• gerard van weyenbergh

When Picasso lowers the masks

Described by Cicero as the "mirror of the soul" and considered by the philosopher Levinas as the "first access to otherness," the face is the same time portrait, self-portrait, and figure of oneself and of the other, incarnation of society and a whole society. The modern avant-gardes will not stop questioning it and making it lose face after a 19th. Century in which he dominated painting. First, the Fauves, led by Matisse, will dissolve it in explosive colors. Then it was the turn of the cubists Picasso and his teammate Georges Braque to dissect it shot by shot, gleefully trampling on the rules of symmetry and perspective. All his life, Picasso seems to pursue this deconstruction path, sometimes of disfigurement of the human figure. He wanted to eliminate the superfluous to retain only the essential, to capture its intrinsic strength.

"Two holes is the sign of the face, enough to evoke it without representing it… but is it not strange that it can be done by such simple means? Two holes are very abstract if we think of man's complexity; what is most abstract is perhaps the height of reality. "These words, reported by Brassaï in 1964, Picasso puts them in practice in a mask of disconcerting simplicity that he produced in 1919 in cardboard. Two round holes knew how to signify the very fragile material's eyes, a third for the nose; the face is reduced to a geometric shape - a polygon painted soberly in black and white stripes. It is reminiscent of the Atoni masks from Indonesia or Dan from Ivory Coast. The artists also proceeds by an incision in the wood. They knew how to play with the void to evoke the face's primordial element, which defines each person's individuality: the look. Under the thumb of the arts of Africa, Oceania, or Asia, Picasso will not hesitate to deconstruct what Western artists have taken centuries to develop: the art of portraiture. No longer a question of dwelling on the individual's psychological description, the face becomes a mask to translate the human being's very essence.


The incarnation of spirits, ancestors, expression of social belonging, the mask forms, and ancestral creations are inexhaustible. "The mask only has meaning if it is inhuman, impersonal; that is when it is a pure construction of any individual experience," wrote his friend, art historian, and writer Carl Einstein in 1915. And to continue: the mask is "immobile ecstasy" and "this fixity is nothing other than the last degree of intensity of expression, freed from any psychological origin". And when Man Ray has Kiki de Montparnasse pose next to a Baoulé mask from Ivory Coast in his famous Black and White shot, the face of the young woman and the object merge to return the image of both frightening and attractive fetishes. A few years before, in 1922, he had already played with this mise en abyme by taking Gertrude Stein's photo in front of her portrait that Picasso had produced in 1906. For this portrait, which has become famous, Gertrude Stein recounts that "all this winter from 1906, I posed for Picasso; eighty sessions and at the end, he brushed her head. He told me that he could no longer see me and left for Spain. On his return, Picasso painted my head without seeing me again, and then he gave me the painting. I was and still am happy with my portrait. For me, it's me. It is the only reproduction of me that is still me. "

Meanwhile, as Hans Belting tells in Faces - A Facial Story, Picasso had started looking for a prehistoric mask that he unearthed on the sculpted reliefs of Osuna, in Spain. In this way, the face abolished time and space, gaining a form of timelessness and universality. Picasso will not cease to question his representation, his reality, not hesitating to remove any form of resemblance with the model to show something else, more intimate, more profound, more brutal too. The famous portraits he executed from the 1930s of his wife Olga, Marie-Thérèse, or Dora Maar, with their eyes, nose, and mouth associated in disorder, from the front and in profile, reflect the emotions of his models, the feelings they inspire in him. Is he providing some answers to one of his famous statements: "Who sees the human figure correctly? The photographer, the mirror, or the painter? " © Beaux Arts,

© Musee du Quai Branly