‘The surface of [Picasso’s] 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’ – John Richardson
‘Paintings are but research and experiment. I never do a painting as a work of art. All of them are researches. I search incessantly and there is a logical sequence in all this research. That is why I number them. It’s an experiment in time.’ – Pablo Picasso
Executed on 30 April 1972, Tête emerged during the last great burst of creative energy that marked Pablo Picasso’s painterly activities, and is among the final compositions in oil the artist ever produced. A testament to his irrepressible verve and undiminished capacity for invention, the canvases he produced during this late period of his career are filled by bold, gestural images that revel in the very act of painting itself, their surfaces alive with the raw enthusiasm and pure physicality of Picasso’s painterly vision. In Tête, the ruffled neckline of the gentleman’s tunic implies that the figure is one of Picasso’s dashing mousquetaires, mock-heroic cavaliers which drew inspiration from the art of Rembrandt, Hals and Velázquez. Typically sporting elaborate costumes and adopting dandyish poses, these mousquetaires were playfully ascribed specific personalities by the artist: Hélène Parmelin recalled how he would pull out pictures featuring these debonair characters, 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…’ (Picasso, quoted in F. Calvo Serraller and J. Semprun, eds., Picasso: Tradition and Avant-garde, exh. cat., Madrid, 2006, p. 340). At the dawn of the 1970s, Picasso moved towards a tighter, close-up view of the mousquetaires, typically limiting himself to a bust-length depiction, in which the facial features and the strength of his character’s gaze were granted a new prominence.
For these male heads and busts, Picasso adopted a gestural, painterly shorthand, in which a set of sweeping, overlaid and intersecting strokes of thick paint were used to denote the character’s physiognomy, variously suggesting the shape of a nose, the shadow on a cheek, a pair of wide open eyes and a raised brow. In Tête, this bold brushwork is contrasted against the delicate, continuous, coiling lines used to represent the man’s shoulder-length curly hair, which seem almost incised into the canvas. Even the background has been painted in such a way that the viewer is intensely aware of the contact between the artist’s brush and the canvas, each daub of colour capturing a sense of the energy with which Picasso approached the composition and played with his materials. Writing about these late paintings, John Richardson described the sheer freedom of this approach, and the intent with which the artist adopted this style: ‘In the past, dexterity, or rather his ingenious attempts to conceal dexterity, had on occasion got the better of him. Seldom, however, in the last paintings. The technique is very much there, above all the infinite variety of the formal invention and the wonderful plasticity of the paint, but it is never an end in itself… The point was to preserve the directness and spontaneity of his first rush of inspiration, to be as free and loose and expressive as possible. In old age, Picasso had finally discovered how to take liberty with space and form, colour and light, fact and fiction…’ (J. Richardson, ‘L’Epoque Jacqueline,’ in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 42).
Tête featured in Picasso’s second exhibition at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, staged during the spring of 1973 and intended as a sequel to the lucrative show held in the same venue three years previously. However, this would prove to be the final installation the artist personally chose artworks for, as he passed away shortly before the opening, on 8 April. As such, the exhibition proved a fitting elegy for the great master, showcasing 201 oil paintings, all produced between February 1970 and the end of 1972, each of which offered proof of the astonishing vigour and tireless productivity that had marked his final years. While a sizable proportion of the paintings in the exhibition continued themes explored extensively in the inaugural show, there was an increased focus on such close-up portraits of lone figures as seen in Tête – primarily musketeers, matadors, and harlequins, many of which seemed ready to burst from the confines of their canvases. Considered en masse in this way, these paintings revealed the extent to which Picasso continued to push the boundaries of his art right up until his final days, taking painting to pieces in order to reconstruct it again in new and unexpected ways.