Pablo Picasso’s The Blind Man’s Meal has captivated the public for over a century. Distinguishable by its elongated figure in hues of blue against an austere background, the canvas is as enthralling and mystifying as most of the artist’s paintings at the time, depicting what Picasso himself has described as “pure sentiment.” The painting, however, is not merely a portrait of a blind man; it is also the canvas for another masterpiece. Beneath the Spanish artist’s oil painting hides a female figure obscured from the world for 118 years. It was rediscovered using X-rays in 2010 and, 11 years later, reproduced by Oxia Palus, an artificial intelligence (AI) art collective founded by two technology doctoral candidates at University College London (UCL).
Entitled The Lonesome Crouching Nude, the hidden work was recreated using a combination of spectroscopic imaging, AI, and 3D printing. To help ensure the piece was as close in look, feel, and tone to the original, Oxia Palus founders George Cann and Anthony Bourached developed an AI algorithm that analyzed dozens of Picasso’s paintings and trained itself to understand the artist’s style.
For this, their third reproduction, the duo created a full-size, full-color painting, which includes 3D textured brushstrokes, that was featured at the inaugural Deeep AI festival, a new digital exhibition held at the futuristic Morf Gallery in the arty London area of Shoreditch in October 2021.
The painting was thought to have been lost until 2010 when X-rays revealed it lay behind The Blind Man’s Meal, which currently hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York. However, the image is also depicted as an unfinished painting in the background of another Picasso artwork, the famous The Life (1903) on display in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
According to former Met director and CEO Thomas Campbell, it is likely that this original new painting was in Picasso’s studio at the time he composed The Life. In a piece written by the art expert back in 2010, he said, “scholars have long sought the original version of this work, which Picasso appears to have scraped off the canvas before beginning The Blind Man’s Meal.”
Campbell said the exciting discovery demanded months of work from eight curators, five conservators, five research scientists, and eight researchers, but the result has since astounded art connoisseurs and the public, who got to appreciate The Blind Man’s Meal at the Met’s 2010 exhibition Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art under an entirely different light.
The exhibition’s curator, Gary Tinterow said that “because Picasso was so poor, and the canvas was a luxury, it was more convenient for him to paint over something that wasn’t going to be sold anyway.”
Commenting on this aspect of the discovery, Bourached also believes that Picasso’s need to paint over this piece was “common for his Blue Period work, since it was early in his career and materials were expensive.” Furthermore, he considers that the appearance of the crouching female figure in the background of one of his most famous Blue Period pieces, The Life, indicates that she was likely significant to him.
“I believe Picasso actively welcomed such forensics since he himself said: ‘I just painted the images that rose before my eyes. It is for other people to find the hidden meanings.’ Like Leonardo imagining the helicopter, was Picasso envisioning technology that could recall his lost or incomplete work? It is certainly a hidden secret that The Life points to,” explained Bourached.
To recreate the long-sought piece, Oxia Palus relied on its five-step technology to reproduce artworks that have been painted over. This type of reproduction, dubbed “NeoMasters” by Oxia Palus, demands, first of all, X-ray and infrared imagery that allows an underpainting to be more clearly revealed. However, the trace of the exterior piece remains within the spectroscopic imagery, along with the hidden interior piece.
Then the team processes the imagery to separate the exterior and interior pieces. Next, a neural network is trained on a collection of artworks by the artist that is believed to have painted the underpainting. This network can then stylize an image of the processed interior piece in the artist’s style.
Using the stylized piece with the processed interior piece, a heightmap of the artwork is generated. The heightmap gives the piece texture and is used in the last stage, when the piece is brought to life through 3D printing the artwork on canvas, to the exact size of the original painting, using the stylized work and the heightmap.
Thanks to this novel “Neomaster” canvas, fans of Picasso’s iconic art created between 1901 and 1904 can see a new work emerge. With its mystical touches and analogous color scheme that depict the characteristic blue palette, somber subject matter, and destitute characters of Picasso’s Blue Period, the crouching female figure is ideally recreated for anyone to gaze upon, now as a painting of its own in The Lonesome Crouching Nude.
“It’s very exciting to see a work that’s been locked up. It’s quite eerie seeing the brushstrokes, the color, and the way in which lights reflect off the work. It’s a beautiful piece,” said Cann, who aside from founding Oxia Palus is also a UK Space Agency doctoral candidate at UCL, currently researching trace gases in the Martian atmosphere. “I hope that Picasso would be happy 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. I also hope that the woman within the portrait would be happy in knowing that she hasn’t been erased from history and that her beauty is finally being revealed in the 21st century.”
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