Beneath the skin of Pablo Picasso's Woman Ironing

There was a point in Pablo Picasso’s life when he was poor, relatively unknown and historically unimportant. Nonetheless, the young Spaniard endured. He painted, he loved and he lived.
This was early twentieth century Paris and Picasso was in the cultural capital of the world looking to make something of himself. And then his world fell apart. His friend Carlos Casagemas, who was also a painter, had committed suicide. He was alone.
All this melancholy, compounded by the immediacy of living among and being part of the underclass, left him in a dire emotional state. He was sad and heartbroken. What life was this? The work he produced during this time came to reflect this dejection. Today we know it as his Blue Period.
The paintings of this time are profound. The various shades of blues, greys and whites, dull and muted, expressed his anguish in the most explicit way, so much so that we are able to feel the honesty of his grief in a very intimate manner.
One of the works he executed towards the end of this phase was Woman Ironing (1904), a haunting image of a Parisian woman at work. She is gaunt and ashen, bony and on the verge of skeletal, her eyes hollow, blackened like the vacuous expanse of space. There is nothing to her existence but rudimentary toil.
“The artist’s expressionistic treatment of his subject – he endowed her with attenuated proportions and angular contours – reveals a distinct stylistic debt to the delicate, elongated forms of El Greco,” explains the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which has just recently finished extensive and revelatory conservation work on the painting.
“Never simply a chronicler of empirical facts, Picasso here imbued his subject with a poetic, almost spiritual presence, making her a metaphor for the misfortunes of the working poor.”
Picasso’s ability to express these hardships and realities is more intimate than the theme of the painting itself. While in a disposable age as ours, dictated by the cult of perceived obsolescence – every little thing can be thrown away and repurchased – there was no such luck in Picasso’s time.
Dissatisfied with a work, he had no choice but to use the same canvas for another concept. Many of his final compositions were done over existing paintings. Times were hard and frugality dictated practice.
It is quite something that technology affords us the luxury of seeing “old monuments” in paintings, pre-existing foundations of something else. In 1989, an infrared camera found there to be an image of a man beneath Woman Ironing, though this was limited.
Over 20 years later, the latest technological developments have made it possible to get a phenomenally detailed picture of this pre-existing and ultimately abandoned portrait. While it might seem like an odd thing to invest time in – what value is there in something the artist discarded? – it does, nevertheless, add to and expand what is known about Picasso.
While initially the moustachioed subject was thought to be of Benet Soler, a tailor from Barcelona and friend of the artist, further research has suggested another person. It could be Mateu Fernández de Soto, a sculptor and brother of Ángel, whom Picasso painted in 1903 – one of his most famous Blue portraits.
Speculation aside, the effort that has gone into restoring this work of art has been seismic. The newly restored painting, though clearly disconsolate, is no longer synonymous with the darker stuff he created.
Prior to the conservation, the hues had been much more subdued and dreary. Now we see hints of light, the most restrained suggestions of pink in the dress. Picasso is emerging from his depression and ready to fulfil his destiny. What followed was the Rose Period, which saw him reconciled with the beauty of life, most reflected in his use of fleshy tones. His mourning was over. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was not far away.
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