Picasso’s Five Figures in a Boat (1909)

This 1909 drawing by Picasso in the Musée Picasso, Paris, is described as Five Figures in a Boat.  However, only if you know that self-representational meaning and visual illusion are at the very heart of art are you likely to recognize that the scene takes place inside a girl’s head. 

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Picasso, Five Figures in a Boat (early 1909) Musée Picasso, Paris.

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The trees on either side double as her hair; the edge of the boat for her mouth; and other lines for her eye and chin. Since the girl is a female representation of Picasso, one of her eyes is closed for insight while the other, only subtly suggested around a blank space, is open to the material world. An oar extends from the tear duct of that eye straight into the water, an early hint perhaps of the later Weeping Women.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Five Figures compared to a diagram

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This kind of visual illusion is as common in poetic painting as it is little seen. Indeed conventional scholars often dismiss such "sights" as nonsense, especially when seen by someone from outside academia. Nevertheless, and for that reason, similar illusions have remained unseen in works as different, in time, style and subject, as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Cèzanne’s Large Bathers in Philadelphia and a little drawing by Picasso.

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 16 Sep 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.