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According to numerous biographies, when Picasso was about thirteen years old, his father, a passionate amateur painter, gave up his paintbrushes to his son and ceased painting altogether. This event took on great psychological significance in Picasso's mind, he equated it with patricide and the death of his father's creativity. The paintbrush was to become an important symbol which Picasso identified with his own masculinity and phenomenal creative talent.
Picasso later was to recognize the symbolic connection between the event and the Oedipus complex described by Sigmund Freud. He adopted Oedipus as a secretive alter ego because the story provided a wealth of symbolic associations which Picasso already identified with in his art.

Oedipe 1926Oedipus had been a popular theme with the Surrealists in the 1920's. Picasso probably embraced the theme at around the same time, this is apparent from a drawing he made on the subject in 1926.

In Sophocles' play, Oedipus as a baby is exposed by his father, the king of Thebes. The king ordered his son's exposure to prevent the unfolding of a prophecy in which the king would die at the hands of his own son. The baby Oedipus' feet were pieced by a piece of wood and he was left hung in a tree to die, but, the plan failed. Oedipus was rescued and bought up by shepherds. The Crucifixion aspect of the story reinforced Picasso's identification with Oedipus. This identificationwas strengthened still further because as soon as Oedipus realized how he had unwittingly killed his own father and married his mother, blinds himself and goes into self imposed exile. Blindness had been an important theme for Picasso from the turn of the century. He once stated that painting was a 'blind man's profession'. The theme of blindness recurred many times. Associated with soothsaying and prophecy, the theme of blindness had further personal connections for Picasso, who was believed by some of his closest friends to have had the power of prophecy.

Exile was another feature of Picasso's life which provided a symbolic link with Oedipus. From 1904 onwards, Picasso lived the life of an exile for art. He had been a member of the Spanish colony of Paris, many of whom were political exiles because of their links of the Anarchist movement with which Picasso was also involved. Then after 1936, Picasso swore never to return to Spain while Franco was in power. Oedipus, despite losing his prince's birthright, becomes king. Picasso also identified with kingship, we see this in his famous signature , 'Yo el Rey', and in a 1906 sculpted head of harlequin as king. Christ, the king of the Jews, was another of Picasso's favorite alter egos.

There is a further link between Oedipus in Picasso's 1941 play, 'Desire Caught by the Tail.' In the play, an artist named 'Big Foot' takes the leading role. 'Big Foot' has been closely identified with Picasso by art historians; however they failed to the name is itself derived from the name Oedipus which means 'Swollen Feet,' in the original Greek.

Further Reading:

Picasso, Art as Autobiography, Mary Mathews Gedo, 1980 University of Chicago Press.

Sophocles: Oedipus Rex

JPG image (19 K) Oedipus, 1926
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