Wayne Koestenbaum: The Desire to Write

August 22, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Essay

Pablo Picasso, _Self-Portrait_, 1906

The Desire to Write about Self-Portrait

When I look at Picasso’s Self-Portrait, 1906 (or at a reproduction of it), my right index finger wiggles. My fingertip, in air or on my right thigh, traces the outline of Picasso’s face — especially the left eyebrow’s exaggerated semicircle and the oversized nose, whose comic magnitude makes Pablo seem a simpleton, a vaudevillian clown (Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Jackie Gleason) we’d mock and reject. Alternately, the rotund nose, in conjunction with the Oedipally effaced eye, makes Pablo seem like sexy Gérard Depardieu in Bertolucci’s 1900. My right index finger, connected to an inner eye that wishes to prove the act of looking to be always covertly haptic, doesn’t know how to navigate the faint crosshatchings beneath the grey background. These crosshatchings might be the voice of the raw canvas itself, whose grain outsings the grey oil paint, either because Picasso applied only a thin layer, or because canvas’s élan vital, its honeycomb signature, overpowered his efforts to silence it. I want to write about this self-portrait because of its small size — a mere 10 1/2 x 7 3/4 inches. Its modest — infantile? — dimensions match the tidy boxiness of a paragraph, the container in which the desire to write compels me to dwell; I enjoy a paragraph’s outer edge, that moment when a sentence decides to terminate its journey.

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