Picasso’s final transformation

Late in life, Picasso represented himself in his art in the guise of the adventurous, virile musketeer. Perhaps nowhere is this better exemplified than in his 1967 masterpiece Mousquetaire et nu assis — offered in London on 27 February

Executed in lavish and passionately applied brushstrokes, Mousquetaire et nu assis  is among the first of the triumphant depictions of musketeers that appeared in Pablo Picasso’s work in 1967.

Accompanying this iconic figure is a seated nude with dark hair and large, all-seeing eyes. This is Jacqueline, the artist’s last great love, muse and wife, whose presence permeated every female figure painted in this final chapter of Picasso’s life.

‘Picasso’s late career was defined by sensuous paintings in which he cast himself as the virile artist alongside his voluptuous lover,’ explains Keith Gill, Head of the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London. With one eye towards the Old Masters and another towards contemporary art, Mousquetaire et nu assis  shows Picasso plundering the past in a strikingly fresh, gestural way.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Mousquetaire et nu assis, 1967. 51¼ x 37⅞  in (130 x 96.5  cm). Estimate £12,000,000-18,000,000. This lot is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale  on 27 February 2018  at Christie’s in London

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Mousquetaire et nu assis, 1967. 51¼ x 37⅞ in (130 x 96.5 cm). Estimate: £12,000,000-18,000,000. This lot is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 27 February 2018 at Christie’s in London

Like Titian, Rembrandt, Matisse or de Kooning, Picasso produced an astonishing number of paintings and drawings in his final years. ‘He seemed to have a sense of urgency to his work in this period, as if trying to beat the passage of time,’ says Gill.

Throughout his career, Picasso had frequently been drawn to historical, classical or mythological ‘types’: he had variously imagined himself in his art as the melancholic harlequin, monstrous minotaur and courageous torero. Now, in his last decade, the artist adopted the character of the adventurous and virile musketeer.

Above all, it is desire that radiates from Picasso’s late work

The figure of the musketeer, or mousquetaire, first appeared in Picasso’s work toward the end of 1966, just months before he painted Mousquetaire et nu assis. While recovering from surgery at his home in Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, France, he immersed himself in literature, devouring plays by Shakespeare and novels by Balzac, Dickens and Dumas. When Picasso began painting again in the spring of 1967, it was the swashbuckling characters from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers  who leapt from the page and into a new life on the canvas.

The figure of the musketeer had a long history in visual art, too, represented in works by Hals, Rembrandt, El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. In referencing the revered artists of the past, Picasso was measuring himself against them, while asserting that he belonged in this lineage of great masters.

‘Why did Picasso lock horns with one great painter after another?’ asked John Richardson in a 1984 article for The New York Review of Books. ‘Was it a trial of strength — arm wrestling? Was it out of admiration or mockery, irony or homage, Oedipal rivalry or Spanish chauvinism? Each case was different, but there is always an element of identification, an element of cannibalism involved — two elements that, as Freud pointed out, are part of the same process. Indeed Freud described the process of identification as “psychic cannibalism”. You identified with someone; you cannibalised them; you assumed their powers. How accurately this described what Picasso was up to in his last years.’

More than any other in this pantheon of artistic heroes, it was the work of Rembrandt that Picasso most identified with, or ‘cannibalised’, in his creation of the musketeer. The speed with which he now painted, however, was reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists. ‘When things were going well,’ recalled Jacqueline, ‘he would come down from the studio saying, “They’re coming! They’re still coming”.’

Above all, it is desire that radiates from Picasso’s late work: both sexual desire and the desire to paint without restraint, thought or impairment. This desire, and the thirst for life of an artist all too aware of his advancing age, charges Mousquetaire et nu assis  with its vital, immediate power.

Mousquetaire et nu assis (1967) will be a highlight of Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale  in London on 27 February 2018, part of 20th Century at Christie’s, a series of sales that takes place between 20 February and 7 March 2018.