Picasso painted this large and lively canvas of two reclining nudes in his villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie, in Mougins, during the course of a single day, on 2 March 1968. The green background represents an outdoor setting--one might easily imagine these two shapely young women leisurely sunbathing au naturel on a grassy lawn. The right-hand figure inclines forward on her stomach, resting her head in her arms in the foreground, with her legs raised in the air behind her. The left-hand figure has assumed a pose that is the converse of her companion's; she leans back and away from the viewer, while her large feet with painted toenails crowd the foreground. She raises her hand-- in a suggestive, come-hither gesture, drawing the artist's and his viewers' attention to the open display of her sex. Picasso wreaks considerable pictorial mischief in this composition by reversing the conventional practice of figural fore-shortening, having made the most distant parts of these women's bodies incongruously the largest in size, with the result that they dominate the composition. Leave it to Picasso--by drawing upon his vast pictorial store of contortionist formal acrobatics, and further applying his inexhaustibly inventive habit of imagining the human form in ways it has never been painted before, he has found exactly the right solution to the challenge of placing two reclining nudes side by side in an emphatically vertical format.
Early during the previous year Picasso had introduced into his art the vanguard troop of mousquetaires, those mock-heroic cavaliers who would become his favorite male subject during his final years. Later in 1967 he staged virtual orgies in drawings, prints and paint, creating in the theater of this imagination an unending stream of multi-figure scenarios populated with cavaliers and courtesans, ardent male lovers of all ages and the voluptuous, nubile objects of their affections, female followers of Dionysus enamored of sweet-playing musicians (Zervos, vol. 27, nos. 28; fig. 1), brothel encounters based on Spanish stories about the procuress Celestina, and circus scenes starring Rosita the bare-back rider, the artist's very first love, when he was barely in his teens. As Picasso entered 1968, he drew a series of harem pictures inspired by Sheherazade and her Tales of the 1001 Nights, which gave Picasso welcome pretext to indulge in the treatment of one his favorite paintings, Ingres' Le bain turc (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The visual delight Picasso took in mingling the bodies of two or more nude women on these pages (Zervos, vol. 27, nos. 194, 199-206, 227-228, 231-232 and 235) probably instigated two weeks later the idea and unusual manner of juxtaposing the present Deux nus couchés, a subject now shorn of the anecdotal or literary content in the drawings, but even more vital and real when rendered in the material physicality of oil paint. This picture resounds with other allusions as well, as shall soon be revealed.
All of these subjects are variants that elaborate upon Picasso's basic theme during his final decade, the interaction of the artist and his model, in the atelier series he had commenced in 1963. The idea for the artist and model paintings emerged at the conclusion of a ten-year period during which Picasso had sought sustained inspiration in the works and iconography of earlier masters, chief among them Delacroix (in his Femmes d'Alger series, 1954-1955), Velàzquez (Las Meninas, 1957), Manet (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1960-1962), and lastly Poussin. He declared that he had nearly spent himself on his versions of the latter's L'enlèvement des sabines, calamitous scenes out of classical antiquity filled with women in distress, rapacious warriors and rampaging horses. Turning away from these serial allusions to the past, limiting their appearance to his etchings, Picasso sought to reinvigorate his work by taking on a new theme in his painting, one which was as basic and immediate to the work of a painter as he could conceive. The subject of his research would henceforth be the direct and real relationship between the artist and his model. Hélène Parmelin was present at this moment and recorded this crucial sea change in his work:
"And now he says he is turning his back on everything. He says he is embarking upon an incredible adventure. He says that everything is changed; it is over and done with; painting is completely different from what one had thought--perhaps it is even the opposite. It is a time that he declares himself ready to kill modern 'art'--and hence art itself--in order to rediscover painting... One must, says Picasso, look for something that develops all by itself, something natural and not manufactured. 'Let it unfold in the form of the natural and not in the form of art... The grass as grass, the tree as tree, the nude as nude...' In the month of February, 1963, Picasso lets loose. He paints the Artist and His Model. And from this moment on he paints like a madman, perhaps never before with such frenzy" (Picasso: The Artist and His Model and Other Recent Works, New York, 1965, pp. 9-10).
The advent of Jacqueline in Picasso's life during 1954, as his new lover and model, coincided with the death of Matisse. "When Matisse died," Picasso declared, "he left his odalisques to me as a legacy" (quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 55). Picasso worked through some of the most important aspects of this Orientalist genre in the aforementioned Delacroix variations, and in the Jacqueline au costume turc paintings of late 1955. But he dispensed with the Matissean proclivity to enter the model into costumed role-playing when he painted a series of portraits of Jacqueline in late 1962 and early 1963 (Zervos, vol. 23, nos. 72-94 and 110-117), probing her appearance and personality in a more intimate manner. These pictures describe the excitement of rediscovery--and, indeed, the sheer delectation--that Picasso took in gazing upon and depicting in paint a live, flesh-and-blood model, who was the very woman he loved and had recently made his wife. The next step was to insert the artist into the picture, in the form of some surrogate for himself, which Picasso then accomplished in the artist and model series, which dominated his output through 1965, and thereafter in various related subjects. The artist and model paintings are the key works in the development of Picasso's late style: they are, of course, an allegory of art-making, and moreover reveal the artist's insightful research into all manner of human relationships. For Matisse the very essence of painting had been the reciprocity between the artist and his model, and this became the foundation of his art. Picasso, in his final decade, after all that gone before, decided it had come down to the very same thing. The synergy of artist and model, he concluded, lay at the very heart of his creativity, and this mutual interaction became the vital pulse of his daily life as an artist and as a man. Hélène Parmelin has written:
"This nude, so beautiful and nonchalant, who lounges naturally on her couch or chaise longue; this nude so overwhelmingly for the Artist, full of arrogance, supremely disdainful of him; growing in the studio like a tree in the earth--with no problems, whereas the artist has so many--this nude that Picasso paints for his poor Artist in her multiple poses and solutions, is for him the double-edged major subject on which his Artist's life torments itself. The Artist's favorite reality is this woman, spirited, double in nature, whose body lends itself to the thousand elaborations of the mind, as it does to the thousand imaginations of the body and to infinite scrutiny" (op. cit., p. 15).
Coming at this juncture, Picasso's passionate affair with the model proclaimed his reaffirmation of a total commitment to the external world of reality and the presence of the "subject" in his painting, at a time when many artists were talking about and actively doing away with both. Picasso's intent, however, went far beyond the theoretical--the artist and model subjects were not just paintings about painting, or an inside commentary on his craft. Marie-Laure Bernadac has asserted that "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 a metaphor for art, and art as a metaphor for sex'" (op. cit., exh. cat., 1988, p. 77). This is the art of painting brought home to its most basic, exciting and sexiest form.
The paintings that focus on the nude sitter alone are Picasso's paean to the powerful presence of Jacqueline in his life and the strength of his feelings for her. She is the inspiration for both figures in Deux nus couchés; right-hand nude figure wears a visage that displays a simple but clear resemblance to her. Jacqueline is always the model, in as many guises as Picasso could invent for her, but by far most often nude; she is the ultimate and universal woman who is the sole object of the artist's obsessive attention and efforts. "No painter has ever gone so far in unveiling the feminine universe in all the complexity of its real and fantasy life. This intimate, passionate awareness is a constant source of renewal for his painting, which revels in the variety of the repertoire of forms that it affords, mineral and carnal by turns" (ibid., p. 80). Despite her omnipresence, Jacqueline never posed. There was no need for her to do so: Picasso merely required the stimulation of her proximity. He subjected her presence, however quotidian and domestic it might be, to the lively play of his imagination and the abundance of his fantasies. He seized the moment, and the paintings sprang forth, day after day, filling his studio during this spectacular Indian summer of his career.
As is so often the case in Picasso's late paintings, the inspiration for Deux nus couchés sprang from a dialogue between Picasso and earlier masters, routed as well through previous works of his own. The green, blue and white tonalities in the present painting recall the typical color scheme in Picasso's riffs on Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Zervos, vol. 20, no. 88; fig. 2), and indeed the counterpoint of the reclining and seated nudes at lower left in the earlier painting may have been the jump-off point for Picasso's even more radical and excited treatment of the women in Deux nus couchés. Picasso had tackled Manet's painting not only on account of its status as the ab ovo premier icon of the modernist sensibility in painting, but also for such opportunities as this estimable precedent offered in encouraging Picasso to move the nude out of Delacroix's harem and into the landscape, taking on a theme--the harmonious idyll of humankind in nature--that had been a cornerstone of Western painting since the time of the Renaissance. Cézanne had carried forward this tradition in his late Grandes baigneuses, and Matisse gave it further modernist spin in his Joie de vivre, 1906. The poses two women in Manet's painting proliferate into "every conceivable posture," as Bernadac has written. "Working on Le Déjeuner brings Picasso to the point of inventing a new morphology" (op. cit., exh. cat., 1988, p. 70).
Even more germane to Deux nus couchés is the groundbreaking 19th century realist painter who was Manet's immediate predecessor on the leading edge of French painting, Gustave Courbet. Picasso had painted in 1950 his own interpretation (Zervos, vol. 15, no. 164; Kunstmuseum Basel) of Courbet's Les demoiselles des bords de la Seine (Fernier, no. 203, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris), the painting shown in the Salon of 1857 which had provoked as great a scandal then as Manet's Le Déjeuner (a homage to Courbet's painting) would later cause in the Salon des Refusés of 1863. In the spring of 1947, as Picasso's donation of ten paintings were being transported to Musée d'art Moderne in Paris for exhibition, a stopover had been specially arranged at the Louvre, where Picasso was allowed to see his paintings held up alongside various masterworks on the museum walls. Among the artists he chose for comparison were Courbet and Delacroix. Courbet was again on Picasso's mind in January 1968 when he painted two take-offs (Zervos, vol. 27, nos., 195 and 196; the former, fig. 3) on Courbet's La Femme au perroquet, shown in the Salon of 1866 (Fernier, no. 526; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, L'Aubade, oil on canvas, 18 June 1967. Sammlung Rosengart, Lucerne.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, oil on canvas, 10 July 1961.
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Nu couché à l'oiseau, oil on canvas, 17 January 1968. Museum Ludwig, Cologne.