Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Tag: art history

You Decide!

Hello Lobster-friends!

In the spirit of democracy and of this blog (it is called “Dial The Lobster” after all) I’d like for YOU to decide which painting or artwork I will discuss next. Have a favorite artwork you’d like to share? Wanna hear my spin on it? Just leave a note in the comments below 🙂


The Lobster.


There’s Nothing Wrong with Sentimentality in Art

Lobster-friends, a lot of art critics deride ‘sentimental’ art. Philosopher/critic Anthony Savile states that sentimental art is deceptive, promoting a “false picture of the world,” and an escape from reality.

No exhibit more poignantly captures the dichotomy between escapism and reality than “Pompeii, The Exhibition,” currently showing at the California Science Center in L.A. The gallery takes us on a tour of artifacts culled from Pompeii’s gorgeous villas and gardens – many of them heady with the scent of escapism and, yes, sentimentality. We know where all this is tending, of course. With horrible irony, the ‘post-volcano-eruption’ section of the gallery displays casts of Vesuvius’ victims, curled up, hands over mouths to shield them from the ash – they look horribly like sculptures; the kind that Pompeii’s many wealthy citizens commissioned for their gardens.

And yet…perusing this exhibit, none of the art from Pompeii feels like an escape from reality, though much of it is undeniably sentimental. Take a look at this adorable marble sculpture from a garden villa: as pristine as if it had been carved yesterday.

four little dogs

Evidently, this little quartet of dogs belonged to the villa’s owner, and desiring to capture them forever (goal achieved) the owner had them turned into art, only to be dug up years later during Pompeii’s excavation.

Maybe it’s me, but I see no ‘escape from reality’ here. There is nothing fantastic or escapist about emotion and love to my mind. Maybe when a work of art is overwrought with emotion to the point where it is melodramatic or unbelievable: yes, that’s another story. But to decry sentimental art in general seems like a gross misunderstanding of what sentimentality is. Far from being divorced from reality, sentiment allows us to connect in a visceral way with that which is, to us, most real. And for most of us that means our family, our children, our friends, cute kitty YouTube videos, our pets – essentially, our relationships. Not wars and bombs and poverty and death. Obviously, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about those things (of course we should) or that we should shy away from them. But to argue a point on the basis of what is and isn’t ‘real’ seems simultaneously sweeping and reductive.

“Four Little Dogs,” is not simply a charming, sentimental piece. It’s a powerful statement about what endures, and what has endured: the simple beauty of life, and of love.

Salvador Dali Says…Hit The Snooze Button!

Hey Lobster-folk!

You know that feeling in the morning when you’re still exhausted and just can’t BEAR to get of bed? The alarm is pinging in your ears, thoughts of work are swirling in your imagination (oh no! The presentation is today!) and then suddenly you remember with a feeling of ecstatic, er, ecstasy….I HAVE A SNOOZE BUTTON!!!

Well, I don’t know when the snooze button was invented- although whoever invented it is surely one of the unsung heroes of the 20th century- but with his usual uncanny prescience I believe Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” might contain a hidden message for snooze-button-aficianados everywhere. Here’s the painting, which you will recognize from museum gift shop teatowels worldwide:

As the MOMA website helpfully reminds us, this painting is indubitably about time. Note the melty clocks. But how come no one has suggested that this painting isn’t REALLY about time, it’s about sleep: how lovely it is, and how we really, really don’t want to wake up and go to work?

Firstly, look how happy Dali is! Yes, that weird squidgy figure with one eye is supposedly Dali himself. And I love how perfectly Dali captures that blissful feeling of sleep, whilst at the same time showing in a concrete way the weird detachment we have from our bodies when we doze. You know how sometimes our legs twitch or kick up? We’re not feeling part of ourselves. And here, Dali’s tongue dribbles out of his nose as he snoozes away.

Draped over his form is a blanket, but it’s not a blanket – it’s a clock. Ugh, that ever present reminder that we will have to get up soon. Similarly, a tree is holding out- like a butler I can’t help but think- another clock, draped like a towel (shower-time?) And then two more clocks: one draped over the edge of the table (perhaps representing an alarm clock) and the other, face down, appears to be a wind-up pocket watch of some sort – the portable watch we take to work (now called an I-phone). It’s swarming with ants, as if it’s a crumb of food. There’s a weird irony to ants being attracted to something so clean and shiny, but that just goes to show how much Dali hates clocks in the morning. To him, they’re crumb-like annoyances he’d like to brush off. And why is it face down? Maybe because Dali can’t bear to think about….work, or life!

It makes sense that these clocks are melting…in a half-asleep state time is humming round the edges of our consciousness, and their softness here crystallizes this idea in visual form.

But if we are in any doubt as to the ‘hidden’ meaning of this painting, look at the time on the clocks: five minutes to seven! Yes, folks, just like you and me, Dali only has five minutes to sleep until that alarm goes off! If snooze buttons had been invented back when Dali was around (HAD THEY?) he’d definitely be using it methinks.

Am I reading into this too much? Am I bonkers? I literally can’t read this painting in any other way, and yet I’ve never read a similar analysis. Let me know what you think!


The Lobster.

A Book and A Painting…Sargent and Henry James.

It’s time to crack open those pumpkins! Just kidding…in L.A. at least, it’s rocking the high 90s, and it was 104 today! But for some reason the stores are full of candy corn and foam spiders. Still, at least I am honoring fall in my own special way. I’m rereading the gothic novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James (published 1898…I think!).

James was a realist, but here he takes realism and, well, ‘turns the screw’ on it a bit, heightening realism’s pitch until it teeters dangerously into what some might call psychosis.

It tells the story of a governess who is semi-seduced (this bit, like the rest of the novel, is ambiguous) into taking “full custody and care” of her handsome employees’ charges: a very creepy pair of kids, Miles and Flora. You know that bit in The Shining, with the twins in the corridor? Anyway, this “angelic” couple start to see and hear things (ghosts, of course) but pretend they don’t. The governess is desperate to ‘save their souls’ from the corrupt evil influences that pervade the house, and sets out on a mission to confront this evil. The ending, like the rest of the novel, forces us to question the reliability of the governess’ narrative, as well as the nature of this evil, which is never named by James, but subtly suggested to be of a sexual nature.

James basically took the Victorian notion that children are ‘pure and innocent’ little darlings, and turned this on its head. At the same time he foreshadowed Freud’s writings on “Family Romances,” “Repression,” and “The Uncanny,” by alluding to…well, pretty much all of these things.

He was also friends with John Singer Sargent, whose painting “Daughters of Edward Darley Bolton,” reminds me eerily of the tone and mood of “…Turn of the Screw.”

Sargent Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt

Ostensibly a painting depicting the four children of a rich family, there is something a bit ‘off’ here, isn’t there? The strange doppelganger effect of the two children in the shadows, echoing the doubling of the tall vases both left and right. The shadows themselves. The way the children stare at us, as if guilty. Or…is it we who are guilty? As a viewer, this painting feels designed to make us uncomfortable, just as we feel uncomfortable in our encounters with Miles and Flora in James’ book.

Some people have perhaps read a bit too much into the ambiguity of the painting, suggesting a direct correlation between childhood and corruption/evil, as in “Turn of the Screw.” Rather, I think this painting just makes the point that we don’t always feel comfortable around children, for a variety of reasons. Ever seen a child have a conversation with an invisible friend? Ever seen one kid pummel another kid? Children are ‘tapped into’ a never-ending stream of fantastic and, yes, violent thoughts. Of course, Lewis Carroll knew this only too well, using this knowledge to great effect in “Alice in Wonderland” – who can forget the Queen of Hearts’ cry of, “off with her head”? I think Sargent realizes it too, along with his friend Henry. It’s not that children are corruptible per se, or less innocent than they seem…it’s that they revel in imaginative, scary, uncensored worlds in a shamelessly abandoned way that we cannot ourselves indulge in. Unless, of course, we go mad. And THAT’S why it’s scary.

Now the twins in “The Shining,” are another matter entirely.

A Poem and A Painting: The Art of Losing

Hey Lobsterites!

I thought it might be fun and interesting to start a little series where I pair amazing poems with equally amazing artworks that (to my mind) illustrate, clarify, or expand upon a theme from the poem. Today’s pairing is about loss, and how and why we might lose someone. First, the poem. It is the incredible “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop. This is probably my favorite poem of all time, which is why I chose it for this first ‘pairing’ experiment…


One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


What I love about this poem is the pay-off at the end. The moment when we realize that losing her loved one IS a momentous disaster, despite the author’s attempts to kid herself that it’s not-  that it’s akin to losing ‘things.’ We learn simultaneously how much she loves him: more than her memories of people and places; more than her ‘cities’ and ‘realms,’ which makes the loss seem even more staggering. And then the incredibly self-deprecating refrain, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” which reminds us with a kind of savagery that we should never take what we have for granted, and that the ‘losing’ of it is our own fault. The whole poem is a downward spiral as well, from the mundane and trivial annoyance of losing keys, to the grief of losing a loved one. It’s a masterclass in poetry.

Now to the artwork. Despite my alliterative blog post title, this isn’t a painting, but a sculpture! I chose Bernini’s exquisite “Apollo and Daphne” (1622-25) which I find almost impossible to view without a tear welling up. Some backstory: Apollo was in love with the beautiful nymph, Daphne, but she was a proto-feminist, and wouldn’t succumb to his (or any man’s) advances, preferring to spend her time rambling in the woods. When Apollo (with some help from Eros) finally catches her, Daphne pleaded with her father, Peneus  to save her, which he does: by turning her into a tree.

This story had been told in art many times before, but never with the sense of horror  that Bernini manages to convey. This is, to all intents and purposes, a rape about to happen. A double-horror stems from Daphne’s shock as her hands begin to morph into leaves.

Despite its underlying violence, Bernini doesn’t want us to think of Apollo as a monster. When you look at Apollo’s face close-up it is full of sadness, shock, and a sense of loss. And there is sadness too in the fact that where his hand finally touches the object of his desires, she has already turned into tree-bark. Daphne is a metaphor not just for Apollo having to face the consequences of loving ‘too much,’ but for the ‘art of losing’ in general. We lose, both Bishop and Bernini say, through an excess of wanting and striving, and an inability to accept the inevitability of loss. Bernini says it loudly and plainly; Bishop coyly and ironically, but the message is the same: we must let go of what we cannot have or risk losing not just a person dear to us, but ourselves as well.

apollo and daphne

Are You A Romantic? Take This Quiz to Find Out!

Are you a Romantic? Here’s a quick quiz! Tot up how many of these you answer ‘true’ for.

1. Do you gnash your teeth at night worrying about things you really shouldn’t worry about, like the implications of the fact that in 2 billion years we’re going to collide with another galaxy? WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!

2. Do you ever have cravings for opium or other narcotics?

3. Have you ever considered starting or joining a revolution?

4. Do you have misplaced/misguided ideas about what constitutes a utopia?

5. Has your mental or physical health deteriorated as a result of futile creative endeavors?

6. Do you have friends with names like Montmartre or Dorian?

7. Do you have a love interest who doesn’t love you back but sort of leads you on and likes to hold arty-type soirees?

8. Have you coughed up blood recently? (If so, heads-up: you’re doomed).

9. Are you so over-emotional that your friends won’t let you watch “The Notebook?”

10. Is Don Quixote your literary hero?

11. Do you love being out in nature, sketching flowers, and writing odes to the sea?

If you answered ‘true’ to at least eight of the above statements, you’re probably a Romantic. Congrats!

Some people really hate Romanticism for all its emotionality and melodrama, and it’s generally seen as the ‘opposite’ of realism, which depicts the nitty-gritty world as it actually is and nobly tries to take the focus off of the interiority of self and instead shine a  spotlight on, you know, actual real suffering.

Isn’t that a tad demeaning though? As Hamlet says, who amongst us can cope with the ‘thousand shocks that flesh is heir to?’ Romantics may be kind of angsty but isn’t that just an honest admittance of what we’re all secretly going through? Just think about the 101 bombardments upon your well-being and self-esteem TODAY. I’m not just talking about that negative self-talk we all perpetuate in our minds, but actual things that happen, from a put-down at work, to realizing you’re wearing odd socks; from losing a game of tennis, to burning the gravy; from giving up on that book you were reading, to feeling envious of someone on Facebook. It’s enough to make anyone’s head explode. And yet, we soldier on. That’s the real Romantic message, I think: that in the face of abject misery every day and the ultimate bummer that we’re all going to die sooner or later, there’s beauty and wonder in the world around us. According to the Romantics, it is our ‘duty’ to honor, celebrate, and get in touch with that beauty- which is actually a pretty selfless notion when you think about it.  As Keats so perfectly put it, ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty.’

This is all a long preamble to sharing one of my favorite paintings by Gustave Courbet: a self-portrait entitled “The Desperate Man” (1845).

desperate man

Courbet started out his career as a Romantic and later became a Realist, which I think is kind of a shame. In this startling work we are forced to confront the ‘thousand shocks’ Hamlet talks about, head-on. It’s a self-portrait, yes, but we’re also looking into the abyss of our own desperation, writ large and inescapable. Ironically, it’s a kind of realism, albeit of the psychological kind: the reality that we’re all a total mess, even though we conceal this fact from others or sublimate it in order to soothe our own egos. Perhaps Gustave’s shift to realism was a sublimation of his own despair.

But let’s end on a happy note, shall we? After all, not all the Romantics died of consumption or suicide. Shelley drowned in a boating accident!


The Lobster.

Where Can Meaning Be Found? In the Decision to Find Meaning.

I realized that my last blog post about enjoying art didn’t address the ‘particular challenges’ (no irony here folks!) of getting/enjoying contemporary art…what an oversight! However, I’m going to do my best to address my lackadaisicality in this area and put on my best black beret to do so, because I’m coming over all…rather…a bit…arrgh…philosophery!

OK, so art becomes meaningful for us when it has meaning FOR us. As in, for you personally. That meaning can stem from many sources: the color, the story, the emotion, whatever. But it’s definitely a lot easier to make meaning when there is a) story involved and b) emotion involved. Remove those from the equation, and we can feel a bit stranded.

But, here’s an oasis! And it’s you! From my (admittedly only 34 years of) experience, it is entirely possible to force the issue and create meaning for yourself when before there was none. It’s a decision. And just to be clear, finding meaning in something doesn’t mean you understand it, get it, or know what the artist is saying. Meaning means you’ve internalized it, identified with it, and aligned some part of yourself with this external thing. You’re invested in it, so to speak. I’m not just talking about art either, but books, jobs, friendships, articles we read, etc. etc. I think it’s a general misconception that meaning is found: that we read that novel that ‘speaks to us,’ and thus find it meaningful. It’s nice when that happens,  but sometimes meaning must be worked for. I’ll give you an example.

I often teach “Of Mice and Men.” Boy, did I have to work hard to make that novel meaningful for me. I’m not sure why it turns me off- I just don’t connect with the plot, the characters, or…well, any aspect of the book, to be honest. However, my students love it (for some reason) and so I realized I must be missing something. I made a conscious decision that this book had meaning for me, and guess what? Just by making that decision, I began to unearth enough good within the book that I could connect with it and make it meaningful for me. I’ve had this happen with relationships too, when I’ve felt a relationship drift and then bring it back into focus by reminding myself that this relationship IS meaningful to me, and presto! So it is. I bet you can think of other examples. We might sometimes call this ‘forcing ourselves to like something’ (i.e. video games because our partner plays them) or ‘acquiring a taste’ because we want to align with that thing (i.e. red wine). The result, though, is usually the same – a widening of our horizons and our capacity to enjoy and appreciate the world around us.

OK, back to art. Plus, I’ve used the word meaning way too many times. Oh well…

I remember vividly the first time I saw Carl Andre’s controversial Bricks. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a pile of bricks. Literally. Here, see for yourself.


They’re stacked to form a shallow, perfect rectangle, but other than that the artist has been hands-off. To say I struggled to find meaning in this artwork is an understatement. Initially, I brushed it off disdainfully (and I’m so ashamed to say that I did the same with a Rothko painting nearby) and went on my merry way. Probably back to the Impressionist gallery. However, something nagged at me, and that was the feeling that I hadn’t given this supposed masterwork a decent shot. So I went back to the bricks, and…this will sound weird, but I felt sorry for them. They were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and would never be ‘built’ into anything useful or used for their true purpose. Well, that was it. I had forced myself to make meaning out of this pile of bricks, and in succeeding I had forged a connection with it that was even more poignant because of my initial rejection. Did I buy a postcard of them? You bet.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, if she were still with us today and my best friend, modern art is Mr. Darcy, not Mr. Bingley. It doesn’t lead us by the hand into understanding it – in fact, it might at first spark our distrust and dislike. It definitely resists the easy meaning-making that older art often encourages. But that’s why it’s so awesome! It empowers you to practice that meaning-making muscle, and find reasons to like a work – or not. Just think again before totally dismissing it.



10 Hacks for Enjoying Art in an Art Gallery

1) Skim. Rather than working your way around the gallery’s perimeter like some crazy-art-ninja, let your eyes move quickly over the works in the room- don’t read the plaques! Let your eyes settle on one work that speaks to you. Spend time with that work…how?

2) Despite what you may have heard, context (especially historical) can be useful. Now’s the time to read the plaque…

3) …but don’t let the plaque hold you back from forming your own opinions. Guess what? You can disagree with the plaque! If the curator says that this work is a ‘depiction of heroism,’ and you don’t think so, or think it’s more complicated than that, trust your instincts. Many works of art do explore a ‘theme,’ but it might not be the one the plaque says it is, or you might notice a different one that’s more meaningful for you.

4) Bring what you know to the painting. Whether your expertise is history, math, people, or cooking, you have a wide range of experiences and skill sets that will affect how you view the work. Most people read the plaque, take that information and apply it to a new reading of the work, and then move on. Don’t be that person! Spend a bit more time with the artwork and try reading into it a bit yourself. Perhaps you think this artist did an amazing job with color. Perhaps you love the way the artist captured a particular emotion. Perhaps you notice perspective, or can compare the fashions of the time to the fashions of today. Find your ‘in.’

5) Look ‘deeper’ into the painting. Most people look at faces and action in a work of art, but often ignore the background or the small details. Experiment with looking at the background, the smaller details, the ‘fur on the dog’ so to speak. You might be surprised how much this helps you enjoy the work as a whole.

6) Take a picture. If you’re not allowed, buy the postcard. Find out more about that artist and his/her art, when you get home. You will appreciate the work on a whole other level. Now with the power of Google of course, you can even do research on a gallery bench.

7) Time to challenge your own preconceptions! Choose an artwork that you don’t like, and repeat steps 2-6. We’re not really wired to do this, but this is what art historians do all the time and one of the main reasons I ended up liking (instead of hating with a passion) Pre-Raphaelite art. Once I knew where the artists were coming from, I could appreciate the art a lot more. I’ll never love Pre-Raphaelite art, but learning and growing isn’t just about discovering what you love – it’s also finding reasons to tolerate or like what you thought you never could.

8) If you really don’t like a work of art, try and give reasons for not doing so. “I just don’t like it,” gets you nowhere. Art is obviously very subjective but…not that subjective. Reason-finding is another art historian trick, and is a great mental exercise that helps you in the process of discovering your likes and dislikes. Contrary to what you might think, being able to put into words how you feel and why you feel a certain way is an important step in learning how to appreciate art. Which brings me to…

9) Take a journal with you to the gallery in which to scribble your thoughts down. This will make the whole experience way more concrete and tangible for you, and is great for researching later (plus, you’ll look kind of cool).

10) Let yourself be moved if something moves you. It’s amazing how people sometimes turn away from a work of art right at the moment they begin to ‘feel’ something. Let yourself be with the feeling. Write about it. Dwell.

There you go- my top ten hacks for enjoying art more. I hope they help!

Food Porn vs. Still-Life

Before my ‘official’ post, apologies for being away…had a lovely vacay-cay with my family, so blogging took a bit of a back seat. But I’m back now 🙂 And so, onward…

Has anyone you know facebooked a photo of their dinner recently? Yes? Then, congratulations! You’ve been food-porned! Wayne Beynon at The Guardian writes of food porn: “There are lots of theories about why people like to share pictures of food. In most cases, people are simply documenting their daily lives, of which mealtimes may be a highlight. As eating is one of society’s most essential communal activities, sharing food photos is a natural extension of this in a digital age. Some simply love beautiful “food art” shots, while others suggest that food has become a status symbol, and by sharing a photo of a meal, particularly from a high end restaurant, you raise your social media hierarchy.”

Lots of people hate food porn, and I can understand why. The superficiality of it trivializes our lives, and it seems horribly decadent considering that hunger is still the world’s number one health risk. So I’m not here to justify our penchant for snapping pictures of our dinners, but rather to…let’s say, add to the conversation. For whilst food porn is condemned by many as a symptom of contemporary greed and narcissism, we forget that it’s not actually a new phenomenon. Still-life paintings have been capturing the sensuous and inviting aspects of food since…well, since we’ve had still-life paintings. In fact, the first ‘still-life’ we know of is a Roman wall painting and, guess what? It features an artfully arranged bowl of fruit. And have a look at this beautiful Chardin, with its pearlized cherries and dusky plums.


Still-lifes of  food have functioned variously as reminders of our fragile lives in the Dutch vanitas style, as status symbols, where tables heave with not just food but trinkets and treasures, and – as with Chardin I think- reminders of the simple pleasures of life. We’ve always celebrated food and eating, and if cameras had been available back in the day, I reckon there would have been a lot of pictures taken of food. So snap away…just don’t humblebrag them all on Facebook!

The Surprising Truth About Who You Are(n’t)

I’m reading a book right now called “Generation Me” by Jean M. Twenge which argues that children born in the 70s-00’s are raised to believe in the power of the individual and that the self (like love) conquers all. It’s an interesting read, but the book never raises the intriguing question of what constitutes self-hood for this generation, and I would assume that this is because we just don’t know. After all, our experience of ‘selfness’ is totally subjective. But you wouldn’t think so from the well-worn platitudes lobbed at us every day: ‘know yourself,’ ‘be true to yourself,’ and ‘love yourself for who you are,’ spring instantly to mind. Such Generation Me aligned philosophies imply that we should know who we are, and that if we don’t we’re just not trying hard enough. The result? Stacks of self-help books all over the place and a burgeoning sense of insecurity.

The truth is it’s nigh-on impossible to ever really ‘know yourself’ because who ‘you’ are is so incredibly defined and shaped by context. I have heard myself described as friendly, kind and generous and cold and aloof! I have been described as both tolerant and self-righteous- by the same person! Bosses have alternately seen me as capable and scattered. How is this possible? We forget sometimes that there are gazillions of variables that influence how we are seen, and how we behave. The one that jumps instantly to mind is status, either real or perceived. If you’ve ever seen Undercover Boss you’ll have enjoyed watching the respected and loved CEO who, in ‘normal person’ guise comes across as a nerd, bully, or just plain average. Women are treated very differently to men; one culture has different expectations to another. One person loves our kooky nature and so labels us ‘quirky;’ another person is irritated by it and so labels us ‘weird.’ And then guess what? If we’re around a lot of those sorts of people we’re going to tone things down – another side of ourselves will emerge from its cocoon because, ultimately, we adapt to survive. We like to think that despite different situations and contexts we have a stable core ‘self,’ but I’m not so sure. Rather, I think our sense of self is shaped largely by what is reflected back at us -more nurture than nature. If this reflection is constantly shifting, which it is, then how on earth are we supposed to ‘be true to ourselves?’ It’s a therapist’s nightmare.

Long before Generation Me existed, Picasso puzzled over this problem in “Girl Before A Mirror” (1932). At once a hauntingly beautiful portrait of his mistress, Marie Therese Walter, as well as a meditation on vanity and mortality, there is perhaps more to this work than meets the eye.


Marie is shown contemplating her fate. Her youthful body and made-up face seem to sag and melt, dripping like candle-wax, in the mirror before her. It is a spin on the seventeenth-century Dutch still-life, in which evanescent objects such as flowers and fruit are studded with tiny maggot holes, rotting around the edges. “Ah, you are young and careless now,” these paintings murmur, “but, like this fruit, look at what will happen to you!” Dutch artists weren’t totally callous, however. A reminder of life’s true meaning – religion or knowledge – is depicted in the form of a bible, astrolabe, or other tool of man’s potential. Grasp these, the painter suggests, and all will be well.

Of course, Picasso’s work differs significantly in many ways. It is a painting about a woman’s fate, not a man’s. Moreover, no alternative vision of existence – through study or prayer- is presented. This in itself could be a comment on women’s limited options in the 1930s. Marie is trapped, Narcissus-like, by the limited role she has come to occupy. If a religious object exists in the painting, it is her own body. Her image folds out, like a church diptych. An object of male worship, she is at once prostitute and divine being: a duality that reflects Picasso’s dark prediction of the hellish slide into old age.

If we look at Marie’s face in the mirror, however, she seems to smile warmly. There is a peacefulness about the eyes, her face looks relaxed. A single red tear resembles rather a blur of tribal paint, recollecting a more primal self. Sagging breasts and belly also evoke relaxation: a visual gauntlet thrown down to the “other” Marie, who is expected to be sexual and eventually child-bearing – two states in which both breasts and belly are distended, even “perky.”

For me, this painting is not really about vanity or the horrors of old age. It is about the ‘other’ versions of ourselves that lurk when we look in the mirror. Is this cause for anxiety though? Marie’s arm is gently outstretched to her reflection, literally embracing a darker, sadder, but somehow more liberated self. It’s a striking emblem of acceptance, not just of how others see her, but of how she sees herself. May we all be so bold…