Ssh! The Secret of Picasso’s Ear

Pablo Picasso aged 15 (1896) Photograph on paper.

Ears make sense as one of the five: touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. But who thinks about Picasso's ears? We mostly remember his eyes: deep, dark and powerful. Yet he himself - as I don't think has been noted before - seems to have been very conscious that he had large ears. Noddy, a staple of British childhood, would have called him "Big Ears". Not just in old age, as I thought at first, but throughout his life. Photographs of Picasso when he was young make that obvious. I don't know if his mother ever threatened to pin back his ears but mine would have done. His ear, above, is so prominent you could even think of it as stuck on his head like a handle on a teacup, a simile of significance as I'll show below.

Details from a selection of Picasso's self-portraits, 1894-1907

His first self-portraits (above) leave no doubt that he knew he had large ears. In the one at lower right from 1907, the ear is seen straight on, not from an angle, as though he wanted to make it even more prominent than it was. It's useful to know which of his features an artist thinks makes him or her look different because they then often employ that feature in self-representations instead of a full likeness.1 

L: Detail of Picasso's Boy with a Pipe (1905)
R: Detail of Picasso's The King (1905)

In 1905 at the age of 24 Picasso painted Boy with a Pipe (left) whose ear is both notably large and prominent (left). Less obvious, though equally large, is the ear of his King (right) also from 1905.

Three details from studies for Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907): (L) Head of the Medical Student, (C) Head of a Woman and (R) Study of a Woman

Shortly afterwards the artist was making studies for what would become his first great masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). The figure on the left is the well-known medical student, supposedly entering what is usually called a brothel. Although his figure was eliminated from the final composition, several scholars have recognized this student as either a "stand-in" for Picasso, a fusion of his face with a friend's or, more simply, as just a full self-portrait.2 The image in the middle is said to be of a woman though, as I have shown of a closely related painting, the diagonal across her forehead represents Picasso's own hairstyle.3 The one on the right is even titled Bust of a Woman with a Large Ear. The size of the ears in all three figures clearly links their identity to Picasso even though all figures in the finished painting, including two of the three above, are female. Picasso's use of androgyny in his work is little understood though an American graduate student did write her dissertation on Picasso and androgyny thirty years ago. It remains unpublished.3

Top: As above
Botton: Diagrams of above

Picasso, like all good artists, piles meaning on top of meaning. In fact, he would not have emphasized his ears so frequently if they did not contain some meaning. Here it is not just the size of these ears that matters but their shape as well. As shown in the diagrams above, two of the three are in the shape of a bent P for Picasso, the one on the right an inverted P as in the mirror (of his mind.) They convey the essence of the two realities: internal and external. Remember, of course, that the whole composition is a mental image and does not depict external reality. It depicts his mind imagining external reality. As for the image, above center, I believe the line inside the ear describes a phallus about to penetrate the woman's brain-case. Art often shows the moment of the picture's own conception with a woman's mind as the artist's "womb". Many poets, including Shakespeare, have spoken of their minds as a womb. It is a well-known trope of poetry.

L: Picasso aged 15
R: Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, detail (1905) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A quick search of big ears in Picasso's art, in images other than self-portraits, turns up dozens. His Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906), now at the Metropolitan Museum, is known to be a fusion of his face with hers which the ear now further supports (above).

Picasso, Head of a Sheep (26th March, 1943) India ink on paper.

An ear in the mind can, of course, cross species. The knowledge that Picasso used his big ears self-referentially helps suggest that the sheep, above, is a self-representation too with, as a further enhancement, a large Picasso-like eye, its black pupil fully visible. Four senses are represented here: sound, sight, taste and smell. The only missing one is touch, the age-old metaphor for the act of painting, which is what Picasso was doing. It thus links the artist with the painting, subject and object united. I must point out, in passing, that the sheep's neck and head is yet another phallus. Creative fertility (represented by the "phallus") is dependent on an artist's constant awareness of what his senses convey. We all need to be open to nature, alert to the world around us: it is what we are made from. It is, moreover, the path to lasting happiness because by uniting with the outer world, we enter the inner. This image conveys that.

Top: Picasso, 
Bottom: Picasso, Still Life with Lemon and Red Pitcher (c.1955) Etching. 33 x 40.6 cm, with diagram

Now for the barmy part. Picasso's use of a large ear to identify himself extends even to his many anthropomorphic still-lifes of cups and pots with prominent handles. They are schematic representations of himself (mental images), usually his big, black "eye" in the opening of the vessel and the handle to its side as his "ear". In the colored lithograph his "eye" is anormorphically stretched across the top of the red pitcher, and his "nose" below it has two black nostrils. Below that two circular shapes outlined in red, one black, one white, might represent a second set of "eyes": one for insight, the other out-sight. I'm not sure about that. Indeed any interpretation of images like these must be conjectural. However, below them is a red line resembling lips. Thus the handle, once again, is his "ear". The diagrams at right should help you see this.

While I have not lost my mind, I could still be wrong - but I have so much more evidence in the form of similar still-lifes by Picasso and other artists, including Chardin in the 18th century, that I think it unlikely. In the end still-lifes, as I have not yet shown in any number, are rarely "still-lifes" but the artist's mind in the process of conception. In the monochrome lithograph, above, Picasso as cup and saucer has "conceived" the "drawing" of the apple on the right; in the colored one below, the lemon and orange on the left. 

Sense is the interpreter's only goal and his and her only medium just as it is for any animal. Indeed the ancients, far wiser than the norm today, clearly knew that because, if they didn't, we wouldn't be saying: it makes sense. I hope I did.

Footnotes to be published shortly

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