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Self-Identity and Picasso's Harlequin

Aaron Wasserman '05

Picasso's Harlequin (1915) is a backwards-looking piece. This is not meant to insinuate a regression in quality, but rather, a return to one of Picasso's favorite subjects: the harlequin. The harlequin frequently appeared in Picasso's works between 1901 and 1905, a hallmark of his "Rose Period," but was dormant for nearly a decade before its reappearance here. Those earlier harlequin figures represented Picasso's insertion of an alter-ego into his pieces, but upon its revival, the harlequin image was reconfigured using compositional techniques from Picasso's late-Cubist phase. Its identity is apparent because of its trademark outfit, but sparseness marks the canvas as the harlequin's body is reduced to panels and its face is removed, all of which is set against a black background. Because of the figure's symbolic legacy in Picasso's work, the return of the harlequin should be interpreted as Picasso's attempt to reconsider his artistic and social identities. This re-examination is ultimately a transformative one, as the Cubist-inspired formal techniques suggest the distortion of a former self and the closure of an era.

Theodore Reff argues that in the paintings of the "Rose Period," the harlequin definitely represented an alter-ego of Picasso, strongly indicated by Picasso's predilection for subtly inserting himself in his works. In the article "Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns and Fools," Reff writes, "...Picasso has always delighted in transforming reality itself into a theatrical event, in which he plays a definite role and often wears a mask or costume improvised for the occasion," and the harlequin was the inaugural figure in this recurring motif for a specific reason. According to Reff's research, the harlequin was a member of the Commedia dell'Arte in 16th-century, traveling European comedy troupes. Physically, he was like a precedent for the acrobat - supple and agile - but his character was subservient, that of a lackey. At the turn of the 20th century, as Picasso moved into the "Rose Period," public perception of the harlequin's performing role and lifestyle blended with those of the contemporary performers Reff also examines. Their characters had more pronounced lower-class stigmas, so that at the time Picasso became fascinated with the harlequin, its outcast status was being amplified.

The role of the outsider had a strong appeal to Picasso and provides an obvious explanation for his identification with the figure. By attaching his social status to that of the Commedia dell'Arte figure, Picasso exaggerated his isolated existence as an artist.  Picasso made this connection clear by attending the circus routinely and befriending the performers, which translated to the canvas most notably in the 1901 version of Harlequin and At the Lapin Agile (1904). Both works' primary subjects have the artist's parted hair and side-profile features, the latter the more apparent of the two because of its swept hair protruding from a harlequin's trademark hat. These alter-egos may be outsiders, however, but they are not downtrodden, pitiable ones; the two harlequins are contemplative, not distressed. The subject of the eponymous work sits at the edge of a café table, pointer and middle fingers poised at the top of his cheekbone and head angled slightly downwards, as he ruminates into the distance. At the Lapin Agile's harlequin stands at the café's bar in more of a three-quarter stance - open, reflective, almost poignant. Behind him, a woman in side-profile pouts and while the harlequin's hand does rest on his hip in a traditionally annoyed posture, displeasure is not an adequate description of his countenance. In this era, the harlequin was Picasso's artistic peer, but this association produced thoughtful, sober, emotionally neutral figures.

Such an analysis - mining the harlequin figure for psychological insight - is typical of the "Rose Period," whose works are traditionally read for their emotional meaning, but it is far different than the Cubist era's, which traditionally have been much more formal in nature. However, the harlequin is capable of bridging the two eras and their analytical approaches because it possesses psychological depth and heavily relies on technical skill. Reff comments, "For like a Cubist composition, the Harlequin's costume of flat, bright colors and strongly marked patterns both fragments and conceals the underlying forms, assimilating them to a surface design of great decorative brilliance."  This is well illustrated in At the Lapin Agile: The green, yellow and red diamonds of the harlequin's outfit flatten the figure's body; the geometric emphasis removes the body's depth, as if there is a greater interest in showing multiple perspectives and angles than in creating three dimensions, a trademark feature of Cubist works. Additionally, the costume's bright colors attract intense attention, almost removing the torso from its placement within the full body. Because of this design, the harlequin figure is not that inappropriate within a Cubist context and the figure's iconic history in Picasso's oeuvre provides a starting point for a psychological analysis atypical to the era's analyses.

In the 1915 version of Harlequin, Picasso exaggerates these Cubist qualities. The diamonds are misshapen, resembling irregular polygons, and a beige cross-hatching design weaves through them, warping the trademark outfit. What would be the harlequin's body is reduced to a rigid, rectangular figure, standing somewhat preposterously at a diagonal angle. Its proportions are all wrong - incredibly thin torso and legs, but remarkably vertical; the figure moves up through the canvas, bisecting it, but without moving backwards into space. The harlequin's outfit in At the Lapin Agile thins his body; this harlequin is only a two-dimensional plane. The harlequin's characteristics have been reduced to caricature and the work's Cubist conventions make the identifying marks mere symbols. Such a distortion indicates there is no longer an association between the figure and the artist and it now seems more like a mockery of the form. Picasso has returned to a familiar alter-ego, but the disfigurement suggests this identity is a former one.

However, according to an essay by Kirk Varnedoe, written as one of many accompaniments to the recent exhibit "Matisse Picasso," Picasso's re-evaluation is so sharp only because his formal techniques were revitalized by Matisse's Goldfish and Palette (1914). Varnedoe believes that the two canonical artists had an influential artistic dialogue during the late-Cubist years, beginning with Matisse's reaction to Cubism. Goldfish and Palette excerpts certain compositional techniques from Picasso's collage Guitar (1913): an aqua-blue background, stark shadowing contrasts between black and white and a thick black bar that divides the canvas.  These stylistic changes have an interesting reductive and transformative effect: With only a few simple figures and dark hues, Matisse conveys a grave tone within his studio, an effect that seems to be missing from the collage predecessor.

Just as Matisse grappled with Cubism, Picasso did the same with his peer's response to, and possible improvement of, the style, which Varnedoe's recounting of Matisse's reaction to Harlequin emphasizes. Supposedly, upon viewing Picasso's new work in Léonce Rosenberg's gallery, Matisse proclaimed it was Picasso's best work to-date, but he also bestowed a compliment upon himself, remarking that his last goldfish-themed work had led Picasso to this new harlequin-themed work.  Matisse's evaluation is egotistical, but it does have some merit considering how, like Matisse, Picasso constructs his canvas to convey a powerful message without using many forms or a complicated arrangement. In Harlequin, Picasso seems to transform the thick black bar of Goldfish and Palette into the harlequin's figure. The rest of the work is equally spare, but also moving: Simple, one-color, layered forms that still boldly contrast each other; even the comparatively complex design of the harlequin's outfit is a simplified rendering of the actual design, indicating the figure's identity with reduced figures, and it is that design that contributes most profoundly to the identity distortion pervasive through the work.

Yet, the work's most hauntingly simple feature, the black background, is probably influenced by a different, and more profound, biographical development than an artistic dialogue with Matisse. As Picasso began working on Harlequin, his mistress, Eva Gouel, became sick; through her sickness, Picasso visited Gouel everyday at the hospital. On December 9, 1915, Picasso wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein, telling her he had just finished a new work titled Harlequin. Gouel died five days later and Picasso was distraught for several weeks.  Given the close overlapping of the painting's birth and Gouel's death, it seems that this personal development contributes more to an interpretation of Harlequin than the idea of an artistic dialogue with Matisse does. A black background might be the most direct method of conveying a depressed or disconsolate state and this thick black backdrop properly captures Picasso's mental state while creating the work. In addition, the brushstrokes are incredibly firm in this background; there is no indication of messy, haphazard work. The deliberate, authoritative brushwork helps express a solid, total unhappiness.

Gouel's death was part of a period of social transition in Picasso's life and this change contributes to the predominant theme of identity distortion in Harlequin. At the same time of Gouel's death, two of Picasso's close friends, the painter Georges Braque and the poet Guillame Apollinaire, enlisted in the army and Picasso began spending time with a new circle of friends, including the art dealer Pail Rosenberg, the poet Jean Cocteau and the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, whom he would later marry.  This transitional social life is reflected in the work's changing state. Picasso biographer John Richardson states that as Picasso began working on Harlequin, Cocteau was hopeful to have Picasso paint a portrait of him in a "Rose Period" style; when Cocteau arrived at Picasso's studio in July 1915 he was even wearing a harlequin outfit underneath his jacket.  Richardson admits it is difficult to precisely date and confirm these events' occurrence, but if Picasso's rejection of Cocteau's portraiture idea did happen, it indicates he was not ready to commit his new friends to canvas yet, particularly using the vaunted harlequin model as inspiration. Furthermore, Richardson reveals that the initial preparations for Harlequin were two pencil drawings, both titled Dancers, depicting a dancing couple, most likely Picasso and Gouel. In the actual work, Gouel is erased - although Richardson suggests the green and brown panels underneath the harlequin in the final version are an incredibly reduced form of the second dancer - signifying Gouel has left Picasso's life. This pictorial removal of his mistress connects with Picasso's decision to distort a former alter-ego; as Gouel is no longer part of his identity, Picasso wants to leave an older, but equally important, part of his identity behind, too. Combined, these artistic decisions represent a passing era in Picasso's life, a form of closure.

The other form that implies Picasso's desire to abandon a facet of his identity is the primarily white square located in the work's mid-right portion. A similar square also appears in a similar canvas location in Matisse's Goldfish and Palette and both Richardson and Varnedoe (this time, in a different essay, "Picasso's Self Portraits," written to accompany the 1996 exhibit "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation") interpret these squares as an empty canvas. They believe both artists borrowed this idea from Cezanne's Self Portrait with Palette (1885-1887) because of the thumb, or representation of a thumb, that protrudes from the canvas in all three works.  Another reason to interpret this form as a canvas, particularly in Harlequin, is the square's brushstrokes; compared to the rest of work, they are much looser and random, connoting the quick strokes an artist would use to mix paint on his canvas.

More interestingly about the canvas is the beige "blob" of paint that both Richardson and Varnedoe read as a self-portrait in profile. Initially a somewhat preposterous idea, this form does have the ridge of a forehead and a slanting nose, validating this impression and transforming the second canvas into another self-portrait. Regarding Picasso's creation of this profile, Varnedoe comments, " 'Projecting' his shadow as a sidewise, silhouetted bust with no hands seems a strange way to position himself as an objective outsider...denying the frontality and hands-on agency of the conscious painter, he literally does not 'face up' to his role as inventor of the image."  By inserting this second portrait, Picasso adds another layer of self-portraiture to the work. Now, Harlequin is a depiction of an artistic alter-ego of the painter holding an actual, if somewhat fuzzy, self-portrait of the painter. Yet the marked separate placement of the side-profile is crucial because it indicates Picasso's true self exists outside of the harlequin figure and identity. The side profile lacks agency because Picasso is positioning himself as a distant observer of the harlequin figure and all of its alter-ego connotations. Whereas Reff's writing about the "Rose Period" harlequin uses a psychoanalytic interpretation to connect Picasso to the performer, Varnedoe's argument posits a different psychoanalytic interpretation in which Picasso's return to the harlequin results in the artist separating himself from this piece of his identity. The placement of a second self in the work is the final distortion and rejection of Picasso's longtime alter-ego.

Even though the harlequin figure had the status of a trademark figure and alter-ego in Picasso's "Rose Period" works, its nearly decade-long absence from his oeuvre makes the return to the figure in 1915's Harlequin a reconsideration of self-perception and the figure's role in the formation of identity through artwork. Through the "Rose Period," Picasso made the connection between himself and the harlequin obvious to the viewer and portrayed the harlequin as a contemplative artist. However, upon the harlequin's re-emergence, Picasso used Cubism's formal techniques to exaggerate the subject's appearance, strongly suggesting a mockery or distortion of this alter-ego. This composition, particularly its stark black background and earlier states, also reflected the transitional phase of Picasso's social life in which his mistress died and his circle of friends changed. By removing his mistress from the work, Picasso is trying to find closure in this period of his life and couples it with the disfigurement of the harlequin, leaving behind another prominent identifying characteristic. Picasso's insertion of a second, fuzzy self-portrait that is detached from the harlequin completes this rejection of the alter-ego. Picasso is observing the harlequin as an outsider, implying he has discarded the harlequin alter-ego, finalizing his change of identity.

Works Cited
Reff, Theodore. "Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns and Fools." Artforum 10, no. 1 (1971): 30-43.

Richardson, John. A Life of Picasso: 1907-1917, The Painter of Modern Life. New York:  Random House, 1996.

Varnedoe, Kirk. "Essay #12." In Matisse, Picasso, edited by Elizabeth Golding, et al.
 Published to accompany the exhibition. London: Tate Publishing, 2002.

Varnedoe, Kirk. "Picasso's Self Portraits." In Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, edited by William Rubin. Published to accompany the exhibition. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996.


About writing, Aaron says:  "I think that academic writing is at its best when it is presented simply - strong verbs, an active voice and concise sentences. I work hard to make an essay appeal to readers who only have a cursory background in the subject material, not just academics or students familiar with the topic. In the essay's introduction, I like to present the historical storyline that surrounds the academic question and then use the story's characters and commentators to explore, complicate and, hopefully, better explain the topic."