Painted in 1969, Homme au fusil is a big, bold and deliberately brash work dating from Picasso's late period. The works that Picasso created during this period revealed his undimmed ability to shock his viewers, and his undimmed love of doing so. In this picture, Picasso has emphasised the bold colours of the striped outfit of this strange, bellicose character by contrasting them with the darker background, an effect that hints at his being some form of night watchman. Indeed, the night-coloured background appears to recall the atmosphere of Old Master paintings, and especially of Picasso's great idol, Rembrandt.
This was an influence that Picasso had felt for most of his life, explaining that, 'Every painter takes himself for Rembrandt' (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, p. 51). In artistic terms, Rembrandt was both a hero and an obstacle to be overcome; Picasso worshipped him, but saw himself as a challenger assailing his position. In this sense, Picasso's relationship with the long-dead Netherlandish painter was similar to that with his own father, leading to strange torments. However, Picasso's wonder at the skills and vision of Rembrandt, be it in his drawings, his prints or his paintings, was endless. John Richardson even mentions the fact that Picasso would use a slide projector to vastly magnify Rembrandt's masterpiece The Night Watch on one of the walls of his studio in order that the shimmeringly luminescent cavalier characters appeared to be stepping from their period into Picasso's own world. In Homme assis au fusil, it seems that one of those characters has moved from Rembrandt's picture and settled in Picasso's, albeit in a more rakish, expressionistic and contemporary guise.
The romance of days of yore, of the age of cavaliers and musketeers, appealed hugely to Picasso and his combined senses of whimsy and machismo. Like the bullfighters that were such a constant touchstone for the Spaniard, these dashing figures acted as substitutes for the artist himself. They were his creations, almost like children that he watched, entertained by their antics, but at the same time they were also crucially a form of self-portraiture. In this, they less projected Picasso's sense of his real self - by the time he painted Homme au fusil, he was in his late 80s - than wish-fulfilment. The fullness of their lives was a form of substitute for his less active life, constrained by his increasing frailty. Picasso's age and impending mortality had become an increasing issue during his later years, and even resulted in an operation. It is telling that, during his convalescence, he spent time looking through a catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt's etchings, as well as reading The Three Musketeers. The characters from these pictures and from Dumas' famous book have come back to life in Picasso's paintings, their swashbuckling adventures providing an escape for the artist from the limitations of his own domain, while also introducing the viewer to a poetic world of manliness and romance.
The fact that so many of these characters imply physical adventures, a thirst for life and for experience, is reflected in the vast energy with which Picasso has painted Homme au fusil. In the bold, frenzied brushstrokes that articulate the lively surface of this picture, the viewer can trace the impressively physical act of painting. The amount of gestural activity that is recorded in these vivid brushstrokes is a recording of Picasso's own whirlwind of movement, parrying and striking with the oils against the canvas in a reflection of the duels that may have featured in this rifleman's own life. Picasso himself was aware of the almost archaeological manner in which his own movements have been captured on the canvas, stating, 'The role of painting is to arrest motion' (Picasso, quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, 'Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model', pp. 49-94, Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 88). In Homme au fusil, this results in picture that is filled with movement, with colour, with sheer energy, resulting in a beguiling picture that is filled with an eccentric enthusiasm. At the same time, this 'arrested motion' has an existential aspect, Picasso capturing his own movements for posterity, an increasing concern as he approached the end of his life.
The vivid, lively surface of Homme au fusil, the colour, and the sense of condensed and captured life that makes it such an enchanting vision, all combine to show Picasso turning his attention, or doffing his cap, to another Dutch artist: Vincent van Gogh. In an echo of the paintings of Van Gogh, Picasso has turned his own brooding on mortality, his own darkness, towards creating a painting that is filled with so much life and colour that it appears to banish gloom. The figure holding the gun, itself a menacing attribute, has been painted with electric stripes of red and yellow and green that almost glow in relation to the darker background. The energy of the painting, the sense that it has tapped into the very raw, pulsing stuff of life itself, owes something to Van Gogh.
The paint surface owes something to Van Gogh, as well as showing Picasso's awareness of the activities of new generations of artists. In Homme assis au fusil, there is a clear and deliberately palpable contrast between the thick impasto that makes up some parts of the picture and the more essential, pure canvas in other parts. The very nature of paint is being explored and celebrated in this richly varied texture of oil paints. In this, Picasso is in part analysing the entire process of creation, taking it to pieces in an almost post-modern manner that also reflects some interest in the development of the Informel. This is likewise echoed in the deliberately brutalised features of the man himself, who has been rendered through a combination of codified stylisation and distortion. Picasso has thrust the act of painting into centre-stage. Each and every one of the spontaneous, energetic brushstrokes that comprise this picture show the artist inspecting the techniques that he had made so entirely his own during the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century. In exploring the physical properties of paint, in distorting the appearance of this imaginary character, in wielding his brush with such abandon, Picasso shows himself reacting to his own legacy as the giant of Twentieth Century painting.
His deliberate, almost perversely gleeful relinquishment of standard notions of aesthetics and beauty show a rebellious artist at work. The energy of the picture and its distortions appear to pay tribute to Art Brut and the art of children. And yet these factors have all combined to create a picture that has a striking presence. It is telling that Picasso himself claimed that technique is important 'on condition that one has so much... that it completely ceases to exist' (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, 'L'Epoque Jacqueline,' libid., 1988, p. 42). Nowhere is this more clear than in Homme assis au fusil, and Picasso deliberately rammed the point home when he exhibited rooms full of his paintings from 1969 in the Palais des Papes in Avignon. This show shocked many of the viewers, who perhaps expected a mature, quiet, tender late style from the great statesman of painting. Instead, the walls were packed with a strange panoply of characters like this gunman, all rendered with a deliberate brutality, with a convulsive energy, with livid and colours, revealing an artist exorcising his thoughts on mortality and revelling in life itself.