‘Touch me not!’ A gesture of detachment in Picasso’s La Vie as symbol of his self-concept as an artist


Gereon Becht-Jördens and Peter M. Wehmeier


Introduction and methodological approach


The name Picasso still stands today for what has for over one hundred years defined the concept of modern art that has determined Western cultural identity in the 20th century. The decisive break with tradition that Picasso is said to have made is based on his aim to achieve absolute independence in his artistic means. According to this view, any allusion to something that goes beyond the superficially visible content of a painting must be considered secondary, if not completely unimportant to deciphering the meaning of a painting (Warncke, 1991/2002). Furthermore, modern approaches to reception theory have put forward the concept of ‘open works of art’ (Eco, 1989), which seems to have curtailed any conventional hermeneutic approach to interpreting works of art. According to this concept, the viewer plays a crucial role as active recipient of a work of art, rendering the interpretation entirely to the viewer. Thus, interpretation of a work of art is said to depend upon the viewer alone, rendering impossible the idea of an unequivocal message in a work of art intended by the artist (Eco, 1989; Henrich and Iser, 1982/1992).


In contrast to this view, the aim of this study is to demonstrate that Picasso incorporated crucial impulses from his own biography into his art, although his art can by no means be reduced to being a medium of autobiographical communication. Furthermore, the aim is to identify the role that autobiographical impulses play within the larger context of the profusion of statements Picasso may have been attempting to make through his art. Thus, the point is not to pursue any potential neurotic peculiarities of the artist, but to determine to what degree biographical experiences may have contributed to the artist’s definition of himself as an artist and to what degree Picasso’s biographic and artistic self-concepts are reflected in his work. This interpretation of Picasso’s chef d’œuvre of the Blue Period La Vie will therefore be carried out on two different levels, namely on a biographical level, which allows (or even demands) a psychological or psychoanalytical approach, and on a theoretical level, to which contemporary discussions and personal statements on modern art made by Picasso himself contribute much to comprehending the meaning of the enigmatic composition. Therefore, La Vie (Figure 1) will be considered on one hand in terms of the painting being a medium for communicating a problematic relationship between two individuals and the mental trauma and feelings of guilt that result from the inevitable conflicts. On the other hand, La Vie will be considered in terms of the painting being a medium for a self-referential discourse on the artist’s own actions, his role in the world, and on the very essence of art. The answer that Picasso seems to provide through La Vie suggests an intricate connection between these two levels. Furthermore, Picasso’s answer on this overriding question also seems to address several previously unanswered autobiographical questions of great personal importance and appears to assign a higher meaning to the suffering and the feelings of guilt he experienced. Both comprise the price that anyone who longs for the redeeming effect of art will have to pay.


The key to this new interpretation of La Vie was the discovery of the iconographic sources used by Picasso to compose this painting. Our hypothesis is that Picasso gives us insight into secret personal conflicts covered by strict taboos, whilst encoding his personal message by means of Christian iconography. In order to decode the cryptic meaning of his composition, an iconological analysis of the iconographic elements used by the artist in their original context has been very helpful. Furthermore, our iconographical and iconological approach has enabled us to avoid purely subjective speculation about the meaning of compositional details. As a consequence, the validation of our new interpretation involved the systematic exploration of Picasso's entire work as well as the analysis of several traditions in art history, ranging from Christian iconography to developments in modern art at a time contemporary to Picasso. Our aim was to show that Picasso resorted to the iconographic tradition of Christian art in order to provide a personal message that relates to his own biographical experience (Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier, 1999; Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier, 2003; Wehmeier and Becht-Jördens, 2007). In order to make his point, Picasso had to break a two-fold taboo that had previously prevented him from communicating his own suffering using iconographic means: first, he had to modify the conventional concept of what art really is, and secondly, Picasso had to come to terms with his inability to address the hardships he had experienced in his life.


The enigmatic composition of La Vie


The painting La Vie from 1903 is considered by many art historians to be the most important painting from the so-called Blue Period and is thought to be one of the most important works ever created by Picasso (Figure 1). Today, La Vie is part of the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. Picasso created the painting during his stay in Barcelona, Spain, in May 1903. With its dimensions of 197 x 127 cm, it is the second largest painting of this period. La Vie can be considered the ‘sum of Picasso's art of this period’ (Warncke, 1991/2002), something it was obviously intended to be. However, the presumable message of this painting has been a mystery to art historians and Picasso experts alike. A number of more or less vague speculations about the meaning of this painting have been brought forward (Schneider, 1947/1948; Blunt and Pool, 1962; Palme, 1967; Fermigier, 1969; Gedo, 1972/1980; Gedo, 1981/1994; Reff, 1980; Walther, 1986; Richardson, 1991; Warncke 1991/2002), most of them proposed reluctantly and with considerable reservations. Recent interpretations seem to be making a virtue out of necessity in maintaining that ‘... the significance of this painting intrinsically lies in its enigmatic nature’ (Richardson, 1991). As a result of the lack of any definitive interpretation, the beholder has been left alone to find his or her own interpretation of the meaning of La Vie, given that this painting is assumed to have any meaning at all. This was the only guidance that art historians seemed to be able to provide in this age of post-modern hermeneutical crisis.


Especially the curious gesture in the centre of La Vie has been considered a mystery, and many attempts at solving the problem of interpreting the gesture have been made. Most of the suggested interpretations have remained unconvincing. As a result, more recent voices have even called for the abandonment of any attempt at shedding light on this enigma. They have argued that the value of La Vie as a unique Masterpiece lies in the impossibility of any unequivocal interpretation of the gesture in the centre of the painting. Any attempt to do so was said only to impair the spectator’s own creative activity and inhibit his imagination by reducing the number of potential interpretations to one, or at best a very few.


The iconographic source of the central gesture as an hermeneutic key


Although various models from the tradition of Christian art have been suggested as possible sources for Picasso’s composition (McCully, 1984; Richardson 1991), none of these have been striking enough to be entirely persuasive. However, an iconographic discovery made when first confronted with the actual painting at the exhibition ‘Picasso – The Early Years 1882–1906’ shown in 1997 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (McCully, 1997), provided the impetus to respond to this unsatisfactory situation and propose an entirely new interpretation of La Vie. The obvious key to interpreting La Vie must indeed be seen in the curious gesture at the centre of the painting. The previously unidentified source of this gesture almost certainly the tradition of noli me tangere (‘touch me not!’) (Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier, 1999; Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier 2003), a tradition that can be traced back to the very beginnings of Christian art (Schiller, 1971/1986) and can be seen to continue throughout the following history of Western art. This connection seems to have escaped those responsible for the recent exhibition ‘Picasso – Tradition and Avantgarde’ in the Prado (Lopera, 2006). This exhibition showed La Vie, but failed to recognize the particular painting which must be considered the most likely model for Picasso as a for his composition, and which was already part of the Prado’s collection at the time the young Picasso commenced his academic training as an artist at the Lotja in Madrid. Although it has remained in the Prado to this day, it was not part of the exhibition ‘Picasso – Tradition and Avantgarde’ but was left in its usual place in the Prado’s permanent exhibition. This model for La Vie is clearly the painting Noli me tangere by Correggio (= Antonio Allegri, 1489–1534). This famous canvas, the only one in the Prado’s collection by this old mannerist master, can by no means have been missed by Picasso during his training at that particular institution. His training must have included instruction in the basics of Christian iconography, as in the catholic Spain of that time monasteries, churches, or wealthy individuals could still be expected to order paintings on Christian topics created in a traditional style. As a consequence, students of art must have been acquainted with old masters such as Correggio to serve as iconographic models for their own work.


The fact that Correggio’s Noli me tangere (Figure 2) was the source for the central gesture in La Vie can be proven much more evidently by the preparatory studies than by La Vie itself (Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier, 2003). The studies provide important clues to how Picasso approached the task of incorporating these topics into a painting. The studies directly point towards Correggio’s painting Noli me tangere. Interestingly, Correggio’s composition differs from the iconographic tradition in one important detail. In the tradition, Christ is generally shown turning away Mary Magdalene, who has just recognized him as the risen Saviour, by extending one of his hands towards her. The other hand is usually shown holding the vexillum cruxis (or a spade), implying that in the Bible, Mary is said to have mistaken Christ for the gardener. Correggio, however, has abandoned these attributes of the risen Saviour and shows Christ extending his left arm upwards, pointing towards heaven with his index finger, prefiguring his ascension in this way. This particular detail occurs in one of the preparatory studies for La Vie (Figure 3). Although the gesture is shown reversed left to right, this study provides convincing evidence that the similarity between the gesture in La Vie and in the tradition of noli me tangere is by no means accidental but clearly intentional, taken directly from Correggio’s painting. However, in the final version of La Vie Picasso omitted this detail (Figure 1), as the later preparatory studies also show (Figure 4). The peculiar gesture of the right hand, however, is a constant feature both of Picasso’s preparatory studies and the final version of La Vie. Thus, the gesture is clearly derived from the model provided by Correggio in his Noli me tangere. Importantly, the peculiar ‘manneristic’ way in which the fingers of the right hand are shown is almost identical in both paintings.


The meaning of the central gesture


Now that the source of the gesture in La Vie has been identified, the consequences of this discovery for the interpretation of the composition as a whole must be considered. The iconographic perspective that has now been opened, allows an entirely new approach to the interpretation of La Vie. The first of our hypotheses is that the function of the noli me tangere gesture in its original context is crucial to understanding its function in the new context, into which Picasso introduced it. In spite of the biblical background, which determined the original meaning, the gesture remains one of detachment in La Vie, by means of which one individual is shown to be keeping another at a distance. In La Vie it is a young man who is keeping someone at a distance with a gesture of his left hand: a woman with a child in her arms. However, in contrast to the model provided by Correggio, the young man does not raise his left arm towards heaven. Instead, this arm is covered by the figure of a naked young woman, leaning on his right shoulder. Also in contrast to Correggio, the whole composition is reversed left to right. Furthermore, the woman on the young man’s left is not shown humiliating herself by kneeling down like Mary Magdalene in Corregio’s painting, but is rendered standing up and looking straight at the young man. In the background, two paintings and a doorway are vaguely visible. The preparatory studies show more clearly than the final version that Picasso initially intended to show a situation in an artist’s studio. In the studies, this is underlined by the presence of an easle in the background, bearing a painting resembling a pietà. In two of the studies, an artist – in the process of painting the young couple – appears on the right hand side, rather than the woman with a child in her arms, that appear in the final version. Thus, Picasso’s La Vie also closely relates to the tradition of ‘The Artist’s Studio’ (Robinson, 2001). Hence, introspection and the self-reflection of the modern artist’s specific role must be taken to be a further central theme of La Vie.


Biographical themes and the psychological perspective


As the gesture noli me tangere obviously relates to the interactions and conflicts between the individuals represented in the painting, psychological considerations must also be taken into account when deliberating on the statements made in the painting. Therefore, the approach chosen here to interpret La Vie is an interdisciplinary one, and is based on a combination of thorough iconographic analysis and the interpretation of the results using psychoanalytical categories. The aim is to use iconographic clues to decipher the meaning of the interaction between individuals shown in the painting. Based on two modes of interpretation, this approach appeared to be the most appropriate way out of the dilemma of entirely subjective and therefore arbitrary interpretation, propagated by various post-modern schools of thought.


From a psychological perspective, the reason why the gesture noli me tangere was introduced into La Vie is clearly to signify detachment (Gedo, 1972/1980, Gedo 1981/1994; Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier 1999; Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier 2003; Wehmeier and Becht-Jördens, 2007). However, drawing this conclusion is not enough. The truly interesting questions are: Who is trying to detach himself from whom and why? Who are the individuals involved in this interaction? And, in contrast to the concept of detachment, what role does the idea of closeness play? Times of closeness and wholeness seem to be represented by the mother figure with the child in her arms, whilst times of detachment seem to be represented by the young man, with the young woman leaning on his shoulder. Biographical change is suggested by confronting two successive modes of existence simultaneously in the same composition, separated by the gesture in the centre of the painting. Childhood can be considered one mode of existence, adolescence or adulthood the other. This interpretation is based on the assumption that the young man on the left side of the paining and the infant in the arms of the mother figure on the right side is the same individual shown simultaneously in different stages of life. As a consequence, the mother figure from which the young man is seen to be detaching must be considered to be his own mother. But who are the individuals shown in the painting? Are they allegorical figures (Blunt and Pool, 1962; Fermigier, 1969; Reff, 1980; Walther, 1986), or are they actual persons of biographical importance to the artist? Should the second possibility be true, it would be essential to determine the identity and role of the individuals shown in the painting in order to decipher Picasso’s iconographically encoded message.


On careful examination, there is strong evidence pointing towards the young man’s identity. His face closely resembles the portrait of Picasso’s late friend Carlos Casagemas, who committed suicide in 1901. This resemblance has long been accepted by art historians as factual, and quite rightly so. Interestingly, however, the preparatory studies show the young man with Picasso’s own face, clearly suggesting that Picasso eventually hid himself behind the mask of Casagemas in La Vie. Whilst work on the canvas of La Vie was in progress, Picasso first gave the young man his own face, only to replace it by the face of Casagemas in the final version, as x-ray images have shown (McCully and McVaugh 1978; McCully, 1984).


Taking these considerations into account, the only reasonable conclusion is that the young man in La Vie actually represents Picasso himself. Correspondingly, the woman with the child in her arms is not any arbitrary mother figure, but specifically represents the artists own mother, Maria Picasso Lopez, even though her countenance in the painting does not resemble any actual portrait of her particularly closely. This, of course, may have been Picasso’s intention: to follow the same method and replace the face of one individual with that of another. His motive for these conspicuous modifications was presumably to disguise the personal nature of the situations revealed in the painting and conceal them as sources of emotional suffering and pain.


The child in her arms has previously been interpreted as Pablo’s sister Conchita, which died in the age of seven years and whose death may have been traumatic to her brother (Gedo, 1972/1980; Gedo 1981/1994), but the considerable age difference between the two siblings renders this interpretation unlikely. Another answer seems much more probable: Picasso appears twice in the painting, as a young man (behind the mask of Casagemas), and at the same time as an infant in his mother’s arms.


The style in which he painted the mother with child indicates that he was familiar with the tradition of portraiture showing the Holy Virgin with child. Furthermore, the painting suggests that he adopted the technique of ‘asynchronous rendering’ widely used in Christian art and iconography, and employed it to show himself simultaneously in two different biographical situations. Both situations are characterized by physical closeness between himself and a woman: closeness between him as a young man and his lover, and closeness between him as an infant in his mother’s arms.


In this context, the central gesture of detachment seems to have been used to express the notion that the biographically earlier state of attachment between mother and child has to be overcome in order to achieve a more mature type of attachment, the attachment that usually exists between lovers. This insight seems to be the result Picasso’s own painful experience caused by the process of detachment from his mother, to whom he had a particularly close relationship in his childhood and youth.


A crucial point in the process of detachment seems to be marked by the presence of the fourth person shown in the painting: the nude young woman leaning on the young man’s right shoulder. With high probability, the woman can be identified as Germaine, who was Casagemas’ lover before he committed suicide, and subsequently became Picasso’s lover (Mailer, 1995). As a result of this relationship, Maria Lopez is deprived of her privileged position as the only woman of significance in her son’s life. 


Seen in this way, the masterpiece La Vie can be taken to deal with the dissociation of a formerly close relationship between mother and son, and seems to underline the importance of detachment as a step towards true autonomy on an individual’s way to adulthood. However, the painting can also be taken to deal with the topic of separation and the need to cope with loss. Thus, the painting can be considered the young Picasso’s response to his own autobiographical experience in attaining autonomy as an individual and coping with the resulting loss. Any such attempt to detach from one’s mother can hardly succeed without some amount of emotional upheaval. Consequently, this type of conflict can be seen in La Vie. Mother and son directly confront one another. The conflict between them is almost palpable. The mother figure stares at her son with a severe and reproachful expression whilst he gazes back at her with anything but a self-confident look. The bowed head and lowered gaze of the young woman at his side seem to indicate that she is only indirectly involved in the conflict going on between mother and son.


When discussing relationships and interactions between human beings, especially between mother and son, psychological or psychoanalytical terms and concepts are one possibility of shedding further light on the nature of the conflicts and emotions involved (Gedo, 1972/1980). In La Vie, the conflict between mother and son can be seen in a way that relates to the area of conflict between ‘depressed’ independence of the ‘object’ (in terms of the dyadic relationship between the young man and his mother) and ‘narcissistic’ independence of the ‘object’ (in terms of the young man’s relationship to the young woman). The relationship between the two individuals (‘objects’ according to psychoanalytical terminology) seems to be complementary in that the mother figure mirrors the ‘narcissistic’ aspect of the relationship between the two as personified by her son. Portrayed as the Madonna, the mother figure is endowed by the artist with several divine attributes from Christian iconographic tradition, most conspicuously perhaps through her resemblance the Holy Virgin with Jesus Christ in her arms, the blue cloak and covered hands. A ‘narcissistic’ relationship always involves more than one person. In order to enable someone to move out of a situation of ‘narcissistic’ self-idealization, a second person must be present. However, this second persons may encourage the development of a ‘narcissistic’ personality through constant idealization of the first person. One precondition for such a development is that at least one member of the family persistently feeds the hope that something very special will become of the child. In this kind of ‘narcissistic’ relationship, both individuals mirror one another’s behaviour, in this case the young man and the mother figure. In such a relationship, each person ultimately revolves only around him- or herself, and perceive the other person only as a means to an end of fulfilling their own ‘narcissistic’ wishes.


In this context, the concept of assignment or delegation is rather important. In the field of psychology or psychoanalysis, the term delegation is used to designate the assignment of tasks from one generation to the next, i.e. from parents to their children. The children are implicitly assigned with the task of fulfilling their parents’ (conscious or unconscious) wishes, e. g. by acting out their instinctual drives, pursuing their narcissistic ideals, or making amends for their shortcomings. La Vie seems to show a constellation of individuals involved in this very kind of conflict. By equating the young man with Jesus Christ, the artist introduces the concept of delegation into the painting, just as Christ was assigned by God the Father to do his will, even unto death. From this perspective, the young man’s attempt to detach from his mother must actually be considered a desperate attempt at escaping delegation and saving himself. Only by dissolving the symbiotic or ‘dyadic’ relationship between himself and his mother can the young man attain autonomy. Thus, the gesture noli me tangere can also be seen to have an aggressive connotation. As developmental psychology teaches us, this type of aggression is extremely important for normal development, as it allows the individual to be assertive and have his or her own way. However, the coincidence of both filial love and aggression is likely to result in a highly ambivalent relationship between mother and son. Thus, there is an element of aggression in the relationship between the two, a relationship that may be described in psychoanalytical terms as one of ‘aggressive harmony’ (Müller-Pozzi, 1991).


Another central motif in La Vie that relates to relationships and interactions between human beings is the young couple on the left side of the painting. This couple obviously refers to the theme of love and sexuality. However, the love relationship shown here is of a more mature kind than the ‘dyadic’ love relationship between mother and son. The fact that three persons are involved in the interaction shown in the painting clearly points out the ‘triangular’ nature of their relationship. But this ‘triangular’ relationship does not follow the classical pattern of the ‘oedipal conflict’, because a father figure is conspicuously absent. Instead, the young woman at the young man’s side plays the separative role, enabling the young man to detach himself from the mother figure and withdraw from her sphere of influence. This means the destruction of a previously ‘dyadic’ relationship between mother and son.


But what do the two paintings in the background of the painting La Vie mean in this context? Grand masters such as Gaugin and Van Gogh have been proposed as models for the two paintings in the background (Lopera, 2006).  In spite of this probable influence, Christian iconography should also be taken into account as a possible source. The upper painting shows a couple, apparently resembling the pietà iconography, whilst the lower painting shows one person in a crouching position, apparently in a state of mourning. This individual seems to be a repetition of the person on the right hand side in the upper painting. This connection between the two suggests that both paintings represent different aspects of a similar situation. A state of isolation is shown as the inevitable consequence both of an individual being completely alone and of two individuals caught in a purely ‘dyadic’ relationship. Both modes of existence exclude any further social connections, making plain to the spectator the exclusivity and ambivalence of any ‘dyadic’ relationship. In the upper painting, an illusion of closeness and warmth is created, but this is an illusion that must ultimately prevent both individuals from avoiding isolation and understanding that neither of them can escape the confinement any purely ‘dyadic’ relationship must have. In their fixation upon one another, both individuals must impede each other in their development towards a mature and independent personality. The aggressive and even destructive nature of this kind of relationship was the topic of an earlier version of the lower painting shown in La Vie, that originally showed a rather menacing bird-man hovering over a reclining female nude, a motif so shockingly sexual and destructive that Picasso later replaced it by the isolated figure in a state of mourning. Understood in this way, the two paintings in the background of the larger painting La Vie can be read as a kind of commentary on the relationships shown in the foreground. They point the spectator towards the insight that the dissolution of a dyadic relationship is inevitable, even though it is wrought with emotional suffering and pain.


Self-referential statements about the modern artist as an answer to the experience of sorrow and guilt


Clearly, the painting La Vie also deals with a ‘narcissistic’ attempt at coping with detachment and loss. This leads to a second level of interpretation, which transcends the personal relationship between Picasso and his mother and which reflects Picasso’s role as a modern artist. Both levels (or themes) are interconnected by the significant role played by Picasso’s mother, who encouraged him to follow his way and reinforced him in his self-perception as a genius. Thus, she can be seen to be the primary person supporting his ‘narcissistic’ self-concept. Following Nietzsche’s prophecy – much discussed in Barcelona among Picasso’s friends – that after the death of God extraordinary individuals such as artists or philosophers would take over the task of Jesus Christ as Saviour of mankind, the young Picasso claims this grandiose role for himself. This he communicates using the iconography of Christ in order to present himself as the new Messiah. Seen in this way, an astonishing parallel appears between the role of Maria Picasso and that of Mary Magdalene: Both women are the first ones to recognize the Saviour and testify to him, but for both women this also involves detachment and mourning! Thus, Picasso provides an answer to two closely related questions. First: How can the suffering of both mother and son – caused by the inevitable detachment – be legitimized? And secondly: Which personal consequences result from his self-imposed task as Saviour? By imparting on mankind a totally new way of seeing, he promises to break the unbearable fetters that reality lays upon us, and lead us to boundless freedom and eternal light, even at the price of his own suffering.


Having left behind both his mother, who was the first admirer of his art, and his first audience, fascinated by his early mastership of academic art, he had to suffer from his mother’s reproaches and his own bad conscience as well as the disappointment of his incomprehending audience and their rejection of his art. As an answer to his confrontation with these difficulties, Picasso presents himself both as Creator of a new art and its Messiah, who has come to comfort the suffering and redeem the world as a new Saviour. Thus, La Vie can be understood both as an answer to autobiographical experiences of the young Picasso and as a self-referential comment on his role as an artist and as an annotation on his fundamentally new art. The beholder of La Vie is placed before the decision either to remain in close proximity with the mother in her role as representative of a traditionalistic audience, or in contrast, to follow the artist on the arduous path towards the proclaimed reign of freedom in an entirely new era of modern art.




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Figure 1: Picasso: La Vie. Cleveland Museum of Art. (see "Linkliste" of this page)


Figure 2: Correggio: Noli me tangere. Madrid, Prado. (see "Linkliste" of this page)


Figure 3: Picasso: Study 1 for La Vie. Paris, Musée Picasso: Zervos VI 534. (see "Linkliste" of this page)


Figure 4: Picasso: Study 2 for La Vie. Private collection: Zervos XXII 44. (see" Linkliste" of this page)


Further pictures (see "Linkliste" of this page)