Painted during the autumn of 1969, Pablo Picasso’s monumental composition L'Étreinte fizzes with erotic tension, the bodies of its two amorous protagonists intertwining and overlapping as they embrace in an intimate moment of sensual pleasure. Here, the artist not only offers a glimpse into the heady, passionate relationship between lovers, but also the extreme zeal with which he approached the act of painting at this time. Filled by an enormous urge to create during this final chapter of his career, Picasso enjoyed a great flourishing of painterly activity that was characterised by its passionate vitality, fervent energy and distinct sense of spontaneity. Adopting an abbreviated style of painting described as écriture-peinture, and rendered in bold, expressive strokes of paint, these compositions stand as an affirmation of Picasso’s continued artistic dynamism during the last decade of his life, and the endless wells of creative inspiration that lay within his imagination.
The embrace was a subject which had long occupied the artist, appearing in drawings, pastels, paintings and prints across the decades. By the late 1960s, it appeared as an extension of Picasso’s renewed interest in the charged interaction between the painter and his model, a theme he had returned to following a decade-long exploration into the iconography of the great masters of art history. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he conducted in-depth studies of a selection of masterpieces by artists including Delacroix (in his Femme d’Alger series, 1954-1955), Velàzquez (Las Meninas, 1957), Manet (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1960-1962), and lastly Poussin (L’enlèvement des sabines, 1962-63), absorbing the compositional techniques of his predecessors and then translating them through a decidedly non-traditional language into his own, unique variation of the subject. By directly engaging with the work of these revered artistic figures of the past, Picasso was not only measuring himself against their achievements, comparing the strength of their imagination against his own, he was also assessing his position within this esteemed lineage of great European painters.
However, the task of reinterpreting Poussin’s calamitous scenes of distress, rampage and terror during the winter of 1962 had left the artist feeling drained. As the new year dawned, he resolved to turn away from these allusions to the past, and instead seek out a new theme which he hoped would reinvigorate his art. Hélène Parmelin, the wife of the painter Edouard Pignon and a close friend of Picasso at the time, witnessed first-hand this sea-change in the artist’s focus: ‘And now he says he is turning his back on everything. He says he is flinging himself into an incredible adventure. He says everything is changed, it’s all over, painting is something quite different from what we believed, perhaps it’s even the exact opposite… “We have to look,” says Picasso, “for something that develops all on its own, something natural, and not manufactured, it has to evolve just as it is, in its natural shape and not its shape in art … Grass like grass, a tree like a tree, and a nude like a nude.” … In February 1963, Picasso broke loose. He painted ‘The Painter and His Model.’ And from that moment he painted like a madman. Perhaps he will never paint again with such frenzy’ (H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, trans. C. Trollope, London, 1966, pp. 84-84).
The resulting works delve into the fundamental connection between the artist and his muse, revelling in the very act of looking itself, and the ways in which the figure could be translated through the artist’s subjective vision, into a paean of the female form. In many versions the artist is seen before his easel, paintbrush in hand, gazing at his model as she adopts a variety of dynamic poses; in others, the artist stands alone, lost in thought at the edge of a half-painted or empty canvas, while in another strand, the artist disappears altogether, and the nude model alone fills the expanse of the canvas. All suggest the excitement of rediscovery, as Picasso, in the shape of the painter, becomes both observer and creator, the passive voyeur and the active agent in the scene, absorbing the view before him whilst simultaneously generating it.
As he continued to explore this theme, the painter gradually emerged from behind his canvas, moving ever closer towards the reclining nude model, eliminating the barrier between the two until they become joined in a passionate embrace. Describing this evolution as the ‘ultimate conclusion’ of Picasso’s investigations into the subject, Marie-Laure Bernadac sees in this meeting of the two characters a fundamental transformation, as they shift from representing the artist and his model, to a paradigmatic vision of male-female relationships (Bernadac, ‘Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model,’ in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 55). Filled with a powerful sense of monumentality, L'Étreinte explores such a moment, the two figures portrayed in a dramatic, passionate clinch, their bodies occupying the entire canvas in such a way that the viewer’s attention is focused solely on the intensity of their connection.
With her dark hair, hieratic bearing and Grecian profile, the recumbent female nude appears to be an homage to the artist’s wife Jacqueline, the muse who entranced Picasso throughout his later years, filling his imagination and fantasies with her petite, yet voluptuous, form. Though she did not model for him in the traditional sense, Jacqueline’s presence permeated every aspect of the artist’s work, captivating his imagination and inspiring a myriad of sculptures, drawings, etchings and paintings in her likeness. In Jacqueline, Bernadac has written, ‘Picasso once again found a flourishing serenity… one that gave him renewed enthusiasm and lust for life, for love and for painting’ (in B. Léal, C. Piot, and M.-L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2003, p. 405). Here, she is cast as the sensuous lover, arousing carnal desire with her curvaceous form. The male figure is entirely captivated by her, his eyes cast wide as he stares appreciatively at her during their kiss. Continuing the central themes of looking and connection which had underpinned Picasso’s studies of the artist-model relationship, L'Étreinte draws us into the scene through the power of this gaze, the intensity of their feelings eloquently channelled through their exchange of eye contact.
Swept up in the passion of the moment, their bodies also appear to meld together, to such a degree that at points it is difficult to decipher where one figure ends and the other begins. Employing a form of personal shorthand, in which the body is expressed through a handful of highly simplified, but recognisable, signs, Picasso offers a visual summary of the body, allowing just a few elements to create an impression of the whole. Certain features are enlarged and given particular prominence in the composition, such as the man’s thumb or the woman’s hands and shapely breasts, while their entwined limbs capture a sense of the all-consuming fervour of a passionate embrace. As such, L'Étreinte may be seen as a visual expression of Picasso’s own passion-filled, sexual fantasies, his longing and desire channelled into the male figure, as he embraces his partner.
While Picasso had always synthesized numerous sources in his work, compositions such as L'Étreinte are defined by their expression of the artist’s lived experiences in the moment of their creation. Residing in almost complete seclusion with Jacqueline at Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, the artist was able to immerse himself entirely in his work, painting without disturbance for hours each day. The result was an exuberant burst of creativity that belied the artist’s age, as he produced an astounding body of work that valiantly proclaimed his undiminished powers of creation. This fervent energy is reflected in the bold, gestural brushwork the artist employed in the compositions of this period – forms are modelled in long, sinuous strokes of pigment, before being filled with broad passages of colour that demonstrate the vigour with which the artist attacked the canvas.
In the present work, Picasso’s mastery of the painterly medium is clearly evident, each brushstroke imbued with a distinct power and confidence, as he translates his vision on to the canvas. The canvas is divided into flat planes of bright, primary colour, and centres around the interplay of saffron yellow, bright blue, and deep burgundy tones, which had similarly dominated the series of mosquetero paintings that immediately preceded L'Étreinte during the final two weeks of October 1969. Taking great pleasure in the act of painting itself, he allowed the process of creation to take prominence over the finished image. As he explained to Francoise Gilot: ‘It’s the movement of painting that interests me, the dramatic movement from one effort to the next, even if those efforts are perhaps not pushed to their ultimate end … I’ve reached the moment, you see, when the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself’ (Picasso, quoted in E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 640).
Soon after its completion, L'Étreinte was included in the landmark 1970 exhibition Pablo Picasso, 1969-1970 at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, which showcased the artist’s most recent work en masse in the grand setting of the Gothic palace. Hung in close proximity to one another, the paintings provided an expansive view of the seemingly boundless energy that fuelled his output at this time. It is this passion for painting, for life, for creation itself, which makes Picasso’s art from the twilight years of his career seem so vital and compelling to this day. Driven by a heady mixture of desire and memory, they show an artist painting without restraint, as he tried to express all that remained within his creative imagination, before it was too late: ‘I have less and less time to paint,’ he proclaimed in a moment of poignant honesty, ‘and I have more and more to say…’ (Picasso, quoted in M-L. Bernadac, op. cit., 1988, p. 85).