This Tête, dated 14 December 1969, is that of a young man. His inquisitive and insistent gaze is transfixed on some unknown object of desire, or a dazzling vision, as if it existed far outside the picture and well beyond the viewer. His costume places him back in the 17th century, among Picasso's mousquetaires, although his floppy straw hat and the absence of a formal lace collar denote some casual situation, as if he were a young musketeer recruit relaxing and daydreaming during his off-duty hours. He might be the eighteen-year-old D'Artagnan in Dumas's The Three Musketeers, having just arrived in Paris from the provinces and eager to enlist in the legendary company of Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Or it is possible he possesses no military inclination at all - he may be a artist, perhaps the young Poussin as he examines in total bewilderment the indecipherable canvas Frenhofer has painted in Balzac's Le Chef d'oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), one of Picasso's favourite stories, for which he etched a series of illustrations that Vollard published in 1931.
Amid the welter of multiple historical and literary allusions suggested in even a single painting, time and place are mercurial and impossible to pin down in Picasso's late work. One can only put aside any regular narrative sequencing and enjoy the wild ride in Picasso's time machine, as it winds it way through his unfathomable theatre of the imagination.
Tête, under the title Buste d'homme, was included in the last major lifetime exhibition of Picasso's work, held in May-October 1970 at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. The artist was nearing his ninetieth birthday, and was still painting non-stop. This show, often referred to as Avignon I, was devoted entirely to his recent work, comprising 167 oils and 45 drawings he had done between the beginning of January 1969 and the end of January 1970. Picasso assisted in the planning of a second exhibition, Avignon II, in which he would show his paintings from 1970-1972. This sadly became a posthumous event, having opened a month after the artist's death in April 1973. Many among the throng in attendance at both exhibitions were young people, and their reaction to Picasso's rambunctious mousquetaires, sexually explicit nudes and passionately embracing lovers was noticeably more enthusiastic than most of their elders, and far more sympathetic than the critics. Hélène Parmelin and her husband the painter Edouard Pignon, both close friends of the Picasso, noticed the youthful aspect of the artist's most fervent admirers at Avignon I:
‘One day, Pignon and I found ourselves in Avignon at the Palais des Papes, among the crowd at Picasso's exhibition. Elbow to elbow. Many hippies or their ilk, with hair, beards and hats, of the type Picasso enjoyed passing in the street. Many young people expressing their freedom through colors and clothing... Pignon tells me he has a strange feeling. He no longer seems to know whether the crowd is rising into the walls or whether the canvases are descending to mingle with the crowd. There is, finally, such a close correspondence between the crowd and the canvas, he says, that they are the same thing’ (Picasso Mosqueteros, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 244).
The advent of the mousquetaires may be traced to early 1966, when, as he was convalescing from surgery at his home in Mougins, Picasso re-read Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. Within a short time a new character entered Picasso's repertory of artist-surrogates and imaginary alter-egos - the musketeer, or more generally, the 17th century cavalier, a rakish fellow skilled with the sword and undaunted in his military and romantic exploits, a worldly gent who enjoys all that life had to offer. During the early 1960s Picasso had been fond of depicting himself in the figure of a brawny Mediterranean fisherman, a modern-day Odysseus, either young or old, with a curly beard and in a striped sailor's vest. Now in his mid-80s, able to travel only locally, and with his vaunted sexual powers finally on the wane, Picasso assumed the guise of the brave, adventurous and virile musketeer, usually wearing an elegant little beard and with long wavy hair, and costumed in a doublet and ruffled collar. This would be the mask he held up most frequently to the world during the remaining years of his life.
Picasso took pleasure in ascribing specific personal qualities to his mousquetaires. Mme Parmelin recalled how Picasso would pull out the pictures, and pointing to one or another, remark, ‘With this one you'd better watch out. That one makes fun of us. That one is enormously satisfied. This one is a grave intellectual. And that one...look how sad he is, the poor guy. He must be a painter’ (quoted in Picasso: Tradition and Avant-garde, exh. cat., Madrid, 2006, p. 340). The musketeer paintings enumerate a laundry list of human foibles, but while there may be occasional moments of melancholy, there is never darkness nor manifest evil, and at all times these spunky fellows charm and amuse by dint of their essential good nature.
The paintings in both Avignon exhibitions are the final fruit of Picasso's ongoing dialogues with past masters. Picasso had begun his late period, which coincided with arrival of Jacqueline in his life, with the variations after Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger done in 1954-1955, which were also a tribute to his recently deceased friend Matisse. Velázquez came next in 1957 with improvisations on Las Meninas. He then turned to Manet for the Déjeuners series in late 1959 and the early 1960s, making way for Rembrandt, Raphael and others when in 1963 he began the artist and model paintings, from which the mousquetaires and other baroque figures soon evolved.
Another master - this one from the not so distant past and who was alive and painting when Picasso was a child - also made his presence strongly felt, especially among the portraits included in the Avignon exhibitions: Vincent van Gogh. Picasso summoned the name of Van Gogh back in 1935 as he and Christian Zervos were discussing the issues posed by the impact of abstract art. Picasso declared, ‘Abstract art is only painting. What about drama?... It's not what the artist does that counts, but what he is... What forces our interest is Cézanne's anxiety - that's Cézanne's lesson; the torments of Van Gogh - that is, that actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham’ (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, pp. 9 & 11).
John Richardson has drawn attention to Picasso's affinity for Van Gogh: ‘Of all the artists with whom Picasso identified, Van Gogh is the least often cited but probably the one who meant most to him in later years. He talked of him as his patron saint, talked of him with intense admiration and compassion, never with any of his habitual irony or mockery. Van Gogh, like Cézanne earlier in Picasso's life, was sacrosanct - "the greatest of them all," he said. Hélène Parmelin has described how Picasso badgered the director of the museum in Arles to get him a photostat of a press-cutting, the only documentary record of Van Gogh chopping off his ear and giving it to Rachel, the prostitute. He, who seldom framed anything, was going to frame it, he said. At first glance Van Gogh does not manifest himself very overtly in Picasso's work, certainly not as overtly as Manet or Velázquez. But that is largely because his influence is not a superficial stylistic question of borrowed compositions or anecdotal trappings, but a matter of deep spiritual identification... It is the paintings of a red-bearded, straw-hatted artist at his easel, with their generic resemblance to Van Gogh's self-portraits (one of which Picasso used to project, floor to ceiling, on the studio wall), that reveal the extent of the old Spaniard's debt to the doomed Dutchman‘ (Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 32).
Picasso began to identify with Van Gogh early on, at the very beginning of the century. He arrived for his second stay in Paris too late to attend the landmark 1901 retrospective, but he studied Van Gogh's paintings in Vollard's gallery, where that year Picasso was given his first Paris show. He associated the suicide of his close friend Casagemas with Van Gogh's tragic demise. ‘In his self-pitying Blue Period days,‘ Richardson has written, ‘Picasso had thought of Van Gogh as a kindred spirit - the quintessential peintre maudit. At the end of his life Picasso's attitude was less sentimental. What he wanted was to enlist Van Gogh's dark spirits on his side, to make his art as instinctive and "convulsive" as possible’ (op. cit., p. 32).
Many of Picasso's mousquetaires wear some kind of hat, continuing a thread that had been running in and out of the artist's work since the 1930s, when nearly every one of his female subjects is seen wearing one. Picasso shared the Surrealists' fascination with women's headwear as a revealing expression of their inner lives. Now that Picasso had plunged into baroque manners and costumes, men, too, could wear elaborate and even outlandish hats.
The presence of a straw hat, as seen here, is yet another indication that Picasso is channelling Van Gogh, in whose portraits the hat was an emblem that both characterises the sitter's place in society and proclaims an attitude of personal identity and pride (de la Faille no. 531). Van Gogh, of course, often depicted himself wearing a straw hat (de la Faille no. 526), which was requisite protection for working outdoors in the brilliant sun of the Midi and became a token of his profession. Picasso usually adorned the straw hats in his paintings with a spiral, a sign denoting the weave of the crown and possibly alluding to the vortex forms in Van Gogh's Saint-Rémy cypresses, the famous Starry Night, 1889 (de la Faille no. 612; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), and a Self-portrait of the same period (de la Faille no. 627; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Picasso once remarked to André Malraux, ‘The Impressionists... that was innocent painting. Not the Spanish. Not Van Gogh. Not me. The Dutch, sometimes, they could be Spanish, no? Van Gogh, Rembrandt...‘ (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Madrid, 2006, p. 385).
Tête is the last of three numbered paintings that Picasso completed on 14 December 1969, each depicting a different subject. Numbered ‘(I)‘ that day is Pierrot et arlequin (Zervos, vol. 31, no. 544), a favourite theme from the early decades of Picasso's career, but in this instance a take-off on several Degas paintings of the mid-1880s (Lemoisne nos. 771, 817 & 818). The second picture is Couple (Zervos, vol. 31, no. 545). The striated technique that Picasso employed in the present canvas, with the image composed mainly from ribbon-like strokes of colour, resembles that in the young farmer's shirt in Van Gogh's painting, and he has moreover employed a Van Gogh-like palette of brilliant red, yellow and green. It is perhaps no coincidence that the wallpaper background in Tête displays a wheat ear motif. Richardson has written: ‘I suspect that Picasso also wanted to galvanize his paint surface - not always the most thrilling aspect of the epoch before Jacqueline's - with some of the Dutchman's Dionysian fervour. It worked. The surface of the late paintings has a freedom, a plasticity, that was never there before: they are more spontaneous, more expressive and more instinctive, than virtually all his previous work. The imminence of his own end may also have constituted a link with Van Gogh. The more one studies these late paintings, the more one realizes that they are, like Van Gogh's terminal landscapes, a supreme affirmation of life in the teeth of death’ (op. cit., pp. 32 & 34).
Even before the Avignon exhibitions, Picasso's late work had disappointed critics as being unworthy of a famous and elderly master who was universally acknowledged to be the world's greatest living artist. This did not bother Picasso, who was delighted that the young people who flocked to the 1970 Avignon exhibition were responding to the freedom they found in his recent paintings. Picasso told Pierre Daix, ‘If I'm painting better, it's because I've had some success in liberating myself’ (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Work, New York, 1993, p. 365). Daix wrote: ‘It was the critics who were most disconcerted, seeing the show as a compilation of summary painting, improvisations done in febrile haste, and the erotism of an old man. Whereas in fact Picasso had given them an extraordinary demonstration of an arrival at the start of a new visual era and of a growing sexual revolution which reached entirely beyond the limitations of resemblance, of artistic tradition, and convention. He was expected to rest on his laurels, his past successes. Instead he painted as the adolescents of the 1970s were going to paint in the 1980s’ (ibid.).
Picasso's impact on younger painters indeed became clear during the 1980s. Four late Picasso paintings were included in the exhibition A New Spirit in Painting in at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1981 - they were hung together with recent canvases by Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz, Per Kirkeby, Phillip Guston, Markus Lüpertz, Anselm Kiefer, Frank Auerbach, Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, among others. Writing in the catalogue preface, Christos M. Joachimides declared, ‘Interest in [Picasso's] powerfully expressive late work is just beginning. This is the work which, like some incredible mutation, embodies the spirit of a very young artist who gives form to his perception of the world in fresh, unsullied, aggressive images’ (exh. cat., op. cit., p. 16).
Today, nearly thirty years after the London exhibition, and going on four decades since the artist's death, Werner Spies has affirmed that ‘Picasso seems like the most contemporary of contemporary painters, the radical man of the hour. Now he could suddenly figure as a guarantor for subjectivity, for the return of figuration, and spontaneous painting - basically everything Minimal and Conceptual Art had written off as an anachronistic affair. All at once Picasso again began to be viewed as the unavoidable and undeniable founding figure of modern painting’ (in Picasso: Painting Against Time, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna, 2006, p. 21).