Think for a minute what it meant for you to be broke when you were 19 years old.
Maybe it meant washing Ziploc bags and re-using them. Maybe it meant buying the off-brand peanut butter you weren’t particularly fond of just to save a few cents. Or, if you’re an inmate at the fictional Litchfield Prison, maybe it meant maxipad shower shoes.
In the case of Pablo Picasso in 1901, being broke meant not being able to afford new canvas every time he wanted to paint something. Sometimes he elected to use cardboard. Other times, as was the case with a Phillips Collection painting, he just painted over his canvas, leaving behind a ghost image to be unveiled with the help of infrared technology.
Tuesday the Phillips Collection revealed it had unearthed such a ghost image of a mysterious, unidentified man Picasso painted when he was 19 years old. He later covered him up with what became one of his early masterpieces, “The Blue Room,” one of the pieces that sprouted from Picasso’s well-known blue period.
“When he had an idea, you know, he just had to get it down and realize it,” Curator Susan Behrends told the Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “He could not afford to acquire new canvasses every time he had an idea that he wanted to pursue. He worked sometimes on cardboard because canvas was so much more expensive.”
This isn’t the first Picasso that actually turned out to be a double feature; you can use the Guggenheim‘s interactive slider to see the man underneath “Woman Ironing,” too. The Cleveland Museum of Art, which owns “La Vie,” has similar inconsistencies. The mystery man is pretty drab. He appears to be wearing rings, a bowtie and a drawn, sad, perhaps even exasperated expression. Look, we know the sad-sack blue period yielded some of Picasso’s greatest work, “Blue Room” included, but even Picasso’s throw-aways were rife with melancholia. Bowtie Man looks as though he could use some mood stabilizers.
Museum curators had suspected there was something under the “Blue Room” as early as 1954 because its brush strokes were inconsistent with other Picasso works. Finally in the 1990s, they were able to confirm their suspicions with a murky X-Ray. In 2008, they scanned the painting and infrared technology revealed Picasso’s mystery man. Curators are sure it’s not a self-portrait. It took five more years and experts from the Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art, Cornell University and Delaware’s Winterthur Museum to gain the relatively clear picture we see today, using multi-spectral imaging technology and X-ray fluorescence intensity mapping. “The Blue Room” is touring South Korea, but will be back in the states for closer scrutiny come 2015.
Picasso’s stature as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century has already been firmly established. So why is everyone making such a fuss over a throwaway image we’ve known has existed since the Eisenhower administration?
“Our audiences are hungry for this,” Phillips Collection director Dorothy Kosinski told AP. “It’s kind of detective work. It’s giving them a doorway of access that I think enriches, maybe adds mystery, while allowing them to be part of a piecing together of a puzzle. The more we can understand, the greater our appreciation is of its significance in Picasso’s life.”