Art Thoughts, Week 10 -- Picasso and Self-Awareness

(above: an image of the actual painting discussed! Wow!)
Figures with a Goat, Pablo Picasso (French, 1881—1973), 1906, oil on canvas, BF 250.

Very, very often the thing which annoys me most about art writing is when an otherwise erudite author gives in to flights of speculation, whether on meaning, intent, content, context or otherwise. The examples of this tendency I find especially egregious are the psychological and psychosexual, ala Freud. I tend to want hard, formalistic proof.

All that being said, please throw a grain of salt my way, as I am going to delve into that very place with a Picasso painting at the Barnes Foundation, Figures with a Goat. Picasso’s potency (in sundry ways) is well known, even documented. When he did this picture, he was twenty-five, and probably as virile as he would ever be, and thus to imbue his production with that light shouldn’t be unreasonable – its content was undoubtedly linked to his sexual urges, as any well-balanced artist’s might be. And he painted this picture while on an enjoyable trip with a female companion – wouldn’t it be unlikely that he not be influenced by hormones, as well as the light, space, texture and form around him?

The paintings from this period, of which this is one, have been called Rose – as well as Flesh – Period paintings. Fresh, young humanity is displayed here, replete in a rainbow of pinks, scarlets and madders. There are three characters in this scene: a pre-pubescent, statuesque girl; a younger and less demure boy with a water pot on his head, and a ram of dubious intent. Behind them is a simple, draped backdrop, looking almost like the shallow set for a modernist play. This type of uniform pink could suggest several things: youth, freshness, innocence. (It also could be coquettish, but it is too early for that here.) The value of the paint in this picture is fairly consistent and almost monochromatically pink. It varies in a few distinct spots, however: the head, hair and upper arms of the girl; the head and water pot of the boy, and less so, in the ram’s head and horns. What this deepening of the pink into madder rose suggests is a warming or ripening of sorts; an area of maturation or growth, or emerging consciousness and self-awareness. Taking the proposition of latent sexuality, the girl’s darkening head signifies her being on the brink of mentally realizing her blossoming sexual allure; for the boy, the darkened water pot signifies his developing realization of his sexual capability and desire, and his body as both its vessel and eventually, tool. Both of them, by bodily evidence, are still underdeveloped sexually, however they are moving into a limnal sort of sexual realization.

But what of the goat? He is a more mysterious character. Goats, possibly because of their long sessions of heat called ruts, have long been used to symbolize carnality, virility and temptation. Here the goat seems to be of the ilk of those animals with a particularly omniscient bent, which are sometimes seen in human scenes in art and literature, and have more insight into the human condition than even those involved. The goat provides our aside in this play; through his gaze we are told what the girl and boy cannot see; that they are maturing sexually, and will soon pry open a Pandora’s Box of complexity along with it. Thus, their Rose period will end, and a harder and more flawed, but richer, and more aware life will emerge for them.

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