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2. The portrait as a mirror

Picasso's visit to Gósol in 1906 was a turning point in his career. It marked the end of his circus themes and the beginning of a conceptual and stylistic revision of his work, incorporating lessons learned from the art of archaic and non-European cultures that led him to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907.

“A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.”
Christian Zervos. “Statement by Picasso” in Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, 1946, p. 272

Head of a Woman

Paris, Winter 1907 | Oil on panel, 25.6 x 16.5 cm
Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte. On temporary deposit at the Museo Picasso Málaga
© FABA. Photo: Marc Domage © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2017

Read about Head of a Woman

According to Pierre Daix, Picasso told David Douglas Duncan that he had completed this oil painting in the winter of 1906–7, just months prior to finishing work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York), his major statement of the time, toward which the majority of his energies were oriented. While the colour scheme of the figure belongs to the previous year’s so-called Rose period, reduced to minor variations on pink, beige and ochre, the face bears the mask-like Iberian features that marked half of the Demoiselles. Since his Portrait of Gertrude Stein from 1905–6 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the mask emerged as a preeminent device for Picasso’s art, implying not only a selfhood obscured but also the possibility for unmasking and change.

Indeed, Head of a Woman presents a human face whose identity, despite the title, is far from stable. This head shares certain fundamental features with a famous self-portrait by Picasso from slightly later in 1907 (Self-Portrait, Národní Galerie, Prague): a nose simultaneously frontal and in full profile, almond shaped ‘Iberian’ eyes with arced bracket-like brows, a single ear as though pasted on the side of the head to indicate a three-quarter profile, and the mèche, or bangs, cutting a triangular path across the forehead. To these schematic features, shared in male and female portraits, Picasso has added the curve of a ponytail in the top corner of Head of a Woman, a lone, if ambiguous, token of gender.

At this moment, Picasso was preoccupied by questions that would carry him through the following years into Cubism: What is the minimum of pictorial information necessary to construct a ‘successful’ representation? How many ambiguities can a representation bear before it falls apart? The figure’s pose is unstable, marked with conflicting suggestions of profile, three-quarters profile and frontal view. The eyes are roughly identical in size, close enough to imply a figure facing the viewer, yet the discrepant tilt of the left eye suggests an incompatible downward rotation of the head. Further, the single line that constructs the nose, both frontal and in profile, continues seamlessly into her right eyebrow – a trick Picasso picked up from Édouard Manet to schematise the face. The mouth is a single curved line, designating a placid smile with the most precise economy of means. If faces began to resemble masks in Picasso’s paintings at this moment, it was as a means to link the simplification of physiognomy to a radical critique of the stability of the personality, the consistency of style and the naturalism of depiction. 

Text: Trevor Stark