Opinion  November 9, 2021  Anna Claire Mauney

AI Uncovers Lost Picasso Prompting Talk of Ethics & Ownership

Still of Picasso signing his name in Le Mystère Picasso.

Midway through October, tech experts Anthony Bourached and George Cann were prepared to unveil their AI-generated recreation of a lost Picasso at London’s Deeep AI Art Fair, when they received a letter from the U.K. side of Picasso’s estate demanding they cease and threatening legal action.

The Picasso in question—a squatting nude female figure that may be from the artist’s famed Blue Period—was discovered in 2010 with x-ray technology. Referred to as The Lonesome Crouching Nude, it lies under the completed 1903 painting, The Blind Man’s Meal.


A post shared by Oxia Palus (@oxia_palus)

The AI-generated recreation of The Lonesome Crouching Nude.

To produce this recreation, Bourached and Cann created an algorithm to design brushstrokes similar to the artist’s via AI analysis of Picasso’s painting oeuvre. Then, these brushstrokes were applied to canvas with 3D printing.

In an NBC News interview conducted just before the planned unveiling, Bourached and reporter Chantal Da Silva touched on a primary function of art, one that plays a key role in drawing many art historians to their field. Quoting Bourached, Da Silva wrote that art is, “a way of ‘documenting information’ about moments in time, including in an artist’s life.”

This use of AI—which Bourached unsurprisingly called, “a new frontier,”—could deeply enhance the capability and scope of scholarly research. But the representatives of Picasso’s estate are much more interested in the questions this innovation raises about ownership.

Towards the end of October, the head of legal affairs for Picasso’s U.K. estate Claudia Andrieu released a statement in which she claimed, "Disclosing a work by Picasso is a matter of copyright and in particular moral rights."

While issues of copyright are certainly pertinent here and important to tease out, it seems a shame to let them take over. If art historians are able to divulge what they do from a perfectly executed masterpiece, might a painted-over artwork present even more opportunity to mine for meaning? And wouldn’t this unprecedented level of detail and texture of such an artwork only heighten these prospects?

With the advent of such technology, questions could be asked, researched, and perhaps even answered regarding the artist’s financial situation, confidence, motivation, and inspiration. But, alas, a compromise between Bourached, Cann, and the estate seems unlikely.

Towards the end of her statement, Andrieu even said, "The 'result' of this Artificial Intelligence is not a work and it is [an] indecency to say otherwise[…] A machine cannot replace an artist, nor complete the work of an artist who has abandoned it on the way of its creation."

These statements indicate a determination to disregard and devalue the re-created artwork. While it is certainly no genuine Picasso, Bourached and Cann never claimed that it was.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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