Picasso’s Eyeball

Above left: Michelangelo, Detail of Sistine Chapel Ceiling; Lower left: Diagram of the eyeball and its parts; Above right: Picasso, Detail of Portrait of Jaime Sabartes, rotated.

Yesterday I asked if anyone knew of a link between Manet’s Absinthe Drinker and Picasso’s Blue Period paintings. There are several. They both use Marcantonio Raimondi’s Portrait of Raphael, a small engraving, as their source; both were painted early in the artist’s career; both involve alcohol and poetic rêverie; they all represent the artist as an outsider, alone in his own mind.1

What I did not notice until this morning, though, was a magical link between several of Picasso’s Blue Period paintings and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Just as Michelangelo formed the cloak around God in The Creation of Adam into the shape of a human brain, he also formed other pieces of pink fabric on the ceiling into other relevant anatomical parts.2 Kidneys, for instance, were thought to separate solids from liquid so it cannot be coincidence that the shape of a kidney, with its relevant parts correctly rendered, appears in a panel entitled: God Separating the Waters from the Firmament.3

At one end of the Sistine Chapel, very prominently placed behind the head of Jonah (the largest figure on the ceiling) the pink fabric echoes the shape of an eyeball. Michelangelo added shapes representing a cornea, the optic nerve and the medial rectus muscle (see above left and lower left). Then today I realized that the large, circular white tables in several of Picasso’s Blue Period paintings also represent an eyeball with light coming through them. We are, so to speak, on the inside of the artist’s mind behind the eyeball. What particularly struck me was how Picasso had made Jaime Sabartes’ stein of beer resemble the optic nerve (above right). To demonstrate the similarity I have rotated the table in Sabartes’ portrait in the same direction as Michelangelo’s poetic diagram. Then I noticed elsewhere that other objects Picasso puts on those white circular tables – a stein of beer, glass of absinthe or ashtray – also have a large curved rim at their bases. He emphasizes the connection between the optical nerve and the eyeball as though it was a piece of plumbing. I don’t have space to illustrate the other examples above but take a look at the entry on Picasso’s Harlequin (1901) and Blue Period paintings. It’s an eye-opener.

1. For a more complete comparison, see Picasso's Harlequin (1901) and Blue Period.

2. For the perception of God's cloak in The Creation of Adam as a human brain, see Frank Lynn Meshberger, “An interpretation of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy”, Journal of the American Medical Association 264, 1990, pp.1837-1841

3. Garabed Eknoyan,. “Michelangelo: Art, anatomy, and the kidney”, Kidney International 57, 2000, pp. 1190-1201

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