Thin lips peeled back in a roar reveal a rigid tongue and canine teeth. Swollen, bulging eyes leap outward as if the sockets simply cannot hold anything more than the ceaseless torrent of tears. The chin clenches and trembles in extreme sorrow. The nostrils flare like two dark tunnels. Even the handkerchief poised by the face points upward in stiff peaks, the cloth’s own attempt to represent a scream of suffering, of anguish, of sheer sorrow.
The face I have described belongs to Pablo Picasso’s Mujer Llorando, or Weeping Woman, located in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain. I stood in front of the drawing surrounded by my classmates from Princeton in Spain, our two professors, and our tour guide. Thin with dark eyes constantly darting from face to face, our guide explained that this portrait forms part of a larger collection of weeping women inspired by Picasso’s work on the Guernica, an oil painting completed in 1937 that depicts the horrendous bombing of Guernica, a Basque village, by Nazi airplanes during the Spanish Civil War. An exquisite manifestation of intense grief, Mujer Llorando reveals the deeply personal effect of wartime violence on the life of one woman—in some ways, such focus on the individual rather than the collective makes the work even more powerful, for she becomes a mother, sister, or friend rather than an anonymous human being.
As I gazed at the contorted face before me, various details called my attention and I struggled to find specific reasoning for each of them. I was particularly struck by the sharp, canine tooth clearly visible in the woman’s gaping mouth, for it seemed to suggest that her grief was so deep and so unfettered that, in the moment of her scream, she released the visceral, almost beastly part within her. So perhaps the tooth represented the animal hidden inside human beings? Or perhaps it symbolized retribution for the wrongs she’d endured and hence her own capacity for violence? However, when I asked the tour guide to explain what the tooth meant, I was met with an unexpected response.
“The tooth,” he said, “is merely a tooth.”
I was perplexed, and tried to rephrase my question. “What I mean to ask is what is it really? I know it looks like a tooth, but surely it means something else?”
The guide smiled and shook his head. “The tooth is a tooth, just like in the Guernica the bull is a bull and the horse is a horse. The tooth itself does not mean something specific—it functions within a larger whole to convey feeling.”
The group moved on to the next drawing, but I remained transfixed in front of the Mujer Llorando. What did he mean when he said “the tooth is a tooth?” I stared at it, trying to draw inspiration from its smooth edges meeting at the sharp point as I strained to come up with an answer. Then, suddenly, it occurred to me that looking at the tooth on its own didn’t make sense. The tooth didn’t mean anything if it wasn’t nestled between other teeth within the enormous, stretched mouth, above the stiff, unfurled tongue and below the swollen eyes spilling over with hot tears. I realized that I couldn’t remove specific elements of the portrait from their context and equate them with a particular object, person, or even significance. Each aspect of a drawing is lost, an unanchored boat on the high seas, unless it remains a part of the larger whole. Every little detail works like the piece of a puzzle, and it is only when each piece slides into place that the scene breathes and comes alive. So, it’s futile to dislodge individual facets from works of art and attempt to extract hidden meaning from each. Better to explore the work in its entirety, concentrating on the emotions it stirs within us, than to deconstruct it bit by bit and strip the life from it. After all, without the rest of weeping woman’s warped face, disfigured with agony and loss, the tooth is just a tooth.