Pablo Picasso's The Tragedy: Metamorphosis of a Painting
"What comes out in the end is the result of the discarded finds."
- Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) often left visual clues on the surfaces of his paintings to suggest a hidden image underneath, as on The Tragedy of 1903. Artists frequently make changes to a painting or reuse a canvas or panel with an image already painted on it. Often the supports are reworked because an artist cannot afford to purchase new materials. An artist also may scrape off an earlier painting and start again or occasionally cover an abandoned image with a uniform coat of ground. Picasso did this very rarely. When he reworked his paintings, he most often did so directly over earlier images, neither using a "clean" side nor obliterating the abandoned attempt. Early in his career, financial constraints were certainly part of his motivation for reusing supports, but Picasso reworked paintings throughout his lifetime. His reworking was not done because he was frugal, but for Picasso the initial subject, the shape or form on the canvas, often revealed itself in a different guise as he worked on or returned to a picture, and it served as a new inspiration.
Examining the Painting
When Picasso's The Tragedy, painted in Barcelona in 1903, was examined in the conservation studio, two visual clues suggested the existence of changes or another painting beneath the three solemn figures on the beach. First, raking light defined an area of impasto that cuts across the horizontal part of the man's folded right arm, bearing no relation to the drape of his garment.
Second, vivid yellow and orange tones without a visual connection to the monochromatic blue of the final painting could be seen in areas of minor abrasion and through cracks and brush strokes in the top layer of paint.
Random Sketches, 1899
Infrared reflectography of the work revealed randomly placed sketches, caricatures, and lettering beneath the paint, which appear to have been drawn hastily, directly on the wood support. The elongated faces and the grouping of the drawings are reminiscent of those in Picasso's 1899 sketchbooks, suggesting that the panel was in his studio for four years before he completed The Tragedy.
Bullfight Images, 1901
To better understand the composition that is beneath the visible one, an x-radiograph was taken of the painting. When viewed horizontally, the x-radiograph shows an elongated, tortured horse at the lower right-hand corner. In addition to the horse, one can identify the outline of the bullring and the arches of the stadium.
Bullfight Images, 1901
The image revealed by the x-radiograph is clearly related to Picasso’s 1901 bullfight scenes, such as those shown here. Along with the emergence of a bright color palette beneath the surface blue of The Tragedy, there is ample evidence to suggest that he painted a large bullfight composition on this wooden support.
El Arrastre, 1902
Supplementing the x-radiograph, an infrared study was done at a different wavelength. Rather than showing only an enhanced image of the discovered bullring composition, the new infrared image revealed an entirely separate composition. It showed a prancing horse with a bound tail and a headdress, as well as a small figure in profile and the legs of another figure in motion. Picasso abandoned the 1901 work, not to paint The Tragedy, but to produce a scene similar to a pencil drawing of 1902, Corrida de toros: El Arrastre, an image that depicts the dragging of the dead animals from the bullring.
Clearly Picasso used the panel at least four times. In 1899 it became the support for quickly drawn sketches; in 1901 he painted a bullring; in 1902 he painted a work similar to the pencil drawing of El Arrastre, and in 1903 he covered all the other images with The Tragedy.
Rather than simply reusing the support because he was poor or dissatisfied with his work, it is important to understand that Picasso incorporated each layer into the subsequent one because he believed that a painting was the "sum of destructions." The arched forms of the stadium evolved into the plumes of the horses' headdresses, and the head of the leading horse became the contour of the man's head and shoulders in the final composition of The Tragedy.
The process of painting The Tragedy emerged as part of the final image itself. Picasso continued to rework his paintings throughout his long career as an artist. He often left clues on the surface, which draw the viewer's attention to the metamorphosis of a work of art.