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My studio is a sort of laboratory. . . . On occasion my paintings have beauty . . . but what matters is how they are created—every line that is added, the transition from one stage to another. That is what painting is about, part poetry, part philosophy.1(p38)—Pablo Picasso
I certainly had no intention of painting symbols; I just painted the images that rose before my eyes. It is for other people to find hidden meanings in them. As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself.2(p121)—Pablo Picasso
PABLO RUIZ PICASSO (1881-1973) came to Paris, France, the week of October 15, 1900, shortly before his 19th birthday. He traveled with his friend Carlos Casagemas, who was to commit suicide the following February after being rejected by Germaine, the woman he loved. They went together to see Picasso's painting Last Moments (exhibited in Spain as Last Rites), which had been chosen to represent Spain in the decennial retrospective of the Universal Exhibition. Because Picasso did not speak French well and had little money, Casagemas served as his translator and paid most of the costs for the studio they shared in Paris; he also introduced Picasso to the ideas of Nietzsche, who challenged traditional assumptions about the purpose of creative activity. His friend's death was to have a lasting effect on Picasso, whose Blue Period was circumscribed by his response to Casagemas' suicide and the resolution of his bereavement. [Cover]
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish. Cover, left: La Vie, 1903-1904, oil on canvas. Copyright 2003, Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society, New York, NY. Cover, right: X-radiograph of La Vie. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.
Last Moments was Picasso's final painting in the academic tradition and was thought to be lost until conservators at the Cleveland Museum of Art,3 using x-radiographs and infrared reflectography, identified it beneath La Vie ("Life"), a pivotal painting at the end of the Blue Period. A preliminary sketch for Last Moments (Figure 1, top) shows a grieving man looking down on a bedridden dying woman who awaits the kiss of death. The x-ray of La Vie (Figure 1, middle) reveals the outline of the man's cloak, his white collar, the lamp, and the table next to her bed. In a contemporary description of the painting, a priest holds a prayer book and attends a woman on her deathbed; Picasso's later sketches suggest that the grieving man became a priest in the final rendering.
Top, Kiss of Death or Dying Woman (preliminary drawing related to Last Moments), 1899-1900, Conté crayon on paper. Courtesy of the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain, and Cleveland Museum of Art. Copyright 2003, Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society. Middle, X-radiograph of La Vie (rotated 90° to show its relationship to the sketch above). Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Bottom, Infrared reflectogram of La Vie. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
By considering such preparatory drawings and pentimenti (original drawings beneath the final painting, literally "repentances" as the artist changes his mind and starts anew) for Last Moments and La Vie, Picasso's creative process may be examined to better understand the personal context of these paintings for the artist. Last Moments4,5 and earlier works by Picasso are thought to have been influenced by the traumatic choking death of his younger sister, Concepcíon (Conchita), who died of diphtheria at 6 years of age on January 10, 1895. As a 13-year-old witnessing her death, Picasso promised God that he would give up his art, the thing he loved most, if she were spared. Daix4 notes the extraordinary maturation of his work after her death. As a young adult, Picasso believed that "in setting out to conquer life, one must look death in the face and dominate it through painting."4(p15) When the Universal Exhibition closed, Last Moments was returned to Spain and stored in the Barcelona studio that he and Casagemas had shared.6 Picasso eventually moved back into that studio when he returned to Spain from Paris in 1902. Lacking money to purchase a large new canvas, he chose to reuse the Last Moments canvas for a work that would summarize his views on the life of the artist; it was to be titled La Vie. He rotated the canvas 90° and began this new painting that would focus on life rather than death.
The setting for La Vie is an artist's studio.7 A nude woman clings to a man wearing a loincloth. He points toward a heavily draped woman holding a sleeping infant. Between them are 2 canvases in their beginning stages, one above the other. The upper canvas shows 2 nude figures holding each other; the lower one depicts a distressed woman with her head on her knees. Picasso made at least 4 preparatory sketches for this painting and changed the composition several times. Initially he painted himself, as shown in the pentimenti and in Figure 2, between the nude woman and the upper canvas, which is on an easel. In some early sketches, she is pregnant. This suggests his intention to focus on his own life as an artist. Later he added a bearded man on the right side of the easel (Figure 2), suggesting that young lovers are posing for a painting. In the middle section where the lower canvas is located in the final version, a preliminary drawing shows a sexually receptive young woman reaching out toward the sexually aroused Picasso as he approaches her. In other drawings a winged deity, first shown as male and then female, holds out both wings to shelter these young lovers.7 The pentimenti reveal a composite bird-man figure, derived from Picasso and the winged deity, hovering over the woman (Figure 1, bottom). The final painting does not show these elements: the bird-man and woman are painted over, the lower canvas shows the distressed woman, and the bearded artist does not appear.
Picasso, preparatory sketch for La Vie, 1903, Conté crayon on paper. Courtesy of the Museu Picasso and Cleveland Museum of Art. Copyright 2003, Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society.
Picasso eventually replaced himself with Casagemas, his alter ego or shadow figure,8 whose suicide shocked him and led to several commemorative paintings; the best known of these is Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas. That painting continued to be reworked imaginatively after his friend's death, in keeping with Jung's proposal that this event initiated his struggle with the misery of human existence, depicted in his Blue Period. Perhaps stimulated by the theme of loss as he painted over Last Moments and remembering Casagemas' suicide, and reminded of his affair with Germaine and his guilt over it as he painted the bird-man and woman, he reintroduced images into La Vie from Evocation, painted 2 years before. (Casagemas never had sexual relations with Germaine, possibly because of embarrassment about his phimosis.4(p27)) Unlike Evocation, in which all of the faces remain blank, those of Casagemas, Germaine (whom he blamed for his friend's death), and the mother holding a child are now complete as they confront one another. The reproachful look of the mother, who is painted in a different style from the other figures, seems to condemn Casagemas and Germaine for their lifestyle, yet the manner of Casagemas' pointing distances him from her. In a preliminary drawing, the male figure was shown pointing to both earth and sky (as it is above, so it is below6(p274)), suggesting that the artist must integrate the spiritual and the instinctual to be independent.
Considered the final painting of the Blue Period, La Vie is traditionally interpreted as an allegory showing the polarities of sacred and profane love or as an expression of the "cycle of life" theme (birth, youth, maturity, old age) that was common at that time. Others suggest that it is a commentary on the life of the modern artist. Although based on Picasso's own experiences, it has both personal and universal meaning. After the Blue Period, Picasso's art evolved into a new phase in which his subjects were no longer victims but chose their own fate.
La Vie shows the potential hazards in the life of the modern artist: alienation, abandonment, and suffering. The themes of early death, sexuality, anxiety, bereavement, and admonishment for a nontraditional lifestyle are all depicted or implied. If art is indeed transformative, then we might look further into the canvases within the painting. The only face that looks directly outward toward the viewer is the central figure in the upper canvas. None of the main figures in the painting makes eye contact with one another; however, this person looks out, holding and consoling a woman. The sleeping infant in the mother's arms is the only figure seemingly at peace. Perhaps, as Picasso said, "All that's what life is,"4(p35) but it is not only suffering and alienation; it is also consolation to those who suffer and an opportunity for new life.
Harris JC. La Vie. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60(10):968–969. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.60.10.968
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