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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:49

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at Pablo Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein standing in this gallery filled with paintings from the early 20th century this really fits in but the problem with that is that we don't recognize necessarily how revolutionary this painting seemed in 1906 when Picasso completed it there's a famous anecdote that goes with this painting Stein was an important collector she was a poet and a writer and she asked Picasso to paint her portrait according to Stein she visited Picasso's studio 90 times and at the end of months of sitting he actually scraped away what he had done on the face and came back to it later so although he spent 90 sittings the face itself was not painted with Stein in front of him but the story that you alluded to is that when people saw this portrait if this looks nothing like her and Picasso is said to have responded everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait but never mind in the end she will manage to look just like it which is about the primacy of the portrait the idea that the portrait will live on and a portrait by the great artist Pablo Picasso was Richard son this is the way that we remember her which calls into question what is the function of a portrait is it likeness this particular portrait may look more like an ancient Iberian sculpture one of the archaic figures that Picasso has been studying and Gertrude Stein's own facial features which is an odd thing because a portrait for hundreds of years was about likeness and this is not about how she looked but it is very much a portrait of her presence and what a powerful presence she's got this great sense of gravity that mask-like face seems to come towards us she leans forward her body is in the shape of a pyramid so you do have all that wheat at the bottom of the canvas we know that Picasso was looking at several other earlier portraits notably Aang's portrait of Miss you betta at the Louvre as well as two other portraits that Stein owned one by Cezanne of his wife and one by Matisse of his wife and clearly Picasso has borrowed from all three of those paintings there are aspects of them that inform his painting of Gertrude Stein but this is really radically different especially that mask face the disjunction between the eyes the flatness of the plane of her face these are things that don't look light but the sitter felt that this was the truest portrait that had ever been made of her it's actually wrote for me it is I and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I and so although this isn't about a likeness she felt that this portrait really represented her so I also asserted that she did in words what Picasa would do in paint Stein was looking at words as if they were a kind of material that could be constructed and reconstructed as one places strokes on a canvas speaking of strokes on the canvas we really see evidence of the artists work here there are places where the paint is applied very thickly for example in her fingers even though they still seem very abstracted and unfinished there are also places for example around the shawl that has a clasp around her neck there's areas of page that are very thin where we can almost see the canvas underneath there's a tension here between Picasso's love of illusionism and his interest in beginning to undo that illusion the conventions of illusionism that had come down in European art beginning in the Renaissance just didn't speak to the late 19th and early 20th century and so this searching for a new visual language both in African art and in ancient art or pre classical art where figures are represented very abstractly this finding in abstraction a force and power and alternative language look at the way that he's finding the angles of the forms of her face almost as if it's a kind of architecture the right side of her face seems to be at a sharp angle to the front of her face because of how stark that shadow is on the right side the left side of her face is further away from us her face is turned even though we have as much access to the left eye as we do to the right and the eyes are also very much abstracted they're not given a lot of expressiveness it's as if the eyes are behind that mask portraits often have things in them that help us to identify the interests and personality as a sitter if we think about mayonnaise portrait of Zola for example we have library images of art that he was interested in in the background but here the background is sketchy it's even hard to make out the left side of that chair and so it is a painting that refuses to give us the information that portraits generally are supposed to give [Music]