or didn't have an altered eye (ie had two typical eyes). Not because I don't believe this woman should have been able to have her portrait painted but because I feel like Picasso fabricated a lot of things in his works. Like this (possibly fictional) woman was "half-blind," unable to see a truth that should be plain to her.

Shows how much I know about art. :-)

Re: her facial expression, she seems a bit put off to me, like she doesn't want to be there or feels it is a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

It's funny, her skin is blue, her hair is blue, as far as I know there are no people who are blue-colour (as I write I realise there are lots of people who are feeling blue, so writing there are no people who are blue is ridiculous).
Yet the article comments on the 'one eye' and gray hair and chin hair, which are all common and normal. I read that it picks up that she is beautiful, strong and sexy (if that's a fair interpretation of coquettish) and happy and sad and everything else at the same time.
I read it as a feminist painting, about women and queerying notions of what a woman should be like and the joke is on us who notice all the ordinary things about womanliness and miss the exceptionality of being BLUE COLOUR!

Shan said...

I'm hopping up and down, I'm enjoying this discussion so much.

Where were all you people when we did "Barnaby Rudge"?

Anonymous said...

Shan, looking at a picture is more do able for me than reading a book. That’s why I don’t do book club. Would love to join a ‘look at the picture and say what you see’ club!!!!

Shan said...

Anonymous, I think they call that "Rorschach". Dave, put up some ink blots for us!

theknapper said...

I DONT SEE CREEPY AT ALL....Just an Italian woman, ,who may have lived a hard life whomay have liveda hard life, very dignified. W