When Picasso painted this brimming, energetically brushed figure of a bearded gent smoking his pipe on 8 May 1969, he had been immersed in his late signature series of mousquetaires for more than two years. The paintings he created several days before and after he completed this picture depict those 17th century rakes and swashbucklers, many of whom likewise enjoy a leisurely smoke on a long-stemmed, white clay pipe. This Homme à la pipe, however, is neither adorned in heraldic livery, nor does he display any of the accessories that typically pertain in Picasso’s late iconography to one of the king’s trusted swordsmen. Instead he takes his ease in later period attire while seated in an ordinary sidewalk chair, alongside a small wrought-iron bistro table.
Picasso, moreover, appears to have invested the present Homme à la pipe with more profound and meaningful personal significance than the mousquetaires, touching on themes even closer to his heart and mind at this final, climactic stage in his long career. This amiable smoker, who casts a wide, observant eye on the passing parade, is an artist, and represents specifically for Picasso the generation of his immediate forebears, some of whom were still alive and working when he, an aspiring painter still in his teens, first came to Paris in 1900. The work of Corot, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne and Van Gogh influenced Picasso for much of his career, and especially during the late 1960s, when he sought to gauge his legacy against theirs, as well as masters in the more distant past, such as Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Goya. The cerulean blue setting, stippled with white clouds, proclaims the revolutionary plein air approach of the new painting after 1870, employing the technique of working quickly, notions these earliest proponents of modernism typically practiced in their work, as they lay the pictorial foundations for the tumultuous art of the century to come.
Virtually all of Picasso’s work during the final decade in his life stemmed from his rediscovery in 1963 of an artist’s most fundamental theme–the relationship between his model, as subject and muse, and his own life of creativity and feeling, both as an artist and a man. The peintre et son modèle series, showing the artist or model alone, but most frequently facing each other, dominated Picasso’s production for the next couple of years. Recovery from surgery for an inflamed duodenal ulcer then sidelined the artist from late 1965 through most of the following year, during which he re-read his favorite classics, including Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, and much of Shakespeare as well, while studying Otto Benesch’s six-volume compendium of Rembrandt’s drawings. When he resumed painting in February 1967, the first canvases depict an artist costumed as a 17th century cavalier, palette and paint-brush in hand. Canvases of the mousquetaires and their women soon dominated Picasso’s studio production for the remainder of the decade and into the next.
The mousquetaires became Picasso’s favorite pictorial surrogates, especially those in which these costumed characters assumed the role of painter as well, in whom he freely invoked the baroque manners of El Greco, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Hals and Rubens. His passion for Goya led him to engage his own predecessors in the late 19th century School of Paris, indebted as they were to elements of Spanish style, which Manet employed to powerful, notoriously contemporary effect in his groundbreaking canvases of the 1860s. Picasso channeled Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), as the inspiration for his own extended interpretive series of paintings and drawings during 1959-1961.
Expressly rendered self-portraits had been a distinctive rarity in Picasso’s work from his early cubist period onward. He enjoyed instead casting himself in variously conjured personae of the artist type, suggesting such characters as the 17th century painter Frenhofer in Balzac’s L’Oeuvre inconnu, or, in the bohemian mold of the late 19th century, Lantier in Zola’s L’Oeuvre (modeled on Cézanne). Above all Picasso came to admire Van Gogh, the exemplar of a fraught, fabled life in art, tragically cut short—an authentic peintre maudit. “I’ve got no real friends, I’ve got only lovers!” Picasso once exclaimed. “Except perhaps for Goya, and especially Van Gogh” (quoted in A. Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, New York, 1974, pp. 18 and 138).
“What [Picasso] wanted was to enlist Van Gogh’s dark spirits on his side, to make his art as instinctive and ‘convulsive’ as possible,” John Richardson has written. “The surface of the 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... 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" (Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, pp. 32 and 34).
Whereas the mousquetaires generally manifest the raucous and often ribald side of Picasso’s nature and creative impulse during the late 1960s, the artist portraits tend to suggest a more introspective and philosophical bent in his mindset, while nonetheless occasionally allowing a cheeky lement of self-irony, so that these rare canvases comfortably co-exist within the teeming, helter-skelter narrative of the late works.
Picasso’s choice of the mousquetaires and their ilk as a defining theme during his final years puzzled observers at that time, who took them for “backward-looking romantics and nostalgic dreamers,” out-of-step with the urgent, radically transformative events of the late Cold War and America’s escalating conflict in Vietnam (M.-L. Bernadac, in ibid., p. 82). Critics assumed, moreover, that Picasso was thumbing his nose at the new modern art of the post-war era, when abstract and conceptual approaches were in vogue, the figure had become passé, and many artists had dispensed with the notion of a subject altogether.
Much in the tenor of the time, however, Picasso had in fact had insinuated his famously long-held antiwar views into the comical demeanor of the mousquetaires, military misfits who comprised, in Dakin Hart’s words, "raw material for the construction of a martial counterculture... a kind of multinational, trans-historical hippie army” (“Peace and Love Picasso,” Picasso Mosqueteros, exh, cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, pp. 254 and 255). One may imagine in the green-bearded sage of Homme à la pipe, painted on the first anniversary of les jours de Mai, the student revolt and workers’ strike that drove President de Gaulle from power, a latter-day incarnation of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th century “father of anarchism,” whose political principles–allied with pacifism–had attracted Picasso and his friends at the Café Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona during their rebellious youth.
Whether in the hand of the painter in Homme à la pipe, or in those of the many mousquetaires that Picasso painted during 1968-1969 (in approximately one of every three such pictures), the long-stemmed clay pipe is not merely a genre prop, redolent of convivial recreation in 17th century Dutch painting; it had been a meaningful personal motif for Picasso over the course of a lifetime. In his youth and during the early years of his marriage to Olga, he favored the genteel connoisseurship of pipe-smoking, a symbol of both virility and wisdom, to which he and his colleagues frequently referred in still-life paintings. From the surrealist mid-1920s onward Picasso had been, like most of his colleagues, a heavy smoker; he is rarely seen in photographs without a cigarette in hand, a habit he finally gave up around the time of his surgery in 1965. By this time his vaunted sexual powers were on the wane. The loss of both these manly pursuits led Picasso to commiserate with his friend the photographer Brassaï, “old age has forced us to give it [smoking] up, but the craving is still there. It’s the same with love” (quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 82). He sublimated the pursuit of such accustomed pleasures into his art.
Homme à la pipe is one of 165 paintings and 45 drawings–all executed between January 1969 and February 1970–that Picasso, together with curators Yvonne and Christian Zervos, selected to exhibit at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. The show, known as Avignon I, ran from 1 May through 30 September 1970; a second Avignon showcase took place during the spring of 1973, a few months after the artist’s death. Among the throngs in attendance were numerous young people, whose reaction to Picasso's rambunctious mousquetaires, sexually explicit nudes and passionately embracing lovers was noticeably more sympathetic than the response of their elders.
While some critics were impressed at the startling, unrelenting vigor they found in Picasso’s late canvases, most others viewed “the show as a compilation of summary painting, improvisations done in febrile haste, and the erotism of an old man,” as Pierre Daix read in their reviews. “Whereas in fact Picasso had given them an extraordinary demonstration”–Daix asserted–“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" (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 365).
Today, more than four decades since the artist's death, Werner Spies has affirmed that "in retrospect, the parade of vehement canvases from Avignon has the appearance of a posthumous manifesto for a new painting... Picasso seems like the most contemporary of contemporary painters, the radical man of the hour. Now he 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" (Picasso: Painting Against Time, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna, 2006, p. 21).