GREAT WORKS: Women Running on the Beach (1922) Pablo Picasso Muse Picasso, Paris

Article excerpt

At the start of Samuel Beckett's novel Watt, a passer-by is watching a couple at a tram stop: 'Mr Hackett decided, after some moments, that if they were waiting for a tram they had been doing so for some time. For the lady held the gentleman by the ears, and the gentleman's hand was on the lady's thigh, and the lady's tongue was in the gentleman's mouth. Tired of waiting for a tram, Mr Hackett said, they strike up an acquaintance. The lady now removing her tongue from the gentleman's mouth, he put his into hers. Fair do, said Mr Hackett. Taking a pace forward, to satisfy himself that the gentleman's other hand was not going to waste, Mr Hackett was shocked to find it limply dangling over the back of the seat, with between its fingers the spent three-quarters of a cigarette.'

Why is this scene like a picture?

It's partly because Mr Hackett is like a picture-viewer, intimately observing an intimate scene, without (it seems) any sense of intrusion or fear of detection. But it's also in how the two lovers are described. They are not presented as entire bodies. They are a series of isolated body parts: ears, hand, tongue, mouth, thigh, another hand. They appear in disconnected fragments and glimpses, which is how bodies often appear in pictures.

In pictures, things are always being obscured and interrupted by other things. Bodies disappear behind bodies and then reappear the other side. They exist, not whole, but as a series of emerging parts. It's for the viewer to make the relevant connections, to fill in the missing, unseen pieces.

And some pictures deliberately make this difficult. They make it hard to see how the parts of a body are supposed to connect up. Gustav Klimt, for example, scatters his bodies. He paints swathes of ornamental material, and then " here and there " there's a gap, and a bit of flesh appears. He does it in his famous Kiss, where you get the heads, hands, and feet of the lovers, but how these extremities join up into bodies behind their ornate robes is anyone's guess. It's a rather clammy effect. It can also be done with gusto, though. Take Picasso's Women Running on the Beach .

Picasso was strongly drawn to the seaside. It is his arcadia. Woods and fields and riverbanks hold nothing for him. It is on the beach, on the shores of the Med, among bathers and sunbathers and beach huts, that he finds his ideal world of love and pleasure and play. It is not always a happy world. There can be pain, cruelty and betrayal in it. But here it's at its most exuberant. The picture is like a beach postcard. Its red-white-blue scheme carries a subliminal feeling of a tricoleur flag flapping in the wind.

Things are not absolutely jolly. The two women are running together, hand in hand " but obviously racing too. Picasso doesn't have lesbian fantasies, women alone enjoying each other. He can't put two girls together without suggesting a catfight. The runners are competing, and one of them is dramatically out-running her rival. The dynamic of the picture is in the way each figure is in front of and behind the other one.

Picasso sometimes does elaborate and elusive variations on human bodies where you can hardly follow what's going on. …