Picasso, Breasts, Bangkok...What Can Photographers Around the World Learn from the Master Painters?

A good few years ago now in Thailand, I went back to full time education. I have to confess that the use of the word ‘back’ is a falsification of sorts that I have become accustomed to slipping into this sentence with alarming ease and comfort. We all do it, that little white lie that has fallen out of your mouth in relation to a given topic to save personal embarrassment so often that you actually somehow believe it to be true yourself. This implies that I was somehow there in the first place (in adulthood at least, this isn’t entirely true). Actually what really happened was that I enjoyed a wonderful period in my life being a ‘mature student’. Although a charming euphemism for ‘older person who amounted to very little in their youth’ I must confess to since having grown a tad fond of this term. I think that for many people such as myself for whom regular school just was never going to work out back then, there comes a real satisfaction in learning about the arts (in my case) at a later station in life. If you can handle the level of self-discipline, newfound time management skills and motivate yourself towards full-time study alongside a career, kids and everything else that life throws in your face….you are already on the way to winning the game of life in no small measure.

It was all going well, but like so many university students in their first year, we were first forced to study a more general course than we would have liked before earning the right to specialize more deeply in our chosen courses. I was horrified to discover that I had to study about (and critique) paintings ranging from the renaissance through to the twentieth century. Long essays were demanded.  I cringed at the idea of joining the ranks of these pretentious dilettantes in the world, endlessly bleating nonsense about dead people’s moody daubings as a means to further aggrandize their self-importance to others.  I recall late nights poring over the full colour prints in the mandatory course books. I noted that although I found most of what I saw to be generally beautiful to my crude eye, the idea of a regular bloke like me actually constructing sentences to critique Francesca and Raphael’s work seemed downright ludicrous. I mean, where does one even begin?

As a way in, I tried to look at my favourite photographs of the twentieth century, and make notes about what I liked about them. I focused a lot on portraits, as these were often the closest things photographically to many of the paintings that we had to choose from for our essays. Looking back now I realize how stupid I was at first in being perfectly okay with having a working knowledge of the photographic medium and yet failing to recognize its relevance to the paintings thrust upon me. Many renaissance painters were the portrait photographers of their day of course.  It’s actually not that hard to find photos that are lit like a Vermeer or a Titian, and I didn’t notice that this sidetrack I had gone down was becoming a strangely enjoyable pursuit in itself. The way that these great painters saw light had to be just as important as to any photographer since. I became a touch disappointed at myself for never having made more of an effort to study this previously. In hindsight, this is the good thing about the first year of such a degree; it forces you to study things that you would never have chosen to of your own accord. Through this situation, you can discover new things about yourself and the world that really open your eyes. It’s never a bad thing. My first few essays on this faired better than I had expected, despite a particularly cruel professor in that year. By the final paper of the term, we had reached the lofty heights of twentieth century art and were given a choice of just three paintings to critique, the required essays were now of a much increased minimum word count.  The paintings were obviously carefully chosen as works that had had a lot less written about them in the usual places, woe betide anyone looking to plagiarise or paraphrase one of the few articles out there at the time on them. I chose Pablo Picasso’s ‘Girl in a Chemise’ (google it lest I be sued by one of his relatives for its inclusion here) from his blue period and I based my approach on the way I would look at a portrait photograph. However I was sure to use all of the technical terms of analysis that we had been taught throughout the course for the discussion and critique of fine painting. I felt it was perhaps a bit of a gamble but had secured enough reasonable scores at that point in the term to feel confident with such a move.

I’ll spare you the full essay but here is a key extract from what I wrote:

“The painting ‘Girl in a Chemise’, by Picasso is a portrait, painted around 1905.  It is an oil on canvas measuring approximately 72.7 by 60 cm. The girl is the sole subject and the picture plane puts us so close that we may only see her from the waist upwards. The view of the subject is from the front and slightly angled. Her head is turned away to her left, as though to repel any empathy, affording us only a single sided view of her face and upswept hair. Onto her emaciated frame, Picasso adds a provocatively oversized breast, which penetrates into an almost spiritual blue halo. The modelling of her diaphanous garment around the collarbone is detailed enough to emphasize its flimsiness.  There seems a paradox between her wraithlike appearance and her exuded sexuality. Our main focus is drawn towards her porcelain face, gaunt expression and dead eyes.  The modelling of this translucent face is more detailed and caricaturial than that of her lower torso, perhaps because of the wider tonal range between figure and ground at this point on the literal plane. The brushwork elsewhere seems perfunctory, with less merging of colour and some paint runs in the background. The room the girl is in appears dark and cold with a small light source on the top left side, out of our view. The subject looks as though her skin would be very pallid and clammy to the touch. The artist used a contrast of light subject against dark blue and green background to impart not only a melancholy darkness but also a cold, disconsolate atmosphere to the illusionistic plane as a whole. Even the warm tones of her rose shawl fail to permeate Picasso’s chill.”


I was very lucky to have received my highest score for that course from this essay but perhaps luckier still to have been educated in how to look at, analyse and enjoy the fine paintings of the masters and relate them to my existing love of photographic art. I later had an exam on this (even had to fly to the U.K. for the pleasure of sitting it) within a tight time limit but really enjoyed it and did reasonably well overall. I wonder how many other photographers also enjoy (or would enjoy) this exercise? It was an undertaking that I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen to embark upon, and one which certainly took me out of my comfort zone. I recall that I felt awkward and uneasy about trying (what I perceived to be) something I wouldn’t be able to do. I later learned that Pablo once said “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Turns out that we have might have something in common with the great painters after all.