Feb 6

Pablo Picasso's Girl in the Mirror: The Agony of Imagined Ugliness

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth. – Pablo Picasso
Picasso Girl in the Mirror

Recently there was a great article in the archives of facial plastic surgery that used Picasso’s Girl in the Mirror to discuss body dysmorphic syndome. The author wrote:

“A portrait may represent a subject in many different ways. It can be a literal representation or it can represent a person symbolically. It can capture a person’s physical characteristics and/or attempt to represent their emotions or personality. In the Girl Before a Mirror, Picasso portrays a young woman surveying herself in an oval mirror. The woman in this painting is Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Picasso’s girlfriends, with whom he lived and had a child, Maya. In this portrait she is examining and inspecting her appearance in a mirror, but Marie-Thérèse and her reflection are not identical. Art critics have suggested that this represents a symbolic duality, that is, 2 different sides of her character. However, closer scrutiny of this painting indicates a woman who sees herself in a distorted way, which resembles what in clinical psychology is termed altered self-recognition.

Picasso often experimented by showing multiple views of an object on the same canvas to convey more information than could be contained in a single, limited view. For example, he has painted the face of Marie-Thérèse in 2 halves, a frontal view and profile view, which enhance one another. The expression on her face unveils a distinct sadness at the image she sees in the mirror staring back at her. In the distorted reflection she sees her nose as long, whereas the lower third of her face is vertically shortened and retrusive. Her almond-shaped eye is seen as a large ellipsoidal rectangle, with the sclera missing. She sees the reflection of her smooth olive skin as blemished and chalky lilac. The left side of her forehead, upper third of her face, and nose reflect a substantial scarlet stain, resembling a port-wine stain. Her full blond hair is reflected as thin and green. In her reflection she observes vertical asymmetry in the position of her breasts, which appear scarred. She sees herself not the way she looks but as a visual fallacy. Her mind has deformed her face and body.

Most clinicians involved in the treatment of patients with facial deformities will encounter the patient who is excessively concerned with a minor or imperceptible defect in their appearance or patients who reveal extreme dissatisfaction despite good treatment results. In cases in which such a preoccupation with appearance causes the patient marked distress in their social or occupational functioning, the patient may have nondelusional dysmorphophobia, also known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). The prevalence of BDD is unknown but is thought to be on the order of 1% in the general population. The condition is likely to be underdiagnosed and underrepresented owing to the secrecy of those affected. However, the prevalence has been found to be higher in cosmetic surgery and dermatology clinics (5% to 12%, respectively).

In severe cases of BDD, patients experience self-inflicted mental torture and anguish. Without appropriate diagnosis and psychiatric treatment, these patients are condemned to a life of distress and misery, held captive by the stigma of a perceived deformity. With this painting, Picasso has given form to the terror that such individuals experience, capturing the patient’s torment in a work of art that will last an eternity.

Throughout his life, Picasso remained a researcher and an experimentalist. He said, “Paintings are but research and experiment.” Girl Before a Mirror may seem to the casual onlooker to be a child’s drawing, yet it is a most powerful and meaningful work of art. As Voltaire said, “It is not sufficient to see and to know the beauty of a work; we must feel and be affected by it.””

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