The humanitarian ethos and formal qualities of this personal style proved particularly suitable for a subject that Picasso treated several times in 1901 and 1902—maternal love. In portraying the union of mother and child he came closer than ever to sentimentalism and a kind of empty monumentality which, in contrast to the portrait of Sabartés, he also expressed with plastic means. It has been correctly observed that the style of these paintings is related to that of Jean Francois Millet, in whose works we often find a similar mixture of social morality and religiously colored feeling. The most characteristic canvas of this group is Mother and Child, 1901, from the Bernheim Jeune collection, showing a Madonna-like woman seated in a simple wooden chair on a beach, kissing a standing child on the forehead.
The figure of the child is entirely within the outline of the mother's drapery and her inclined head; and the softness of this outline is stressed by the vertical forms of the dark chair. The child's long white dress roughly reveals the curves of her body; the mother's garment is articulated in a few wide heavy folds forming a kind of garland. The beach, the sea, and the sky, comparable to the color zones of Romanesque murals, compose the background; however, except for the flesh-colored figures, the beach, the brownish chair, and the apple held by the child, everything is in blue tones. Although nothing in this picture—not even the basket with needlework in the lower corner—forces us to give it a religious meaning, nothing in it hinders us from interpreting it as an image of the Virgin Mary.
It has been historically established that Picasso was for a time influenced by the religious symbolism of the Nabi Maurice Denis, who in turn had been influenced by Gauguin. Picasso also paid tribute to the secularized philosophical symbolism of the world-wide Art Nouveau movement in La Vie, a large vertical canvas dating from 1903. A barefoot woman is seen standing at the right, her serious face in profile, with a sleeping infant in the folds of her draped garment. At the left stand the graceful nude of a young couple, seeking each other's protection as though suddenly frightened; the man is larger, with the high forehead of an intellectual, the tender woman is all devotion. They face the mother but their glance is turned inward; engrossed in their own destiny, they do not see her, although the index finger of the man's sensitive left hand points emphatically to the child. Behind the foreground figures we see two painted studies: the lower one shows a squatting nude lost in a reverie; the upper one, a seated couple whose attitude echoes that of the couple standing in the foreground.
This composition has been variously interpreted. A psychoanalyst has related the "Paradise Lost" mood of the couple to Picasso's impending, definitive departure from his Spanish homeland to his Paris "exile." But Paris certainly had no such negative connotation for the young painter. Nor did his personal poverty contribute to the social attitude expressed here any more than in other paintings. The interpretation of the mother's sorrowful expression as hostility toward her undesirable offspring is refuted by the peaceful expression of the child and by Picasso's other paintings treating the subject of maternal love. What is undeniable, however, is that the picture reflects a pessimistic view of society: it stresses the opposition between the completeness of the biological cycle on the one hand, and the distortion of this cycle through the forces of civilization, on the other. The couple that longs for consummation in a child is confronted with motherhood as a social burden. This casts a shadow on sexual love, which becomes tainted by fear and a sense of rejection, by that terror before instinctual forces which also characterizes Munch's couples of lovers. The ghostly blue locates the allegorical scene in a far-off, shadowy realm.
Picasso's friends unanimously emphasize the extraordinary intensity, rapidity, and trance-like raptures that marked his work in the Blue Period: significantly, most of the time he painted at night. The following excerpt from Picasso:An Intimate Portrait, by Sabartés, may serve, as an illustration: "I generally found him in the middle of the studio, not far from the stove, seated on a dilapidated chair, perhaps lower than an ordinary chair, because discomfort does not bother him and he seems even to prefer it as if he delighted in self-mortification and enjoyed subjecting his spirit to tortures so long as they spur him on. The canvas was placed on the lowest part of the easel, and this compelled him to paint in an almost kneeling position.
"He filled up the canvas thinking only about freeing himself of what was seething within. He always hears everything that is said around him, sees what is going on on every side, and divines what he cannot see; yet nothing distracts him except that which is expressly called to his attention. He is never so wholly absorbed in his work as to become oblivious of his surroundings. In the midst of inspiration his spirit remains in a state of alertness. When his tenacious glance leaves the canvas it is only for an instant, and even during that interval he does not remove it entirely from what he is doing. Even when he is attending to his palette, he goes on contemplating the picture from a corner of his eye.
The canvas and palette compete for his attention which does not abandon either; both remain within the focus of his vision, which embraces the totality of each, and both together. He surrenders body and soul to the activity which is his raison d'être, dabbing the bristles of the brush in the oily paste of color with a loving gesture, with all his senses focused upon a single aim, as if he were bewitched. So absorbed and so thoroughly wrapped in silence is Picasso when he paints that whoever sees him, whether at close range or from afar, understands and keeps silent. The subdued murmur which the distant street sends into the studio serves as a background to the silence scarcely broken by the creakings of the chair which supports the weight of his body, agitated by his creative fever. The ear can perceive the sound of the passage of the brush across the canvas."
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