Here is a scene that at first glance is a most intimate look at a relationship between a man and a woman–the frisson of an impromptu amorous moment, the joy of mutual seduction, an opportune conjugal tryst–but as if lifted from a Greek tragedy or ancient mythology. The eyes of two members of the chorus bear witness to the scene. Or perhaps they are a queen’s ladies-in-waiting. These lovers are not youthful bodies in heat; they are fully mature adults, whom Picasso has cast as his wife Jacqueline and himself–he shows off his famous mira fuerte, his riveting gaze. Choose your own favorite story from among the many possibilities: Penelope (or Circe) and Odysseus from Homer, or conjure a tale from the Thousand and One Nights. From the Old Testament, think of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or David and Bathsheba.
In contrast to the typically frieze-like or flattened stage arrangement of figures in Picasso’s late paintings, drawings and prints, the effect here is noticeably movie-like, with the simmering sexual aspect of the proceedings perhaps suggesting film noir, especially in the use of a close-up for the gentleman’s head, seen in moodily mysterious shadow, while light floods the bosomy form of his female partner, all set within the deeper space of cinematic mise-en-scène. “Even television played a role in the development of Picasso’s late style,” John Richardson has written, “To distract herself during the long hours her husband was working, Jacqueline had bought a television set. The two of them developed a taste for old movies” (Late Picasso, exh cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 29).
The pronounced sexual component in late Picasso stems from the artist and model series that he commenced in 1963, from which he spun out unending variations of erotic fantasy that he continued into his very last paintings. The simple fact of a painter gazing on the woman seated or reclining before him in these studio pictures led to ever more sophisticated games of desire and seduction, coyness and consent, qualities which lend this subject its appealing air of often humorous eroticism–Picasso depicts a very civil and good-natured contest of the sexes. The outcome was inevitable, as Marie-Laure Bernadac observed, “The more Picasso painted this theme, the more he pushed the artist-model relationship towards its ultimate conclusion: the artist embraces his model, canceling out the barrier of the canvas and transforming the artist-model relationship into a man-woman relationship. Painting is an act of love, according to Gert Schiff, and John Richardson speaks of ‘sex as metaphor for art, and art as a metaphor for sex’”(ibid., p. 77).
A virtuoso without peer in his late line drawing, Picasso in his broader handling of brush and ink wash created a kind of drawing as painting, in emphatic black and white, using moody chiaroscuro to intensify contrasts of highlight and deepest shadow. During the early months of 1967 he alternated his drawing technique between colored pencils and brush with ink wash. The latter dominated his output between the 7th and 18th of March, concluding with the present Homme, femme et profils, to which he applied himself in three sessions, on the 15th, 17th and 18th days of the month. At one time he even abraded–a rare instance of this Miró-like practice in his drawing–a heavily inked passage between his profile and Jacqueline’s visage to balance the contrasts in the composition. Having completed this drawing, Picasso turned to oils, and worked in this medium almost exclusively into early May, depicting his signature mosqueteros.