‘You are in every way a pure Mediterraneanist, a relative of Ulysses, terrible in cunning.’
(Eugeni d’Ors, ‘Open Letter to Picasso’, 1936, in J. Richardson, exh. cat., ‘Picasso: The Mediterranean Years’, in Picasso: The Mediterranean Years, 1945-1962, New York, 2010, p. 11)
‘I want to say the nude. I don’t want to make a nude like a nude. I only want to say breast, say foot, say hand, belly. If I can find the way to say it, that’s enough. I don’t want to paint the nude from head to foot, but just be able to say it. That’s what I want. When we’re talking about it, a single word is enough. Here, one single look and the nude tells you what it is, without a word’
(Picasso, quoted in H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, London, 1966, p. 91)
Pablo Picasso completed Joueur de flûte et femme nue on 21st October 1970, just three days before his 89th birthday. Like Titian, Rembrandt, Matisse or de Kooning, in the final years of his long career Picasso had a great flourishing of artistic activity, during which he produced an astonishing number of paintings and drawings, driven by an unstoppable urge to create. On a monumental scale, Joueur de flûte et femme nue depicts two figures: a voluptuous female nude, who is being softly serenaded by a bearded, flute-player seated next to her. On the same day, Picasso painted another large work on this theme: Joueur de flûte et femme nue II (Zervos, vol. 32, no. 285). Crowned in laurel wreaths and seated on verdant green grass, the protagonists of the present work have a distinctly mythological character, immersed in a bucolic, classical idyll. Yet, the couples’ interlocking limbs, the nude’s voluptuous curves, and the sensual, spontaneous style of the painting all serve to infuse the composition with a heady sense of eroticism, a feature that characterises much of the artist’s late work.
Three years after its creation Joueur de flûte et femme nue was included in the large exhibition of the artist’s recent work held at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. Opening just a few months after the artist’s death, this landmark exhibition featured works chosen by the artist himself and presented a triumphant, boldly coloured cavalcade of musketeers, nude women, embracing couples, painters and musicians in a joyous celebration of painting. Attracting hoards of visitors and widespread critical acclaim, as well as, in some cases, shocked bemusement, this exhibition placed the artist at the forefront of contemporary art; in the words of Werner Spies, it was ‘a posthumous manifesto for a new painting, a painting with which the public had yet to become familiar. Against the background of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Picasso seems like the most contemporary of contemporary painters, the most radical man of the hour... All at once Picasso again began to be viewed as the unavoidable and undeniable founding figure of modern painting’ (W. Spies, exh. cat., Picasso: Painting Against Time, Vienna & Düsseldorf, 2007, p. 21).
The unmistakable, hieratic profile of the seated nude in Joueur de flûte et femme nue – her large, almond-shaped eyes and flowing dark hair – can only be that of one woman: Jacqueline Roque. Picasso had met the twenty-five year old divorcée who would become his final lover, wife, muse, model and companion, in 1952. He and Jacqueline were married on 2 March 1961 in a ceremony that included just two witnesses, the artist’s lawyer and a cleaner. In June of that year, having resided in the grandiose Château de Vauvenargues on the Provençal slopes of Mont Sainte Victoire, they moved into a villa on a hillside near Mougins. Notre-Dame-de-Vie, as it was known, was Picasso’s final home and the site of some of the artist’s most ardent and passionate artistic creations. From this time on, Picasso increasingly shied away from travel and entertaining wide circles of poets, artists and acquaintances, instead preferring to surround himself with a smaller group of intimate friends and most importantly, Jacqueline, who devoted herself entirely to him, attending to his every need and desire both artistic and otherwise. Notre-Dame-de-Vie became Picasso’s whole world and Jacqueline his ultimate muse and model.
Jacqueline first appeared in Picasso’s work in 1954 and from this point until his death in 1973, her image permeated every aspect of his art. Hélène Parmelin, a writer and friend of the artist recalled, she ‘peoples Notre Dame-de-Vie with a hundred thousand possibilities… She takes the place of all the models of all the painters on all the canvases. All the portraits are like her, even if they are not like each other. All the heads are hers and there are a thousand different ones. All the eyes are black, all the breasts are rounded… She is that enormous nude or that delicate one, that epitome of woman or that long exposition of femininity. She is sitting, lying, standing, everywhere. She is dreaming, thinking, playing… The enormous vitality of the painter feeds on this face which is itself painting, and vice versa’ (H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, London, 1966, p. 68). Picasso did not need to paint Jacqueline directly from life, instead her image was indelibly imprinted in his mind, and with her constant presence beside him her image flooded his canvases. Termed by John Richardson as ‘L’Époque Jacqueline’, it is this period that immortalises her presence in the artist’s life.
In Joueur de flûte et femme nue, the figure of Jacqueline is transformed into a raven-haired, all-seeing ancient goddess, her profile featuring both of her dark, almond-shaped eyes that stare out of the picture plane with a spellbinding intensity. Or perhaps she is the figure of a nymph being serenaded by the melodious music of the flute-playing figure of Pan, the god of shepherds, hunters, meadows and forests, whose home was Arcadia and who was known for his potent virility. This mythological male figure had often appeared throughout the artist’s career, particularly following the Second World War. Returning to the south of France, it was in Antibes that Picasso first began to conjure an idyllic, mythological world, depicting images of dancing satyrs, pipe-playing fauns, nymphs and centaurs. ‘It’s strange,’ Picasso mused at the time, ‘in Paris, I never draw fauns, centaurs or heroes from mythology… it’s as if they live only here’ (Picasso, quoted in M. McCully, ‘Painter and Sculptor in Clay’ in exh. cat, Picasso Painter and Sculptor in Clay, London, 1998, p. 28). These classical characters became part of Picasso’s personal mythology, appearing constantly in his sculpture, drawing, ceramics and lithographs, as well as his painting.
Combining music and the nude, in Joueur de flûte et femme nue Picasso was returning to a theme that had appeared throughout his own oeuvre as well as in the work of some of the great masters of the past. Like Titian’s depictions of reclining nudes serenaded by a lute or organ player, or Ingres’ sensuous odalisques accompanied by a musician, in the present work, Picasso creates an idyllic image of seduction and eroticism. The bucolic setting of Joueur de flûte et femme nue also brings to mind the early work of one of his great artistic rivals and comrades: Matisse. A number of his early masterpieces, such as Le bonheur de vivre (1905-1906, The Barnes Foundation) and Musique (Esquisse) (1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) portray a sensual, harmonious idyll of love and music.
Couples dominate Picasso’s work of his final years: man and woman appear time and again in his paintings in an array of different guises. Musketeers, painters, matadors, musicians or, as in the present work, mythological characters, are depicted embracing, kissing, painting, observing or serenading a recumbent nude woman. Sensual images of eroticism and romantic love, these late paintings are a visual celebration of life, creativity and passion. As Marie-Laure Bernadac has described, ‘ecstasy is the right word to describe these works, in which, more than ever before, Picasso affirms the erotic dimension of life, in love as in art, and in which he paints with an unprecedented wildness… Picasso remains, to the very end, the painter of man, of flesh, of physical love: hence his attachment to the figure and to the material density of the canvases; hence, also, his obsession with death as the sole obstacle to life’ (Picasso, quoted in M.L. Bernadac, ‘Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model’ in exh. cat., Late Picasso: Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, Prints 1953-1972, London, 1988, p. 90). At the end of his life, when his own vaunted sexual powers had faded, Picasso transformed himself into myriad guises, portraying himself as the swashbuckling musketeer, macho matador or courting musician, each masquerade the quintessence of virility and creativity as he sought to defy age and impending death. Indeed, painting became a way of expressing his irrepressible sexual desires: as he stated in reply to a question about the difference between art and eroticism, he replied unequivocally, ‘There is no difference’ (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, exh. cat., Picasso: Mosqueteros, New York, 2009, p. 29).
It was this desire to beat the inexorable passage of time that led Picasso to paint with a new urgency and speed. In Joueur de flûte et femme nue, the artist has applied paint with a gestural vigour and spontaneity. His brushstrokes are thick and visceral, irrevocable gestures that boldly declare the hand of the artist himself, memorialising his presence in paint upon the canvas. Likewise, spots and splashes of paint adorn the surface of the picture, highlighted against the stark white canvas. One can feel in the vigorous brushstrokes Picasso’s urgency and his powerful, unrelenting compulsion to paint; ‘I have less and less time,’ he said in a moment of poignant honesty, ‘and I have more and more to say’ (Picasso, quoted in M.L. Bernadac, op. cit., p. 85).
The figures themselves are depicted with the simplest of means: their hands and feet are, as is characteristic of Picasso’s work of this period, exaggeratedly large and rendered with a childlike simplicity. In these final years, Picasso wanted to dispense with mediation, consideration and refined detail and instead paint directly, without hesitation, according to his instincts and impulses. The female nude in the present work is depicted with a single, searing red outline that conveys a heady sense of eroticism, sensuality and above all physicality, enlivening her flesh and turning her into a living, breathing figure amidst the boldly coloured composition. Sweeping lines and circles denote her breasts, and a single curving arabesque indicates her languorously reclining pose. Picasso has not added tonal modulations, but applied the paint with a vigorous energy and candour, relishing the painterly surface of the work. In this way, Picasso remained defiantly iconoclastic until the end, shunning convention and expectation to remain at the forefront of contemporary art. ‘Speed allows him to be in two places at once, to belong to every century without losing touch with here and now’, the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz wrote. ‘He is not the painter of movement within painting: he is movement that has become painting. He paints out of urgent necessity, and what he paints is urgency itself. He is the Painter of Time’ (O. Paz, quoted in M.L. Bernadac, op. cit., p. 88).