Reading Art: Manet, Picasso and Alfonso Ponce de Leon

Alfonso Ponce de Leon, Young People and a Fisherman (1936) Oil on canvas. Museo de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

My vision, like most people’s, is often cloudy which is why when the sun breaks and I gain some understanding, I get excited. You must excuse me. It may sometimes seem as if no-one before me has made similar observations. After all, all my entries on EPPH must include something unknown to experts and the public. Yet, just because it has never been written about does not mean that it has not been painted about. To grasp that, you need to speak art’s language which, for the most part, only artists do.1 Hundreds, if not thousands, of artists have already seen what I show you. Indeed it is they who taught me and it is often by looking at later transformations of a masterpiece that we grow to understand the original. The Spaniard Alfonso Ponce de Leon, who painted Young People and a Fisherman (above), is one among many who have understood Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe in ways similar to our own. He was born in 1906 in Malaga, Picasso's birthplace too. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he was shot dead on his doorstep shortly after completing this picture. He was only 30 years old.

Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) Oil on canvas. Museé d'Orsay, Paris

For those not familiar with EPPH's explanation of Manet's masterpiece (above), the men in the foreground are the artist who “painted" the background while Manet’s model, Victorine Meurend, appears twice: once as the nude model in the studio and, in the background again, "painted" on canvas. That's why her figure is out-of-scale.2 How do we know that Ponce de Leon understood Manet's painting the same way?

Ponce de Leon, Young People and a Fisherman (1936)

Young People and a Fisherman is clearly derived from Le Déjeuner. The couple sitting on the grass, the fisherman in profile, the basket in the lower left corner, the pond in the background: all scream Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. But not only does Ponce de Leon convey his esoteric knowledge of Manet’s work but of Picasso’s too. He knew in 1936, long before Picasso’s obvious variations on Le Déjeuner in the 1950’s and 60's, that Picasso was inspired by Le Déjeuner at a very early date.3 

Clockwise from top L: Detail of Ponce de Leon's Young People and a Fisherman; Picasso, details from Self-portrait with a Pipe (1904), Self-portrait in profile (1921), also Self-portrait in profile (1921).

That's why the figure wearing the hat in Ponce de Leon's painting (top left) is not just a fisherman. He's Picasso, as you can see from Picasso's earlier self-portraits. However, as in the vast majority of great portraits, he also resembles the artist, here Ponce, especially in the slightly hooked nose (which Picasso did not have) and prominent chin.4 As in examples under the theme Artist as Other Artist, one artist imagines himself as another, Ponce as Picasso, fellow-Malagans who shared an initial. The title of the painting should really be Young People with Ponce/Picasso.

L: Detail and diagram of Young People and a Fisherman; Top R: Picasso, Bullfight Scene (1955) with detail below; Bottom R: the Chi Rho monogram in its Christian form.

The fishing rods strengthen the link because, seen from Ponce/Picasso's point-of-view on the right, they form a (see diagram, lower left). Ponce must have known that it was a self-representational technique often used by Picasso. He was also familiar with the tradition of representing “paintbrushes” as fishing rods as Manet had done shortly before painting Le Déjeuner.5 Rods, by the way, make lines (and even have lines) like a drawing.

In addition, again from Ponce/Picasso's position, the rods form the proportions of Christ's Cross suggesting as so often the divinity and purity of the artist's mind at the moment of conception. They also form a version of the Chi Rho monogram long associated with Christ because X and P are the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek. I have shown before how in the 1950's Picasso used that symbol himself in bullfight scenes (top right and below) though it may have appeared earlier in his vast oeuvre. The Chi Rho, however, predated Christ. Most significantly perhaps, it was the shape used by Plato in Timaeus to describe how the two bands of the world soul (or animus mundi) cross each other and then bend into a circular form.6 Perhaps that is what is happening here. Platonism was not only a major influence on Christianity but, practiced as a discipline, is one of the earliest known forms of the Inner Tradition and of enormous importance to art. 

Detail of Ponce de Leon's Young People and a Fisherman

Next to the basket a hollow in the sand fills up with water from the pond. It is shaped like a right eye facing us with the reflection of the woman’s leg as its “pupil”. That makes sense because our minds reflect. The other “eye” then must be underneath the lovers, its fertility conveyed by the long grass bursting out of it. The lovers themselves would make it even more fertile and androgynous.7 

Ponce de Leon, Young People and a Fisherman (1936)

As so often, the hidden "eyes" of the artist are positioned near the lower edge of the image so that the scene above it is located where it should be, in Ponce's mind. Ponce de Leon imagines himself as Picasso, his fellow Malagan, conceiving a variation on Manet’s painting. Picasso and his dualistic reflection as the two women/artists have conceived the picture of "the couple on the grass”. Like the bather in Le Déjeuner, they are the “painting" in the painting. That is why they come out of his "eye" and why the light on the seated woman, especially on her white-stockinged legs, appears like studio light from behind the viewer. Picasso’s hat, in contrast, is lit from the left. These are perceptual clues Manet used in Le Déjeuner too.8 Ponce de Leon knows that and tells us.

His "Picasso/Ponce" and their natural female double at left are fishing (or searching) for inspiration, their rods crossing the solitary cloud which is itself representative of the imagination. Clouds often appear shapeless, and thus meaningless whether in nature or art, but they are in reality and in painting one form morphing into another. Art, like a cloud, means little until you make sense of it, an experience so enriching that it is, I believe, aesthetic satisfaction itself. 

1. Major artists have long warned others that a scene in art is not what it appears to be, as almost all of art history's many methodologies continue to presume. That is why Albrecht Dürer warned that the art of painting cannot be properly judged by anyone who is not himself a good painter, since the ability to do so “is denied to others, like a foreign language.” He said similarly that his Heller Altarpiece "may not please some art critics who would take it for a peasant picture. But I don’t try to please such people. I only paint for the intelligent.” Michelangelo said that “good painting is a music and a melody which only intellect can appreciate, and with great difficulty.” The art historian James Saslow has quite rightly claimed that Michelangelo's art gives “evidence of a language of coded understandings that are grasped only by initiates.” He modestly admits he is not one of them. In the 19th century Paul Cézanne said: “Art is accessible to only a very small number of people. The artist…must avoid thinking like a writer, which so often distracts the painter from his true goal, the direct study of nature, and causes him to waste his time in intangible theories.” Delacroix wrote in his Journal that ‘whatever his apparent subject, it is always himself that the artist paints." Picasso's oldest friend and long-time secretary "maintained that the meaning of his master’s art would be found when one learned to crack the code." Jackson Pollock hinted that his abstractions might not be abstract admitting "I choose to veil the imagery." In 1973 Francis Bacon was still saying: “Very few people have visual perception, it’s a very rare thing.” The idea that only artists can properly understand art seems to be similarly true of poetry. According to the American poet, Henry David Thoreau, “The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only poets can read them.”

Sources: Jane Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton University Press) 1990, pp. 102, 111; Francisco Da Hollanda, Dialogues with Michelangelo (Pallas Athene) 2007, p. 46; James Saslow, “The Unconsummated Portrait: Michelangelo’s Poems About Art” in Amy Golhany (ed.), The Eye of the Poet: Studies in the Reciprocity of the Visual and Literary arts from the Renaissance to the Present (Associated University Presses) 1996, p. 88; Michael Doran (ed.), Conversations with Cézanne, p. 30; The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, trans. L. Norton (Phaidon) 1995, p.xxi; Rosalind Krauss, The Picasso Papers (New York: Farar, Straus & Giroux) 1998, p. 209; B.H.Friedman, “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock”, in Jackson Pollock: Black and White (NY, 1969), p. 7, repr. in Jackson Pollock Interviews, Articles and Reviews, ed. Pepe Karmel (NY, 1999), pp. 35-8; Francis Bacon: New Studies, Centenary Essays (Steidl) 2010, p. 111; Thoreau, “Reading’ in Walden cited in Uncommon Learning: Henry David Thoreau on Education, ed. Martin Bickman (Houghton Miflin) 1999, p.17

2. See Abrahams "Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" (2006)

3. Bathers, a drawing by Picasso from 1908 is a good example in which the overall composition is based on Le Déjeuner. He has, however, replaced the "painted" bather in the background with a drawn copy of Manet's Fishing held up by a reclining figure. Both these works by Manet are referred to in Ponce's painting. See "Picasso's Sketches of Manet's Le Déjeuner" (2010).

4. For an explanation of face fusion, see dozens of examples under the theme Portraiture. See also "Picasso-as-Courbet" (2014).

5. For examples of Picasso's use of his initial P, see the 15 examples by him under the theme Letters in Art. Manet's Fishing (1862-3) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

6. The two bands described by Plato were the solar ecliptic path and the celestial equator. He wrote: "And thus the whole mixture out of which he cut these portions was all exhausted by him. This entire compound divided lengthways into two parts, which he joined to one another at the centre like the letter X, and bent them into a circular form, connecting them with themselves and each other at the point opposite to their original meeting-point; and, comprehending them in a uniform revolution upon the same axis, he made the one the outer and the other the inner circle." Timaeus 8:36b and 8:36c

7. See the theme Androgyny.

8. I have not mentioned before that I suspect that the entire composition of Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe is in the shape of an enormous eye, a pupil in its center. That is another reason Ponce de Leon might have positioned his "painting" within the painting coming out of his "eye". I thought when I first explained Manet's painting in 2004 that it was too far-fetched to suggest and not convincing enough. Now that I see Ponce de Leon refer to a "painting" in an "eye", I am changing my mind. That is a good example of how a later artist can teach you the meaning of earlier art.

Reader Comments

Could this also be another example of the Artist as Christ?  The Gospel of Mark ever red to Jesus as “the fisher of men.”

25 Sep 2014

Very true, Donna. Good point.

26 Sep 2014

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