“Whenever I meet a friend, my first reaction is to search in my pocket for a pack of Gauloises, in order to offer him one, just as I always used to. Even though I know very well that neither of us smoke anymore. In vain, old age forces us to give up some things; the desire remains. It’s the same with love. We can’t make love anymore, but the desire is still there. I still reach into my pocket,” Picasso told his biographer and friend Pierre Cabanne (quoted in Picasso, The Late Drawings, exh. cat., Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, 1981, p. 13).
Depicting a scene of a lustful embrace, L’Etreinte, drawn in 1968, exemplifies the lascivious imagery into which Picasso channeled, at the end of his career, the extraordinary force of his creative inventiveness. The graphic style with which the two figures are outlined is characteristic of Picasso’s copious drawing production of the late 1960s: highly expressive and direct. Like the rest of Picasso’s 1960s drawings, L’Etreinte depicts anonymous, eternal figures, whose universal character the artist could arrange to fit the rambunctious stories of his imagination. Picasso explained: “I spend hour after hour while I draw...observing my creatures and thinking about the mad things they're up to: basically it's my way of writing fiction” (quoted in J. Richardson, “L'Epoque Jacqueline,” in Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, pp. 28-29). Laying back, the woman seems to be openly offering herself to her eager companion; his hand grasps one of her breasts while she reaches out to pull him closer. Picasso's females, as fearsome as they may often appear, usually play the traditionally role as passive objects of male desire; here, however, she appears equally engaged. The swelling lines and voluptuous curves that Picasso used to describe these figures sublimate their desire in visual terms, while demonstrating the artist’s prodigious mastery of the medium.
In 1968, at the time he drew this work, Picasso was eighty-eight years old and carnal love had become but a pressing memory for the artist. Yet, nothing in the erotic joy expressed in the drawing and in the consummated eloquence of its lines points to the artist’s old age. On the contrary, inspired by the youth and dedication of his wife Jacqueline, whom he had married in 1961, his vigorous and energetic lines read as a bold claim to youth, to its charm, and to its many physical pleasures. Drawing thus became an impulsive, liberating medium for Picasso, in which he could pour and exploit fantasies, emotions and impulses that he was no longer able to realize in his real life. They served, Jeffrey Hoffeld has argued, a sublimating role: “Contortionist sexual gymnastics, if only portrayed rather than actually lived, vicariously restore confidence, relive despair, and provide recollected moments of orgasmic oblivion” (op. cit., 1981, p. 13). Above all, however, works such as L’Etreinte are moving declarations of a genius approaching his nineties, affirming in his art the ever-young force and power of his creative spirit.