“If you gods can give all things, may I have as my wife, I pray… one like the ivory maiden.” Picasso and the myth of Pygmalion

At the Picasso exhibition yesterday, there were a series of paintings that the catalogue mentioned as being like the myth of Pygmalion, where Picasso gradually brought Marie-Thérèse to life in art from sculpture to real woman.

The mythical story goes like this:

The Story of Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion was a sculptor par excellence, a man who gave to every one of his ivory a life-like appearance. His deep devotion to his art spared him no time to admire the beauty of women. His sculptures were the only beauty he knew.

For reasons known only to him, Pygmalion despised and shunned women, finding solace only in his craft. In fact, he was so condemning to women that he had vowed never to marry.

One fine day, Pygmalion carved the statue of a woman of unparalleled beauty. She looked so gentle and divine that he could not take his eyes off the statue. Enchanted with his own creation, he felt waves of joy and desire sweeping over his body and in a moment of inspiration he named the figurine, Galatea, meaning “she who is white like milk”.

He draped over her the finest of cloths and bedecked her with the most dazzling of ornaments, adorned her hair with the prettiest of flowers, gave to her the choicest of gifts and kissed her as a sign of adoration. Pygmalion was obsessed and madly in love with his creation. The spell the lifeless woman cast on him was too much to resist and he desired her for his wife. Countless were the nights and days he spent staring upon his creation.

In the meanwhile, the celebration of goddess Aphrodite was fast approaching and preparations were well under way. On the day of the festival, while making offerings to goddess Aphrodite, Pygmalion prayed with all his heart and soul, beseeching the goddess that she turns his ivory figurine into a real woman. Touched by his deep veneration, Aphrodite went to the workshop of Pygmalion to see this famous statue by herself.

When she looked upon the statue of Galatea, she was amazed by its beauty and liveliness. Looking closer, Aphrodite found that Galatea looked like her in beauty and perfection, so, satisfied, she granted Pygmalion his wish.

Upon returning home the master-sculptor went straight to Galatea, full of hope. At first, he noticed a flush on the cheeks of the ivory figurine but slowly it dawned upon him that Aphrodite had heard his pleas. Unable to restrain himself, he held Galatea in his arms and kept her strongly. What had been cold ivory turned soft and warm and Pygmalion stood back in amazement as his beloved figurine came into life, smiling at him and speaking words of admiration for her creator.

Their love blossomed over the days and before long, wedding vows were exchanged between the two lovers with Aphrodite blessing them with happiness and prosperity. The happy couple had a son, Paphos, who later founded the city of Paphos in Cyprus.

Source: www.greeka.com

Many artists and writers have used the story as inspiration; whether in literal terms, or allegorically, for example, George Bernard Shaw with the play, Pygmalion which introduced us to Eliza Doolittle, and Edward Burne Jones with his series of paintings on the subject:

With Picasso, what we saw in these paintings was a gradual change from Marie-Thérèse as a bust; cold and distant but overseeing the still life:

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to her becoming a double figure in ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’, with the fruit being pushed down into the bottom section of the canvas and the Philadrendon plant looming large over her recumbent body. The bust looks over her but is powerless:

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Free of all encumbrances, Marie-Thérèse lies peacefully, arm thrown back and the Philadrendon now seems to be coming into its own in ‘Nude in a Black Armchair’. Picasso loved this plant and always kept specimens of it in his studio. Its common name is ‘The Love Tree’ Subtlety and Picasso were never the best of friends!

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In the next painting, Picasso adds another element: ‘The Mirror’. The body is now completely exposed; just as you can walk around a statue to take in all angles, so now you are being permitted to do just that on a canvas. Picasso is being cheeky here (forgive the pun) but it seems appropriate when the catalogue included a quote allegedly by Picasso in which he said, “I would love to paint like a blind man who pictures an arse by the way it feels.”

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The final painting in the series is Girl Before a Mirror and here there is a change. The girl looks at herself for the first time, rather than out at us. This is so powerful as, just as with Galatea coming to life, Marie-Thérèse is now coming to us as a whole person. Her face is in two halves, gently pale in the profile angle, but harsher as she looks out at us. Her reflection is nothing like the real thing; symbolising perhaps her inner feelings and thoughts.

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Put all together, there is a powerful narrative here and one that mirrors the mythological story, giving us another aspect of the work to consider.

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