In 1973, the venerable and ancient Palais des Papes in Avignon was filled with the colourful bustle of a strange coterie of characters. These toreadors, lovers, and musketeers had all been captured by Pablo Picasso in paintings executed during the final years of his life and hand-selected by the artist for the exhibition. The only figure missing from the great gothic halls was Picasso himself, who had passed away just one month before its opening on 23 May. Among the eccentric cast of characters that appeared in this landmark exhibition was Homme au chapeau assis, painted the year prior, depicting a seated debonair gentlemen dressed in seventeenth century garb.
Picasso is often heard to say that when he paints, all the painters are with him in the studio. Or rather behind him. Watching him. Those of yesterday, and those of today… A painter in solitude is never alone”
This incongruous musketeer, a stock character of a variety of artists and writers from Rembrandt, Hals and Velázquez, to Molière and Dumas, appears out of place in a painting as modern as Homme au chapeau assis, with its electric colours and contemporary appearance. Yet in turning to this subject, Picasso found himself able to doff his hat in the direction of his greatest predecessors and inspirations. Just as he revisited paintings like Las Meninas, so too here he has tapped into the sense of romance and valour that reveals his continued interest in the artists of yore.
This interest was perhaps sharpened by Picasso’s repeated assertion that he was ‘haunted’ by the character of Rembrandt, who was for the Spaniard a ghostly presence, a target and an idol. This was an influence that Picasso had felt for most of his life, once explaining that, ‘Every painter takes himself for Rembrandt’ (quoted in F. Gilot and 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 a sense, Picasso has taken a subject more fitting for an Old Master in order to emphasise his own contribution to the revolution that had taken place in art through his pioneering experiments over the previous seven decades, all the while paying his respects to his artistic hero.
In old age Picasso would admit to being very conscious of old masters breathing down his neck. Far from being bothered by this, he was so secure in his genius that he conjured master after master into the heart of his work and had his way with them”
The romance of days of yore, of the age of cavaliers and musketeers, too 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 in his later years, serving less as his projected sense of self and more as his wish-fulfilment. The earliest musketeers swell with exuberance and energy, brandishing the symbols of their virility, whether a sword, instrument, pipe, or paintbrush. These characters emerged in Picasso’s art after a period of convalescence during which he spent time looking through a catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s etchings, as well as reading The Three Musketeers. When he returned to painting in 1966, the characters from these pictures and from Alexandre Dumas’ famous book came 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.
Yet, unlike the escapist visions that the earliest bon vivant figures offered, the protagonist of Homme au chapeau assis is perhaps a more exacting self-portrait of the artist himself in his final years. Here, Picasso’s distinctive features are only slightly disguised, hidden behind the tightly curled hair and traditional garb, the sleeve of which quietly echoes the artist’s lifelong uniform of the blue and white striped sailor shirt. Abandoning his usual accoutrement of pipe or weapon, this musketeer instead rests his hands in his lap in an extended moment of seated respite.
Picasso was never an expressionist, never one to wear his bleeding heart upon his sleeve. He was a Spaniard, like Don Juan, who joked in the teeth of death and shouted defiance when they dragged him to hell. Picasso’s art affirmed until the end that, even when it is a diary, art is not meant to be a confession but a game”
Although Picasso captured the resting and reflective character of this male figure, the canvas brims with life and energy. In the bold, frenzied brushstrokes that articulate the lively surface of this work, the viewer can trace the impressively physical act of painting, the artist defying the supposed limitations of his age. The vigorous, visceral gesturality of these vivid brushstrokes is a recording of Picasso’s own whirlwind of movement, parrying and striking with the oils against the canvas. Picasso himself was aware of the almost archaeological manner in which his own movements were captured on the canvas, stating, ‘The role of painting is to arrest motion’ (quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, ‘Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model,’ in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London and Paris, 1988, p. 88). In Homme au chapeau assis, this results in picture that is filled with movement, with colour, with sheer energy. 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.
In Homme au chapeau assis, 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 paint. 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 features of the male figure 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.
Picasso’s deliberate, almost gleeful relinquishment of standard notions of aesthetics and beauty show a rebellious artist at work. The energy of the picture and its ambiguity appear to pay tribute to Art Brut. 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’ (quoted in J. Richardson, ‘L’Epoque Jacqueline,’ ibid., p. 42). This is perfectly evidenced in Homme au chapeau assis. On display in the 1973 Palais des Papes exhibition, it would have 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 musketeer, all rendered with a deliberate hand, with a convulsive energy, with livid and colours, revealing an artist exorcising his thoughts on mortality and revelling in life itself. It was with this formidable exhibition of paintings that he asserted his enduring primacy and influence within the artworld, both in life and death.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustrated (detail).