Heidegger's Interpretation of Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Heidegger's Interpretation of Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein

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Heidegger's interpretation of Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein

By several accounts, Gertrude Stein posed for Pablo Picasso more than 90 times during the winter of 1905-6. Each session was never quite correct, with many botched attempts and frustrations. Ultimately Picasso sent her away, stating "I can't see you any longer when I look," then created a new portrait of her nearly a year later without seeing her again. It was regarded as a curious mask-like visage, not really an accurate representation of Stein at the time. When others remarked that Gertrude Stein did not look like her portrait, Picasso stated "She will." Eventually Picasso's belief in the 'premonitory powers' of his portraits was affirmed as Stein came to very greatly resemble her portrait, stating in 1938, "I was and I still am satisfied with my portrait; for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me" (Rodenbeck).
Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein is a haunting and pensive work, imbued with a great sense of mystery and pondering. Stein's gaze is cast to the side, her hands in a gestural position, leaning forward with her chin tilted and lips slightly parted. It is as if she is about to speak and through the body language of her portrait, we envision an ensuing scene where she articulates what she's been thinking, elaborating with her hands. The essence of Stein's character is embodied in this posture and gesture, the truth of her being in this physical representation. Knowing nothing of Stein, one would at once understand that this woman is a thinker carefully considering her points and that this intellectual characterization is of fundamental importance to her mode of being.

Picasso has achieved the revelatory effects in this portrait by revealing the truth of Stein through Martin Heidegger's principle of truth as aletheia, that is, unhiddenness or the experience of something hidden being brought to revelation. By not allowing Stein's thoughts and words to be heard and capturing her in a frozen moment of paint, Picasso allows a profound understanding of all that she has to say. By concealing the experience of being in her presence and knowing her as an intellectual, he reveals the very truth and nature of her composure and existence. Were this portrait a frozen monument of Stein in a moment of glory, a pristine tribute to her physicality or a photographic and perfect representation, then we could never see the true accuracy of her being and becoming.

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Stein is a being who questions, who journeys and evolves, who regards her life with inquisition and curiosity. The fate of becoming like her portrait is not at all surprising, as Picasso understood the eventual progression of her life and the ways it would appear in her countenance. He understood her world and the ways it would shape her material form.

The character of the paint in Picasso's work is rich and complex, the colors deep and somber. The brushwork is detailed without becoming overly self-conscious, and the sense of light emerging from the luminous skin and airy scarf explains and compliments the necessary dark. Heidegger would describe the material characteristics of this work as its earthly aspects, those which "rise up as self-closing" but through the worldly dimensions, embody the spontaneous forthcoming of what is essentially self-secluding. It is through and against the paint, the colors and elements of line, shape and figure, which we gain access to Stein's world, that is the context of meaning in which we understand this arrangement of paint to be about her. Heidegger explained that the world must rest upon and consist of the earth, which would absorb and conceal its meaning were it not for the worldly tendency to clarity and revelation. Ever linked in tension, the worldly representation of Stein's brow defies its earthly dimensions, just as the rich earthly quality of the paint in the background attempts to conceal its significance and yet provides rich textural clues to the character of the work. It would at first seem easy to view this portrait as simply a work of earth, an anonymous portrait of a woman with strong elements of chiaroscuro and paint characteristics. However, it is in this very closing-off of meaning which we gain the fuller meaning of the world we are witnessing and the ways in which this heap of paint has captured and illuminated something of the character of its subject.

Heidegger describes art as the happening of truth in the struggle between earth and world. The truth of Gertrude Stein in this portrait emerges from the facets of Picasso's work in earth. The suggestions of her physical representation draw her out as a woman in a realistic earthly setting. Her figure and the language of her facial expressions and posture, as well as the tonal cues of the luminosity of her skin against the background and her clothes reveal her to be a woman of thoughtful illumination, one who is herself involved in the process of revealing truth as a shining forth and experience of duality in nature. Her hands suggest both planes in a vaguely perpendicular gesture, the right pointing downward and the left pointing sideways across her body. The pull of her face and upper body as a force of intellectualism and heady thought works against the horizontality of her sitting posture and the hand which both grounds her into that plane and suggests lifting up from it. It appears as though the light actually comes from her face or from somewhere above the picture plane, as it casts no shadows to anchor her in the background, such that there is tension between the flatness of the canvas and the fullness and illumination of her form. Heidegger emphasizes that creativity in the great artist is an impulse whereby genius allows a work to become what it is. This portrait is extraordinary in this sense in that Picasso gathered a sense of Stein over more than 90 sessions, yet could not force his temperament on her and could not constrain her being into the ways his eyes were seeing it. He stepped away from the experience when he could no longer see Stein for herself and returned when he was able to simply create her face and body as they were and as they became. He intuitively understood that it was not simply a task of capturing her accurate physical being, but an accomplishment of a higher level of portraiture in capturing her essence as a being.

This painting is devoid of Picasso's sentiments, psyche, or historical situation. It is not characteristic of his style and may not be recognized immediately as a Picasso by a casual viewer. The work is not a statement of Picasso's place in art or society as later works like Guernica or studies in cubism became, but rather an attempt to simply let emerge the truth of Gertrude Stein. Not an exceptionally flattering portrait, it does not reveal the intense gratitude and appreciation Picasso had for its commission and the way that Leo and Gertrude Stein's money allowed him to travel throughout Europe and discover a whole world of art outside his own. It does not attempt to beautify or exaggerate Stein as a woman, but instead lets the natural beauty of her countenance and thoughtful being shine forth as something which does not need his heavy hand to appear beautiful. It is through the confidence and security which Picasso has left the portrait to stand in truth that it becomes a profoundly beautiful and haunting work and a deep embodiment of truth and being.

It is not just through the aletheic revelations between earth and world which this work succeeds. Heidegger emphasized the equal importance of the creator and preserver, stating that in a truly successful work, the creator annihilates himself in the process and leaves the task of finding meaning in experience to the preserver. Picasso has created a portrait which can stand on its own as an accurate and honest representation of Gertrude Stein, both physically and metaphysically as she "became" what was in the painting. While at first people did not agree that Stein was captured in this work, Stein herself recognized its truth and allowed it to come into being. Her role as preserver, as well as those who followed her ability to read into the painting and see it as a happening of truth, have allowed this work to open up and reveal its subtleties and mysterious premonitory successes. In turn, Stein did also become more like the countenance which Picasso portrayed, such that the work has allowed the preserver, like the creator, to originate as she is through the work.

Heidegger's philosophy is an extremely effective way of viewing this work. Were it considered in terms of the body of Picasso's career, it would not reveal very much at all. By comparison with many of Picasso's more deeply personal and stylistic works, this portrait at first appears sterile and forced, one done simply because his patron demanded it. When revealed in terms of aletheia, though, we see a whole new dimension to Picasso's role as a painter. The subtlety and powerful revelation in this work show Picasso to see far beyond the stroke of his brush, expressing his premonitions and true understanding of Gertrude Stein as a woman and a human being. The enfolding, concealing character of the paint with its deep browns and blacks and subtle brushwork pull away and enshroud Stein in a mysterious and rich earthly environment which is then opened up and illuminated in the intense worldly character of her gesture and expression, as well as the context in which this painting was created and understood.

Heidegger's method of analysis reveals the subtle and powerful ways in which this work affects us, explains its significance and the way that a portrait which doesn't completely look like someone could so completely embody her being. It is through understanding this work in terms fo the struggle between earth and world that we gain access to Picasso's true skill and talent in the success of this piece, and through seeing him completely annihilated in its creation as well as the significance of Stein's response, we understand the roles of creator and preserver in the dynamic emergence of truth.

What is concealed both by the work and by Heidegger's inquiry, is Picasso. We do not understand the conditions in which this painting came to be, as he has covered its history in a finished surface. It is difficult to understand his feelings toward Stein -- while he definitively understood her, it is hard to understand his knowledge as a generally positive or negative response to that understanding. We cannot find his intent with this work or necessarily know how he expected it to be received, nor can we interpret its character through its creator. Heidegger might argue that this is ideally as it should be, that the work stands on its own and that Picasso was so successful in his portraiture that we don't need to know him at all. However, without knowing Picasso, we cannot know if this portrait is really true. It is entirely possible that Picasso has let emerge into being something that is utterly false and deceptive. Stein's role as preserver may also conceal the real truth of the work, as she could have been willing to believe Picasso's false statement about her and enter it into history as an accurate depiction. Heidegger understood language through its root logos, which stems from to speak which is in turn derived from gather such that to speak is to gather meaning. Heidegger does not account for the gathering of false meaning and the speaking of untruths, such as Picasso may actually be doing. Picasso has gathered the meaning of Stein's world, but is that at all the truth? There is not room in this inquiry to understand that, or to question the sentiments of the individuals involved in portraiture in their potentially corrupt roles as subject, creator, and preserver.

Heidegger's thought process overall is a fairly effective interpretative vehicle. Despite its practically sole understanding or beauty as revealed truth and negligence of the potential of falseness, it does bring forth the many subtle and complex happenings in Picasso's work as well as many works of poetry and language. We understand what is happening in the language of lights and darks in paint through the concealing / revealing dichotomy and gain access to the reasons why this painting is successful as a portrait through recognition of the earth / world struggle and concept of truth as aletheia. While the painting is striking and engaging due to its visual characteristics and somber presence, Heidegger's process of analysis reveals it in a fuller complexity and richness which might otherwise be easy to overlook but which in fact holds the very keys to unlocking its deeper meaning and significance.

This method of inquiry would not suffice for many other works of art, such as self-conscious confessional poetry which hinges on our familiarity with the author and his life. Heidegger might dismiss such work as "bad art" and yet, there is distinct merit and preserved impact to works which defy Heidegger's aesthetics of art and culture. His philosophy relies on the definite presence of truth in reality, such as revealed in this case through unconcealing. But what if there is no absolute truth? Works of art still affect viewers, move and stir the souls of man whether they reveal great truth or not. How can we account for our metaphysical and deep emotional responses to music, photographs, drwaings, or a scene in a play, if there is no deep profound truth being revealed? The subjectivity of our worlds makes it that each observer or "experiencer" of art will have a unique response and understanding based on their sentiment, history, and psychology. Is art, then, revealing universal truths, or simply touching subjective beliefs which we mistakenly put forth as true because they have been apparently revealed as such? Heidegger might state that a work of art that evokes "incorrect" truths, mistaken responses, confused reactions and the like, is faulty in its lack of clarity in revelation of truth. The multi-faceted and versatile quality of work could, however, become a virtue rather than a flaw, as wider or more personal appeal, while less grounded in absolute truth, can make a work far more effective and immediate, encouraging personal soul-level responses rather than a "correct" way of experiencing the truth. A less insistent analysis which does not rely on the happening of truth as something which can be perceived as well-done or unsuccessful may allow for greater levels of experience and understanding of art, while revealing far more profound truths in the process which could be otherwise hidden by a seemingly arbitrary system of judgment fo what may be deemed true.

For works such as portraiture which attempt to convey truth, Heidegger's vehicle of interpretation is ideal. We may understand the truth of the subject and the truth of the portrait as aletheia through the struggle between their earthly and worldly dimensions and further our experience of the work as we understand and articulate our preserving reactions to the relative success of the work based on how well we gain access to the truth it reveals.


Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. trans. Albert Hofstadter. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1971

Levy, Lorraine. Picasso. trans. Barbara Beaumont. Henry Holt and Ebury Press: Italy, 1990.

Rodenbeck, Judith. "Insistent Presence in Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein" essay manuscript, Columbia University, reprinted online by Robert Fisher, 1995.
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