Symbolism in 'Girl Before a Mirror' by Pablo Picasso

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Girl Before a Mirror (1932) – Pablo Picasso

For this assignment, I have chosen to discuss the painting ‘Girl Before a Mirror’ (1932) by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (October 25th, 1851- April 8th, 1973). My reasoning for selecting this painting in particular was that a large portion of my micro/macro studio project involved investigating and exploring distortion. Picasso is a master of distorting objects, both the tangible and the intangible, infusing them with emotion and symbolism whilst allowing them to remain recognizable to the viewer. In this piece, he distorts the tangible female form but also the intangible self-image the woman possesses and creates an image where the two exist in stark contradiction of one another. His use of visual distortion to communicate the mental distortion of flawed self-image was the aspect that drew me to this painting. Picasso's talent for distorting actual reality and the individual's perception of reality is something that I find fascinating and wanted to look at in closer detail, hence I have chosen to discuss ‘Girl Before a Mirror’, a work I feel this skill is particularly prominent in.

The painting (oil paint on canvas) which measures 163cm x 130cm presents the viewer with a young woman looking at her reflection in a large oval mirror. Both the background and main subject of the painting are composed of blocks of color, line, and pattern in a style that is typical of Picasso. Both representations of the woman are depicted from more than one point of view which is a trait of the cubist painters of the time. (Padovan, 2002, p. 192) states that Cubism views object relatively; that is from several points of view, no one of which has exclusive authority. And in so dissecting objects it sees them simultaneously from all sides. The colors and patterns utilized by Picasso play a significant role in this painting. While throughout the painting pattern is important in creating and defining forms it is of particular importance in terms of the background of the image. The background pattern of diamonds and circles helps to define the main subjects of the painting by separating the woman, the mirror, and her reflection from the background. On the left of the image, the viewer sees the vibrantly painted young woman. On the right, in direct contrast, the viewer sees the darker and perhaps aged reflection of the woman. Her bright face is reflected as dark, her young eyes are transformed into gloomy and sunken; they become almost hidden. Overall her face has lost its youthful glow and vibrance. Umland (2012, p. 2) writes that ‘The intensely mysterious relationship between the two figures is the primary subject of the painting, which reinvents the time-honored artistic theme of a woman before her mirror in radically modern terms, tinged by the mortal associations of traditional vanity images and powerful psychic overtones’

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Like many artists Picassos, personal life had a direct influence on the work which he produced. This particular painting was produced in Paris in 1932 during an exceptionally tense and emotional period of Picasso's life. He had fallen out of love with his wife Olga Khokhlova with whom he now had a strained and volatile relationship and had fallen in love with the young Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso's love for Marie-Thérèse resulted in him producing some of his most personal and sensual works. According to Buchholz and Zimmerman (1999, p. 58), ‘No other woman ever stimulated Picasso to the creation of such intimate and emotional portraits; no other woman was portrayed by him – in paintings, drawings, etchings, and sculptures – in such a sensual and yet calmly self-contained manner’.

The (Oxford Dictionary, 1998) defines symbolism as ‘the use of symbols to represent ideas; an artistic and poetic movement using symbols or indirect suggestion to express ideas, emotions, etc.’ The painting ‘Girl Before a Mirror’ is positively overflowing with symbolic meanings. One example of symbolism within this painting is shown by the way in which Picasso depicted the face of the woman. The viewer sees the face of the woman from multiple viewpoints, each portrayed in a different state. In some the face is smooth, bright, and appears youthful, in others it is textured, dark, and appears aged. One interpretation of this is that Picasso wanted to explore the idea of vanity and distorted self-image; how the image reflected at us in a mirror may not necessarily be the same thing as other people see. The second example of symbolism within this painting is how the shape of the mirror frame forms the letter P. An interpretation of this is that Picasso wanted to somehow show his own involvement with the model Marie-Thérèse Walter and chose to do this by placing the initial of his name and thus himself directly into the painting. (, 2010)

This painting is considered by many to be an extremely important work of Picassos. ‘The powerful imagination of Pablo Picasso along with his abilities to picture so many emotions through few objects and a ‘single’ individual makes the Girl Before a Mirror a masterpiece’ (Classical Arts Universe, 2016). The way in which Picasso employed color, line, and pattern to create his artwork was seen as innovative and exciting. It was daring, bold, and new. This painting marked the end of one period of his life (his marriage to Olga Khokhlova) and the beginning of a new period of his life (his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter). His life was changing and this was reflected in the works he was producing. His work took on a more intimate and deeply personal feel. Another significant aspect of this painting is how Picasso communicated distortion to the viewer; in the literal, the distortion of the human form and how he represented the female body, in the figurative the distortion of self-image and how he represented the interpretation of the woman has of herself. He showed the viewer the duality of reality, how the reality that exists and the reality we believe exists actually both exist. How one could perhaps not exist without the other. While it may not be one of the most famous of Picasso's works it is undoubtedly one of his most personal and unquestionably one of his most thought-provoking.

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