Finding New Meaning in The Soup

Museum Educator Carla Freyvogel shares how her students helped her understand Picasso’s The Soup (on view in Picasso: Painting the Blue Period) from a different perspective. 

We stand in the middle of the gallery facing Pablo Picasso’s The Soup, balancing on our left leg, the right leg extended just a bit behind us, the body weight focused on the ball of the left foot. Our arms are outstretched. We waver a bit and return to standing.

Pablo Picasso, The Soup, 1903, Oil on canvas, 15 3/16 x 18 1/8 in., Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Margaret Dunlap Crang, 1983. 83/316 © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Then, we try another pose—the pose of the grown-up in the image. This time the right foot is forward and somehow our weight is grounded evenly between our feet. But our upper backs…how to bend them so completely to mirror the head and shoulders of our subject? I ask my students to place a hand at the nape of their necks. Can you actually bend your neck to the extent this woman has? “No!” is what almost everyone says, so we talk about how Picasso exaggerated this downward curve of the neck to convey what–defeat? despair? fatigue? We talk about it.

They take their places on the floor in front of The Soup. The students are between nine and ten years old. Many of them remark on the steam coming out of the bowl, the softness of the white brushstrokes, the hints of pink that can be seen against the blue background.

“What do you think might be going on in this painting?” I ask. We have framed this tour in terms of unearthing narratives. At nine and ten, they have lots of ideas of good stories to go with each piece of artwork they see.

“Well, I think that the little girl has just given the woman a bowl of hot soup,” a girl offers from the front row.

I am shaken by this. The little girl is offering the soup? I had long assumed that the despondent woman (the mother?) was sacrificing the soup for her child, willing to go hungry herself.

“Tell me more,” I respond.

My student goes on to tell me a story based around this image. The mother was sick and tired, the girl was young and stronger, though both of them were suffering on some level. But it came time for the little girl to care for her mother and so she did, providing her warm soup while going a bit hungry herself.

Just when I think that Picasso has called in all of my compassion chips, has banged at my heart, willing me to embrace the despair and sadness of the women he observed, my student takes it to the next level. We grown-ups are not supposed to obtain compassion from our children, from the younger generation. We are supposed to be strong and willful, to be the tough ones when the going gets tough.

But what if we are not? What if life were so hard that we had to accept charity from the very person we were on this earth to protect?

Entertaining my student’s perspective makes my experience with The Soup even more meaningful and heartbreaking.

Leave a Reply