In 1964, the year that Pablo Picasso painted Tête d’homme, the artist embarked on an irrepressible surge of painting. At the heart of this creative outpouring lay Picasso’s obsession with the theme of the artist and model, as he explored with an indefatigable energy, this elemental and ultimately enigmatic artistic relationship. Painted at the end of this year, on 10 December, an extraordinarily prolific day where the artist created a total of seven oils (Zervos, vol. 24, nos. 308-311, 313-315), Tête d’homme developed out of this group, one of a series of works in which Picasso isolated the figure of the painter, removing him from the setting of the studio, and rendering him as the sole protagonist. Each male figure is different: some sport the artist’s beloved and signature striped Breton shirts, others are adorned with a straw hat, an ode perhaps to Vincent van Gogh. Yet, this fraternity of painters is united through their painterly portrayal, all appearing frontally, their intense, wide-eyed, solemn gaze not only a reflection of the artist’s lifelong identity as an artist, but the result perhaps of his contemplation on his own mortality and legacy.
At the time he painted Tête d’homme, Picasso was leading an increasingly hermetic and secluded life. Residing in his home, known as Notre-Dame-de-Vie, set high in the hills of Mougins in southern France, he spent time with a small group of old and loyal friends, choosing not to entertain the large entourage of admirers and coterie of poets and writers that he had enjoyed having around him since his youth. With his devoted wife, Jacqueline, by his side, he spent long periods of time undisturbed in his studio. It is no surprise therefore that, living in blissful contentment within this microcosm of the wider world, he turned to the theme of the artist and model in the studio.
As Picasso painted Tête d’homme and the rest of the series throughout the month of December 1964, he continued to push his visual language to its furthest extremes. Each head is constructed with a similar means: interlocking vertical lines in bold strokes of yellow, red and green create the topography of the face, while short dashes of black serve as the hair, beards, and eyes of this cavalcade of painters. At this time, Picasso was relentlessly testing the boundaries of representation, reducing his pictorial language to its barest essentials. “A dot for the breast, a line for the painter, five spots of color for the foot, a few strokes of pink and green…,” he declared. “That’s enough, isn’t it? What else do I need to do? What can I add to that? It has all been said” (quoted in B. Léal et al., The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2003, p. 464).
In his portrayal of artists, Picasso was not only exploring his own identity, but collectively, of his rivals too. Emerging from a period during which he had waged battle with a number of revered masterpieces of the past—Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, among others—Picasso began looking to the art of a diverse range of artists, including Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and, as had been the case throughout his career, Matisse was not far from his mind too. Indeed, the striking frontality and bold execution of the present Tête d’homme is reminiscent of Matisse’s early Autoportrait of 1906 (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen), painted the year the two artists met and itself a close counterpart to Picasso’s own Autportrait of the same time (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 375; Philadelphia Museum of Art). With his questioning gaze, strident paint handling, and sporting the striped sailor top that would become so wedded to Picasso’s own identity, Matisse’s self-portrait would remain imprinted in Picasso’s artistic memory for many years to come, as Tête d’homme shows.