Her eyes wide and riveting, Picasso's Femme au chapeau possesses the domineering aspect of the the helmeted Greek warrior goddess Pallas Athena. So she may have appeared as she glared down upon the visitors to the second large exhibition of Picasso's late paintings at the Palais des Papes in Avignon during 1973. She is larger than life--her figure appears to push out at the corners of a canvas measuring over six feet tall, the most imposing scale that Picasso worked on during this time. Installed atop a cruciform arrangement of paintings near the center of the the large Salle de l'Audience, she had a commanding view of the proceedings (see photograph, page __).
Picasso, approaching his 89th birthday, could still boast of fine health, and indeed was painting non-stop when the first Avignon exhibition took place in May-October 1970. It comprised 167 oils and 45 drawings that he had done between the beginning of January 1969 and the end of January 1970. Picasso died on 8 April 1973, working nearly to the very end. Preparations for a second exhibition at the same venue were already well under way--this was the last installation for which Picasso personally selected the works to be shown. For this occasion Picasso chose paintings only, 201 in all, which he had done from February 1970 through the end of 1972. These canvases bore unmistakable proof of the astonishing vigor and tireless productivity of his final years. Avignon II opened in May 1973 and ran into late September, providing a timely and moving public sign-off for the end of the line in Picasso's long career, an event that, if sadly posthumous, was lively and eye-opening nonetheless, thanks to the irrepressible freedom and exuberance of the artist's work.
A sizable proportion of the paintings in the second Avignon exhibition continued themes seen in the first: there were lovers and other figure groupings. There were, however, many more close-up portraits of lone figures than previously. These figures filled, and often verged on bursting, the confines of their canvases. The look of the television close-up may be discerned in this compositions; both Picasso and Jacqueline enjoyed watching television, especially old movies. Among the subjects in these single figure portraits were the familiar mousquetaires, toreadors, men in hats and smoking pipes, some female nudes, and relatively only a few figures of costumed women, as seen in the present painting. It did not escape notice that the two exhibitions marked Picasso's "return" to Avignon, to the town that figured in the name of his most famous cubist painting, and where he had painted in the months just prior to the beginning of the First World War, with his friends Braque and Derain working nearby.
One can trace in the Avignon paintings the outcome of Picasso's ongoing dialogues with past masters. Picasso had begun his late period, which coincided with arrival of Jacqueline in his life, with the variations after Delacroix's Femmes d'Algers done in 1954-1955, which were also a tribute to his recently deceased friend Matisse. Velázquez came next in 1957 with Picasso's take-offs on Las Meninas. He turned to Manet for the Dejeuners series in late 1959 and the early 1960s, making way for Rembrandt when in 1963 he began the artist and model paintings, from which the mousquetaires and other baroque figures soon evolved. The spirit of Ingres informed all the many figure drawings that Picasso executed during this period. In the portraits showcased in Avignon II another master--this one from the not so distant past and one who was alive and painting when Picasso was a child--made his presence strongly felt: Vincent van Gogh. John Richardson has drawn attention to Picasso's affinity for Van Gogh:
"Of all the artists with whom Picasso identified, Van Gogh is the least often cited but probably the one who meant most to him in later years. He talked of him as his patron saint, talked of him with intense admiration and compassion, never with any of his habitual irony or mockery. Van Gogh, like Cézanne earlier in Picasso's life , was sacrosanct--'the greatest of them all,' he said. Hélène Parmelin has described how Picasso badgered the director of the museum in Arles to get him a photostat of a press-cutting, the only documentary record of Van Gogh chopping off his ear and giving it to Rachel, the prostitute. He, who seldom framed anything, was going to frame it, he said.
"At first glance Van Gogh does not manifest himself very overtly in Picasso's work, certainly not as overtly as Manet or Velázquez. But that is largely because his influence is not a superficial stylistic question of borrowed compositions or anecdotal trappings, but a matter of deep spiritual identification... It is the paintings of a red-bearded, straw-hatted artist at his easel (1963-64), with their generic resemblance to Van Gogh's self-portraits (one of which Picasso used to project, floor to ceiling, on the studio wall), that reveal the extent of the old Spaniard's debt to the doomed Dutchman" (in Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 32).
Picasso began to identify with Van Gogh early on, at the very beginning of the century. He arrived for his second stay in Paris too late to attend the landmark 1901 retrospective, but he could study Van Gogh's paintings in Vollard's gallery, where that year Picasso was given his first Paris show. He associated the suicide of his close friend Casagemas with Van Gogh's tragic demise. Richardson continued:
"In his self-pitying Blue Period days Picasso had thought of Van Gogh as a kindred spirit--the quintessential peintre maudit. At the end of his life Picasso's attitude was less sentimental. What he wanted was to enlist Van Gogh's dark spirits on his side, to make his art as instinctive and 'convulsive' as possible I suspect that Picasso also wanted to galvanize his paint surface--not always the most thrilling aspect of the epoch before Jacqueline's--with some of the Ducthman's Dionysian fervour. It worked. The surface of the late paintings has a freedom, a plasticity, than virtually all his previous work. The imminence of his own end may also have constituted a link with Van Gogh. The more one studies these late paintings, the more one realizes that they are, like Van Gogh's terminal landscapes, a supreme affirmation of life in the teeth of death" (ibid., pp. 32 and 34).
Picasso summoned the name of Van Gogh when in 1935 he and Christian Zervos were discussing the issues posed by the growing impact of abstract art. He declared, "Abstract art is only painting. What about drama?... It's not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. What forces our interest is Cézanne's anxiety--that's Cézanne's lesson; the torments of Van Gogh--that is, that actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham" (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York 1972, pp. 9 and 11).
Picasso was very likely thinking of Van Gogh's Peasant Woman in Wheatfield, 1890 (Faille 774, Hulsker 2053; fig. 1), when he painted Femme au chapeau on 26 August 1971. Picasso had been fond of painting woman in hats since his early years, and especially during the 1930s, when he shared the Surrealists' fascination with women's headwear as a revealing manifestation of their inner lives. Hats can help one identify the subjects in Picasso's portraits of the thirties: Marie-Thérèse had her particular prim style of head dress, and Dora Maar had hers, which gave her an altogether more insect-like and menacing appearance. The sitters in Van Gogh's portraits often wear a hat, which becomes an emblem that both characterizes their place in society and proclaims an attitude of personal identity and pride.
The hat as signifier takes on an even more complex meaning in Femme au chapeau. Julian Schnabel, in his foregoing comments, has pointed out that this woman appears to have a beard. This trans-gender confusion recalls the story of the mythical Greek seer Tiresias, who, for a transgression against the gods, was turned into a woman for seven years. In light of this apparent conflation of gender, we may read Femme au chapeau both as an evocation of Van Gogh's peasant woman in her bonnet, and even more significantly, of Van Gogh himself, as seen in his well-known self-portraits in which he is bearded and wears his signature straw hat (Faille 526, Hulsker 1309; fig. 2). Picasso appears to infer that the idea of imaginative identification can be taken even further than this. In the act of painting there is a process of transference and transformation--the artist and his model have entered into a pact and have become one, a painter's self-portrait and the portrait of another are ultimately one, in their marital bond Picasso and Jacqueline are one (fig. 3), Van Gogh and the prostitute Rachel are one, and through painting as dialogue Picasso and Van Gogh have become one.
Even before the Avignon exhibitions, Picasso's late work had disappointed critics as appearing self-indulgent and being unworthy of a famous and elderly master who was universally acknowledged to be the world's greatest living artist. Picasso was delighted that young people had flocked in droves to the 1970 Avignon exhibition, responding to the sense of freedom they found in his recent paintings. Picasso told Pierre Daix, "If I'm painting better, it's because I've had some success in liberating myself" (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Work, New York, 1993, p. 365). Daix wrote: "It was the critics who were most disconcerted, seeing the show as a compilation of summary painting, improvisations done in febrile haste, and the erotism of an old man. Whereas in fact Picasso had given them an extraordinary demonstration of an arrival at the start of a new visual era and of a growing sexual revolution which reached entirely beyond the limitations of resemblance, of artistic tradition, and convention. He was expected to rest on his laurels, his past successes. Instead he painted as the adolescents of the 1970s were going to paint in the 1980s" (ibid.).
Werner Spies has recently expanded on this idea: "In retrospect, the parade of vehement canvases from Avignon has the appearance of a posthumous manifesto for a new painting, a painting with which the public had yet to become familiar. Against the background of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Picasso seems like the most contemporary of contemporary painters, the most radical man of the hour... The transition came in the eighties... To cite one voice [Jean-Pierre Chauvet]: 'What moves us most about Picasso's final works is their organic and sensual frenzy, their immoderate and violent taste for color, then the lines, broken or interrupted, or, when they are suddenly full of tenderness, have a baroque and supple effect'" (in Picasso Painting Against Time, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna, 2006, p. 21).
Four late Picasso paintings were included in the Tate London exhibition A New Spirit in Painting in 1981; they were hung together with the most recent canvases by Julian Schnabel (fig. 4), Georg Baselitz, Per Kirkeby, Phillip Guston, Markus Lüpertz, Anselm Kiefer, Frank Auerbach, Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Spies concluded: "Now [Picasso] could suddenly figure as a guarantor for subjectivity, for the return of figuration, and spontaneous painting--basically everything Minimal and Conceptual Art had written off as an anachronistic affair. All at once Picasso again began to be viewed as the unavoidable and undeniable founding figure of modern painting" (ibid).
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Woman in Wheatfield,
Saint-Remy, June 1890. Private collection. BARCODE: 24402118
(fig. 2) Jacqueline and Picasso attending a bullfight in the Fréjus Arena, 1970. Photograph by Len Sirman. BARCODE: 24402101
(fig. 3) Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, Paris,
1887. The Detroit Institute of Arts. BARCODE 25012835 (exsale 1994)
(fig. 4) Julian Schnabel, St. Francis in Ecstasy, 1980. Private
Collection. BARCODE: 24402088