Oil on canvas, 1901, by Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
Of the several Picassos hung in the same space, Mother and Child is by far the most eye-catching, draining energy away from its kin and arresting your attention. Perhaps this has something to do with its positioning at the centre of an archway, so that even before you enter the room where it hangs you see it from afar, as you approach across the museum’s courtyard. There is something manipulative about this: the universality of the maternal bond invokes a passive warmth; like an umbilical cord connecting us, never broken, and yet the closer you are drawn towards it, the more you begin to feel repelled by what is obviously a pitiful state: Picasso challenges us to avert our eyes to a social plight we would rather avoid just at the moment when we have stared too long and cannot now look away. To gaze on Mother and Child is to accept complicity in the fault lines of what constitutes the social fabric to which we all belong and partake. For it is soon evident this is no virgin birth; Picasso has subverted the prototypical Madonna iconography and replaced it with its binary opposite – a fallen woman whose ancient profession has resulted in a birth which may still be miraculous but which we know is beset by the misery and degradations of our time.
The sheer exhaustion slant through the near-collapsed mother figure is not simply the physical tiredness of childbirth but an accumulation of the ravages of time which she wears with a sort of accepting permanence. Her entire body portrays the posture of poverty and denigration, a constant struggle for survival which wearies her and weakens her. Where his renaissance references would have portrayed the straight-backed robustness of motherhood, akin to morality and Christian wholesomeness, Picasso chooses to burden her with the collapsed and shattered reality of existence. Her attenuated limbs perfectly capture this truism: her almost skeletal hand, her bare feet, the left of which is curved slightly inwards, a gesture which improbably yet immediately incites empathy. Of course her eyes are closed serenely and lovingly on any mother’s vision: hope, happiness and health for her child. She perhaps prays for ultimate elevation from despair. And yet the infant himself, here synonymous with traditional Madonna and child tropes, stares out with a nonchalance which both captures his innocence and exploits his ignorance. If only you knew, we want to tell him, if only …
Dating from 1901, this painting is clearly from Picasso’s pre-abstract obsession and also from his Blue Period. The tonal density of the painting is not, however, merely a characteristic of a fledgling artist’s experimentation with form and palette. The blue saturates and stains this painting thoroughly. It functions as a filter through which misery is framed and it vividly embodies the melancholy with which we are meant to view and absorb it. The murky colour of the cornered walls and floor invokes the claustrophobia of the sordid whore-house, the over-crowded prison-hospital or the filthy living quarters – but these are also contradictory backgrounds, nonetheless, because what is obvious is that the overriding purity of a new life and the unbreakable bond between mother and child is yet what ultimately prevails and transcends our hopes for humanity.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.