December 13, 2012  |  Publications
Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror: The Science Behind Art History

Cover of Picasso: Girl before a Mirror

More and more, art historians are turning to science and technology to help solve the mysteries laid in paint by artists throughout the centuries. Chemical analysis of paint chips has been used to explain the discoloration of cadmium yellow in a van Gogh still life. “Emotion recognition” computer software has been applied to the Mona Lisa to try to decipher that ever-inscrutable smile. In Picasso: Girl before a Mirror,a new volume in the MoMA One on One series, curator Anne Umland uses an X-ray of the Cubist painting to uncover a new layer for interpretation.

X-ray of Girl before a Mirror, taken in 2011

The painting, one of the most extraordinary works by Pablo Picasso in the Museum’s collection, is an unusual and captivating take on the traditional artistic theme of a woman looking into a mirror. The X-ray reveals that Picasso had originally portrayed the girl’s body in a far more naturalistic way, with curved hips and with her back toward the viewer. Why then did he opt to transform her into the decidedly geometric figure we see in the final product? The following comment, made by the artist himself, may shed some light on his methodology: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something.” His changes sever any lingering connection with observed reality and bring her into Picasso’s shape-shifting world, her body now made of triangles and circles, allowing simultaneous back and side views.

This quite literal “behind-the-scenes” glance into Picasso’s process is but one of the many ways that the book, like others in the One on One series, offers a unique and comprehensive understanding of one of the most beloved works in MoMA’s collection.

For more of Anne Umland’s essay, download a preview of Picasso: Girl before a Mirror.