A Social Statement About Loneliness and Hunger

27 Nov

By Arianna Sullivan

Picasso’s “Woman Ironing” has been known to have a ghost painting, underneath the picture of a woman bent over her iron, since 1989. The ghost, discovered with an infrared camera, is a portrait of a man with a moustache looking directly at the viewer from his place on the canvas.  We’ve recently been given opportunity to take a closer look at this elusive under-painting; John K. Delaney, of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was able to use both hyper-spectral and multi-spectral infrared cameras to reveal a more clear image. Still we are left with a ghost:

A man sits face on, poised as if to paint a self-portrait, and is disappeared under a woman ironing. She is a skinny woman, painted during Picasso’s skinny times—a recycled canvas. With Delaney’s images we can see the man’s eyes more clearly, the part of his hair on the right side of his head. Still we do not know who he is, or how many years before “Woman Ironing” Picasso began his portrait. Now we are the hungry ones, greedy for the painting’s story.


The New York Times provides an interactive image in which viewers can see the ghost image underneath Picasso’s painting.

Picasso’s “Woman Ironing” currently sits in the honorable position of the first painting going up the Guggenheim spiral, as a part of the museum’s current show, “Picasso Black and White.” The mystery, even with more grant-funded research and restoration by Guggenheim curators, is still a mystery. The figure’s moustache, now more visible, reinforces the suspicion that the painting underneath is not a self-portrait. There are three new candidates—acquaintances of Picasso who he might have painted at the time. One, Benet Soler, was an old tailor friend of Picasso’s who sometimes bought paintings from the artist in return for clothes. Another, Mateu de Soto, shared apartments and studios with Picasso in Paris and Barcelona. Photographs and portraits of Ricard Canals, who is considered the most likely subject of the painting, have the most likeness to the faint figure behind Picasso’s lean woman, but the part of his hair is on the opposite side of his head from the man behind “Woman Ironing.”

We may puzzle over these little details and trinkets of history forever, always wondering but never quite knowing. However, if we consider Picasso’s Blue Period, perhaps we can sympathize with, rather than agonize over the situation that led to the double-painting. During his Blue Period, approximately 1901 to 1904, Picasso was in his twenties, and discovering just what kind of artist he was going to be. He was pushing himself to diversify, exploring the complexities of artifice and representation. He was teaching himself a skill that would become his legacy—telling a story by refusing to address it directly.

He was also poor and hungry. He burned drawings, painted over paintings. A man who thrived on social interaction, Picasso was lonely, and busied himself with painting the subtle plight of the lonely—people on the edges. We can see it in the skinniness of the girl—the woman—ironing in his painting, the sharpness of her features. We can see it in the grey hues, the tenderness in her face, the curl in her hair from the iron’s steam. The subtlety heaves emotion into the picture.

The ability to create such a subtle social statement, which Picasso was honing in those earlier years, allowed him to be a political artist later in his life. During the occupation of France Picasso’s outright exclamation of his political beliefs would have jeopardized him. However, by using his skill for indirect expression in painting, he was able to express them without being condemned as a rebel. Picasso’s “Pitcher, Candle and Enamel Saucepan” of 1945 is a basic example of the artist pushing his subject matter to say more in the painting than it might to the casual viewer in real life. The three objects in this painting are disjointed; each one is portrayed with multiple points of perspective and starkly contrasting bright and subdued colors. The everyday objects speak for themselves, telling the story of the unsettling instability that became quotidian during the occupation.

Throughout his life Picasso filled many notebooks with a self-developed calligraphy, a nonsensical set of symbols that made sense to nobody but himself. It was this fascination that we see developing into a skill in “Woman Ironing.” The ability to say something without saying it—in this case a collective hunger and loneliness—later enabled Picasso to become an artist revolutionary.