In a letter to French poet and journalist Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso described his then unfinished The Blind Man’s Meal (1903) to have a “dog nearby.” However, the finished work did not have a dog — only a blind man with one hand holding a piece of bread sitting at a table with an empty plate and a jug. Later analysis of the painting would reveal that there was a dog at some point, appearing near the plate. But what was more surprising to discover through technical analysis in 2010 was the presence of an entire nude portrait concealed beneath the oil paint.
Using superimposed X-ray fluorescence (XRF), the Metropolitan Museum of Art discovered the existence of the nude and produced a fluorescent version of it. But it was the London-based tech company Oxia Palus that took things a step further by leveraging their technology to reveal the painting’s outline and ultimately produce a textured canvas with realistic brushstrokes.
With a mission to “uncover masterpieces lost to the ages using AI,” Oxia Palus’s founders Anthony Bourached and George Cann combined complex technologies, including artificial intelligence, spectroscopic imaging, and 3D printing, to resurrect the hidden Picasso nude that would be dubbed The Lonesome Crouching Nude. The duo developed a 5-step process to create replicas that they call NeoMasters. The AI company first used machine learning and programmed neural-style transfer algorithms to generate a deeply granular heightmap of the hidden paint. The process of mapping out the heights achieved the levels of texture and detail of the original canvas. Once the data had been captured, the team programmed the AI to analyze dozens of Picasso’s works and train itself to replicate the artist’s unique brushstroke style. The final step in bringing the nude to life was realized through 3D printing; the artwork on canvas was even created in the exact dimensions as the original painting.
The Legal Implications of Resurrecting Hidden Art
Oxia Palus co-founder George Cann shared his pride in bringing the long-hidden The Lonesome Crouching Nude to life, telling the Robb Report, “I hope that Picasso would be happy in knowing the treasure he’s hidden for future generations is finally being revealed, 48 years after his death and 118 years after the painting was concealed.”
Unfortunately, there is not only debate whether Picasso would be happy about work he’d intentionally hidden being revealed but question over whether the recreation crosses ethical and legal lines.
However, there’s significance in finding concealed artwork beneath a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period. Because Picasso painted The Blind Man’s Meal during his Blue Period, which lasted between 1900 and 1904, this meant the work was created during an unstable time in the painter’s life.
Beginning his art career as a painter in 1894, Picasso was living in relative poverty. Despite being poor, he moved to Paris, which was considered “The Art Capital of Europe” at the time. He had no fixed studio and shared a small apartment. In desperation and suffering from the extreme cold, Picasso was forced to burn his artwork to keep warm – emphasizing that Picasso was no stranger to sacrificing his artwork.
The suicide of Picasso’s friend Carlos Casagemas in 1901 became the catalyst for Picasso’s Blue Period, a time when he painted in only shades of blue and blue-green. Because the painter was still relatively poor at the time and suffering from deep depression, it has been argued that he rejected the nude work by painting over it to save on expensive art supplies. Picasso’s Rose Period followed his Blue Period, which ended in 1904, signaling the improvement in the painter’s mental health as he departed from the somber blues and doleful subject matters. With The Blind Man’s Meal being produced in 1903, this means Picasso created the work at a time when his psychological state was improving. And what if Picasso had deliberately painted over the nude out of dissatisfaction and never intended for the public to see it?
Ethical Dilemma of Forensic Technology In Art
In the letter that Picasso had written to Max Jacob describing The Blind Man’s Meal, he not only mentioned the dog that would not make it in the final work, but he would also say, “I am quite happy with it…” — which suggests that Picasso was in a better state of mind when he painted over the nude.
Then there’s the question of ownership. So, while the innovative technique that replicated the lost Picasso has gained global attention, it’s also now at the center of controversy. The night before the unveiling of The Lonesome Crouching Nude, Bourached and Cann received a letter from Picasso’s estate citing an “infringement of rights” and demanding the cancelation of the piece’s unveiling at the ‘Deeep AI’ festival at the Morf Gallery in London. The debut of The Lonesome Crouching Nude ended up being called off just hours before the scheduled event. The head of legal affairs for Picasso’s estate, Claudia Andrieu, stated that it was unlikely that an agreement would be reached after the duo expressed plans to seek a resolution with Picasso’s heirs. Andrieu reinforced her statement by saying, “disclosing a work by Picasso is a matter of copyright and in particular moral rights” and that referring to the AI ‘result’ was an “indecency.”
“A machine cannot replace an artist, nor complete the work of an artist who has abandoned it on the way of its creation.” — Head of legal affairs at the Picasso Administration.
Also, Picasso’s works have copyright protection, and therefore, consent to reproduce those works are required by law. While Bourached and Cann can defend that their creation is an “imaginative interpretation,” the fact remains that the technology was designed to replicate the work — down to the complexity of Picasso’s brushstroke techniques and varying amounts of pressure.
However, Bourached believes that Picasso painted over the nude with reluctance and that the painter “actively welcomed such forensics” — even quoting Picasso, who said, “I just painted the images that rose before my eyes. It is for other people to find the hidden meanings.” To the Oxia Palus duo, that’s exactly what they did. And rather than make claims that the AI piece is a recreation or a resurrection, the pair insisted that it is a “reconstruction” and that the actual work remains hidden under The Blind Man’s Meal.
What is your take on using artificial intelligence and 3D printing to recreate lost works of art? Do you believe that keeping lost art hidden is a travesty, or is it our generation’s responsibility to reveal them to the world — even without the artist’s consent?