In 1970, Avignon's Palais des Papes was invaded by a wild coterie of musketeers, lovers and cavaliers. Picasso's paintings filled the ancient building, their unbridled energy and bright colours singing against the bare stone walls. Painted in July the previous year, Homme à l'épée was one of the pictures that featured in this landmark exhibition. These exuberant characters are filled with life. They have an intense wall-power, accentuated in Homme à l'épée by its sheer scale: this monumental painting was larger than almost all the others in the exhibition (only a fraction of the paintings exhibited were on a slightly larger canvas).
The figures of musketeers and cavaliers seemed particularly at home in such an historic setting. These characters, staple stock for the Old Masters, had been appropriated by Picasso and were prominent in the almost mythological cast of subjects that peoples his late works. These fantastical pictures capture a variety of figures from a bygone age, given new life in the bold, colourful and energetic paintwork of the Spaniard. This is revisionist Picasso, treating the work of past masters with respect, but a playful disregard. The intense copies of his beloved Velazquez paintings that he had executed as a young man in the late Nineteenth Century are here exorcised, instilled with humour and an infectious energy that belies the artist's years.
As well as the Old Masters, there is a dash of Boys Own adventure in the exuberant and dashing representation of this swashbuckling man. Only a few years earlier, while recuperating from surgery in Mougins, Picasso had read Dumas' classic tale of heroism and adventure, Les trois mousquetaires ('The Three Musketeers'), and had been immediately struck by the richness of the characters and the narrative. It was after this that these chivalric characters came to enter his art. As with much of his Post-War art, there is a strong autobiographical element to his paintings of male characters. Be it in his representations of monsters, artists or knights, self-portraiture is never far in the offing. In the images of the bombastic and ridiculous knights and musketeers, Picasso revels in self-mockery, building himself up only to knock himself down.
The levels of Picasso's self-representation in Homme à l'épée are varied. It is not only in the subject matter, but also in the execution that Picasso emblazons himself. The distinctly gestural paintwork shows the traces of the artist's manic exertions in the creation of the picture, reminiscent of the work of the Abstract Expressionists and even de Kooning. The vigourous brushstrokes reveal the vigourous artist. This is all the more impressive for the fact that the artist was himself an octogenarian at the time that Homme à l'épée was painted. The increased physicality of Picasso's paintings from the 1950s and 1960s show the extent to which the canvas was a battlefield for his struggle with the limitations of old age. The sheer energy so evident in paintings such as Homme à l'épée reveal an artist fighting against old age - and winning.
Picasso famously stated that, 'When I was a child I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to draw like a child' (Picasso, quoted by H. Read in The Times, 26 October 1956). The energy and directness of children's art came to interest Picasso, and indeed to change his style completely. The art of children presented Picasso with a new way of painting, but also with a new way of seeing. His interest in the art of children had mainly come about during the 1950s when he was exposed to the pictures created by his children, Paloma and Claude. Their earlier influence on their father remains visible in the deliberately scrawling application of paint in Homme à l'épée, adding a huge stylistic vitality to the picture, as well as in the flattened and disjointed body parts that make up the subject. Picasso's interest in the art of children also reflects the extent to which he liked to keep abreast of developments amongst younger generations of artists, in this case Art Brut in particular. The art of madness and infancy had an intensity that had interested a wide range of figurative artists, for instance Dubuffet and the former CoBrA painters. At the same time, Picasso as ever reveled in shocking his fans and critics alike: by disregarding formal aesthetics, he showed himself ever the revolutionary, challenging people's notions of art, but also challenging their notions of Picasso.
In his later career, given time for reflection, Picasso did precisely that, revisiting many of the subjects and styles that had featured in his earlier works. In Homme à l'épée, this is most apparent in the rendering of the man's face. The silhouette outline on the left is reminiscent less of the musketeers of the late work than of Picasso's celebrated oils of his lover during the early 1930s, Marie-Thérèse Walter. While the rest of the picture is filled with the scumbled and scrawled paintwork so particular to the artist's later works, this silhouette appears as a toughing recollection of another age in his own life. Even thirty years later, the old representations of Marie-Thérèse and their fluid tracery haunt his work.
During recent years, the increased interest in classic Post-War paintings has resulted in a reappraisal of Picasso's works from this period. They have received increasing critical attention and recognition. The series of paintings that he created during the 1960s are now looked at within the context of the series of cutting edge Post-War artists, Picasso exploring the same tropes again and again in a quasi-conceptual manner.