Seventeen years old and just returned from a stint at the prestigious but stiflingly traditional Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, Picasso became involved with a group of young mavericks in his home city of Barcelona. Often found in the cabaret Els Quatre Gats, the modernistas were revolutionary in Spanish art of the time, and Picasso’s work modernised rapidly in this atmosphere of eclecticism and innovation.
Although the modernistas soon began to seem stuck in their one revolution, and Picasso quickly outgrew it, they bequeathed to him what Patrick O’Brien calls a ‘generalised anarchism’ that remained with him throughout his life. Even here in Portrait de Renart (above), painted when he was just 18, the hallmarks of mature Picasso are clearly present: the ingenuity, the irreverence, the great, bold insight into his subject.
Barcelona would not be the last place that failed to hold Picasso, but it would be the first. In 1900 the artist moved to Paris, and the 20th century began.
In 1933 Fernande Olivier’s memoirs, Picasso et Ses Amis, were published and serialised in magazines and newspapers. Olivier had been Picasso’s mistress between 1904 and 1912. She had lived with him at the famous Bateau-Lavoir, inspired Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and witnessed his invention of Cubism. Now, however, the artist’s closely guarded private life became public.
While the revelations were not absolutely damning, it marked the start of a difficult few years. Picasso had married Olga Khokhlova, a dancer with the Ballet Russes, in 1918, but the marriage broke down entirely when she discovered his eight-year affair with a young French woman named Marie-Thérèse Walter in early 1935.
Picasso’s work in these years is marked by potent unhappiness. Yet Marie-Thérèse had fallen pregnant with Maya, who would be born in September 1935, and in La Minotauromachie — the great masterpiece of Picasso’s printmaking — the calming presence of the flower girl holding out a candle, despite the raging bull menacing her, hints at a change in the weather.
In 1935, while sitting at the café Les Deux Magots with Paul and Nusch Eluard, Picasso saw a striking, dark-haired figure across from him. In one delicate hand she held a knife, and kept stabbing it into the table between the fingers of her other gloved hand. Sometimes she missed, and blood would soak into the glove between the appliqued roses.
This was Dora Maar. Eccentric and independent, she had posed for Man Ray and Brassaï, photographed Yves Tanguy, had Georges Bataille as her lover, and was deeply involved with the Surrealist movement. Enigmatic, worldly and in possession of strong political convictions, to Picasso she was the antithesis of the feminine, luxuriant Marie-Thérèse, and inspired a new burst of creativity in him.
Buste de Femme (Dora Maar) epitomises this fresh direction in Picasso’s work with its contrasting, turbulent colours and jagged, sometimes violent distortions of Dora’s face. Relishing the two women’s physical and psychological difference, he painted both compulsively.
On 14 June 1940, German troops entered Paris. Picasso decided to remain, occupying a large, unheatable studio in rue des Grands Augustins. As his great friend and rival Henri Matisse wrote: ‘If everyone who has any value leaves France, what remains of France?’
Amid the oppression, seizures of property and persecution, Picasso continued painting and sculpting, sourcing bronze for casting on the black market and enduring harassment from German soldiers, who would aggressively search his apartment on the pretext of looking for the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.
Yet in 1943 things were looking up. The Germans were in full retreat in Russia, the Allies were advancing in Italy, and one evening in May, at his local restaurant The Catalan, Picasso introduced himself to a young, glamorous student named Françoise Gilot. She would be his next mistress.
In Tête de Femme, this potent mix of joy and great anxiety is visible in Dora Maar’s face, suffering under the weight of the occupation and Picasso’s dominant personality. In 1945 she suffered a nervous breakdown and became a patient of Jacques Lacan, described as ‘the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud’.
Buying La Californie — a huge Art Nouveau villa built around 1900, overlooking Cannes and the Mediterranean — was a turning point for Picasso. His relationship with Françoise Gilot had by now disintegrated and she had returned to Paris with their two children.
In November 1954 Matisse died in Nice, and in February 1955 Olga Khokhlova died in Cannes. When Picasso moved into La Californie with his soon-to-be second wife, Jacqueline Roque, in the autumn of 1955, he wanted a clean break with the past. He also gave up his two Paris flats.
‘The visual tributes Picasso paid to Matisse in the work of the second half of the 1950s are in some respects a form of mourning,’ John Golding has written, and Picasso’s great Atelier series is the first example. Inspired by Matisse’s Vence interiors, painted between 1946 and 1948, L’Atelier de la Californie is Picasso’s eulogy to his old friend and erstwhile rival, and the beginning of the last phase of his work.
In 1965, while recovering from surgery, Picasso began re-reading his favourite books: Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, much of Shakespeare, and Otto Benesch’s six-volume compendium of Rembrandt’s drawings.
In February 1967 he resumed painting with great vigour and intensity. Seventeenth-century cavaliers, mousquetaires, and their women, tumbled from Picasso’s brushes. He was beginning to assess his own legacy, finding his place among the great painters of art history.
Homme à la Pipe belongs to this great project, alongside his versions of Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. When it was shown as part of the mammoth Avignon exhibition in 1970 it also caused a stir in contemporary art. As Werner Spies notes, Picasso ‘could suddenly figure as a guarantor for… 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.’