Ma jolie (My pretty girl) was the refrain of a popular song performed at a Parisian music hall Picasso frequented. The artist suggests this musical association by situating a treble clef and music staff near the bold, stenciled letters. Ma jolie was also Picasso's nickname for his lover Marcelle Humbert, whose figure he loosely built using the signature shifting planes of Analytic Cubism. This is far from a traditional portrait of an artist's beloved, but there are clues to its representational content. The central triangular mass subtly indicates the shape of a woman's head and torso, and a group of six vertical lines at the painting's lower center represent the strings of a guitar, which the woman strums. In Cubist works of this period, Picasso and Georges Braque employed multiple modes of representation simultaneously: here, Picasso combined language (in the black lettering), symbolic meaning (in the treble clef), and near abstraction (in the depiction of his subject).
Gallery label from 2011
Numerous elusive clues connect "Ma Jolie" to reality: a triangular form in the lower center, strung like a guitar or zither; below the strings, four fingers, with an angular elbow to the right; and in the upper half, perhaps a floating smile. Together these elements suggest a woman holding a musical instrument, but the picture hints at reality only to deny it. Planes, lines, spatial cues, shadings, and other traces of painting's language of illusion are abstracted from descriptive uses; the figure almost disappears into a network of flat, straight-edged, semitransparent planes.
Yet "Ma Jolie," an example of high Analytic Cubism, is actually a painting on a very traditional theme—a woman holding a musical instrument. The palette of brown and sepia is reminiscent of the work of Rembrandt, and Picasso emphasizes the handmade nature of the brushstrokes, underlining the artist's human presence. At the bottom of the canvas Picasso also inscribes a treble clef and the words "Ma Jolie," (my pretty one)—both a line from a popular song and a reference to his lover Marcelle Humbert. A kind of stand-in for the woman who can barely be seen, the phrase "Ma Jolie" is clear, legible, colloquial, and suggests conventional prettiness—although this was one of the most complex, abstract, and esoteric images of its day.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 66