During the late 1960s, as Picasso was approaching his 90th birthday, he rarely left the seclusion of his villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, his home since 1961. His wife Jacqueline looked after all of his needs and was protective of his interests. 'In the absence of outside stimuli, Picasso drew more and more on his incomparable memory - especially his early days in Spain - also on what he himself described as his 'novelist' side: 'I spend hour after hour while I draw...observing my creatures and thinking about the mad things they're up to: basically it's my way of writing fiction.' (quoted in J. Richardson, L'Epoque Jacqueline, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, pp. 28-29). The subjects of most of these drawings are set indoors, and their activities, usually erotic, take place on an interior and self-contained stage created within the artist's memory and imagination.
The present drawing is set outdoors, in a favorite locale of the artist in many works of the past--the beach--even if it is likely that Picasso was in his Mougins studio high in the hills overlooking Cannes when he drew it. Sometime on 30 January 1969 Picasso painted a small male portrait on board (Zervos, vol. 31, no. 41), continuing his long series of mousquetaires, his personal exploration and appropriation of early Baroque Spanish and Dutch painting. At some point during the day he switched over to a sequence of bathers, all drawn on the same size board with colored wax crayons and pencil. He completed two on this day - including the present drawing, which was done first - and added three more to the group the following day (Zervos, vol. 31, nos. 44-46; see lot 133). He returned to this subject again in another set of three drawings on 4 February (Zervos, vol. 31, nos. 50-52). Each drawing mixes male and female bathers, except for the last, which shows two women. In the drawing dated 31.1.69 I, the male bather becomes a Cupid, recalling a subject done earlier in the month (see lot 125). The confrontation of male and female sexuality, seen here in a sort of seaside courtship and mating ritual, is perhaps the most significant of the artist's preoccupations during his late years. As Picasso experienced the waning of his sexual powers, he came to see art and sex as metaphors for each other. In this powerful mingling of desire with imagination and memory, the artist found the strength to overcome the disappointments of old age, his experience of his own physical decline as well as the horror of watching many of his old friends dying before him. The very act of drawing or painting seemed able to hold at bay the imminence of his own death. John Richardson rightfully claims that, 'Despite these dark clouds the artist's work went from strength to strength. The early sixties were strong but the late sixties were even stronger' (ibid., p. 26). During this time Picasso continually mulled over themes and visual motifs from earlier periods of his work. The present drawing recalls his bather subjects from his classical and surrealist periods of the 1920s and early 1930s, in which he used the most elemental of compositions, setting one or more vertical figures against the starkness of the beach landscape, which is delineated by simple horizontal bands of sand, sea and sky.
Notwithstanding the seriousness of what was at stake in the artist's mind, and his obsession with love and sexuality, the late paintings, drawings and prints are rarely ever gloomy. Instead they are enjoyable for their abundant wit, irony and earthy humor. In the present drawing the female bather is nude, with her erogenous zones in glaring, exaggerated display. The male figure wears bathing trunks (in two other drawings in the sequence he is naked). The huge size of his hand with its outstretched fingers is certainly a euphemism for his arousal. Picasso's females, as fearsome as they may often appear, usually play the traditionally role as passive objects of male desire; here, however, male and female are placed on a level playing field. They stand face to face, speaking to each other with their eyes of the same mutual need, both intensely aroused and with every intention of seeking satisfaction.