Art Historians Question Realism Of Picasso’s Portraits
New York NY (AP) – An emerging movement in art circles is casting doubt on whether the people depicted in some of Pablo Picasso’s most famous painted works in fact looked anything like the figures in those paintings. The contention of those scholars threatens to undermine decades of established consensus on the artist’s work and significance.
Since Picasso first reached prominence in the early 20th century, experts and laypeople alike have marveled at the Spaniard’s ability to find and capture on canvas a striking number of deformed, strangely pigmented subjects. He specifically sought out people – almost always women, it would seem, but even that is not clearly visible in several cases – whose abnormally large facial features were not properly aligned, or whose physical proportions gave them a grotesque, almost cartoonish character.
However, in recent years a number of scholars have begun to question whether Picasso ever encountered such people, and therefore what merit the art world sees in his paintings. “It’s one thing to seek to cast light on the less fortunate, to ennoble them in society’s eyes by making them the subject of high art,” says Professor Hugh Imbus-Hill of Seton Hall University and one of the earliest doubters of the subjects’ realistic nature. “Historically, that would represent a clear continuation of late nineteenth-century impressionism, mostly by such greats as Daumier, in which the working-class subjects are given a quotidian greatness that went all but ignored in earlier generations of art.” In contrast to earlier movements that focused on epic themes and prominent individuals, those impressionists strove to put the common person in the center of the endeavor.
Imbus-Hill said that for many years, aficionados had assumed Picasso’s focus on mutants and malformed unfortunates was simply a step further in the same direction. “The conventional wisdom held – and still largely holds – that Picasso wanted to explore similar themes with segments of society that people tend not to want to see,” he explained.
But that began to change in 1999, when Imbus-Hill and several post-doc research fellows examined photographs and documents from early twentieth-century institutions where people with the conditions supposedly painted by Picasso would be housed and treated. They found no documented cases that would match the distorted people the painter depicted.
At first the research team attributed the lack of documentary evidence to the relative paucity of such documentation, but cumulatively, a picture emerged of a painter who systematically painted imaginary figures, or who embellished genuine human models and horrifically distorted their likenesses for his own skewed purposes. Imbus-Hill published his first paper on the subject in 2001, and has since enjoyed a small but vocal – and growing – network of supporters in universities, galleries, and libraries around the world.
But the mainstream has yet to be swayed by Imbus-Hill’s arguments. “It’s a refreshing view, I’ll grant you, but hardly in line with what we know of Picasso and how he worked,” said Crimea River, a London gallery owner and respected expert on early Cubism. “The fact is, such a proposed upending of Picasso’s contribution to the world requires substantially more than incredulity that people can look funny.”
Imbus-Hill remains determined to see this battle through, and is considering an expansion of his approach to Biblical archaeology. “It intrigues me that no one has ever produced photographic evidence of Noah’s rainbow,” he noted.