1969 was one of the most prolific years of Pablo Picasso's career. During the course of that year, an incredible parade of romantic, whimsical characters emerged in his drawings, prints and paintings, including musketeers, lancers, odalisques and artists. Despite being in his 80s, Picasso's energies were at an apex, as is reflected by the fact that an entire volume of the 33 tome catalogue raisonné compiled by his friend Christian Zervos is devoted to his output from that year, and by the exhibition which was dedicated to his 1969 pictures in the Palais des Papes in Avignon. That show, held in 1970 and organised by Christian and Yvonne Zervos, included several pictures devoted to the theme of the kiss including Le baiser, painted on 10 December 1969.
The embracing couple was a subject to which Picasso devoted much attention during the course of 1969; Le baiser is the last of the pictures on the theme from that year, and in that sense and in terms of its orgiastic explosion of lush colour and frenetic brushwork, marks a culmination. Looking at Le baiser and its earlier sister-pictures, one can see the progression and evolution of the motif. Many of the earlier works, for instance the example painted towards the end of October which is now in the Musée Picasso, Paris, focus on the heads of the lovers in more cropped compositions; others pay more heed to the background, yet none to the degree shown here. In Le baiser, Picasso has clearly revelled in showing this couple out of doors, with the bearded man wearing a straw hat largely concealed by the naked figure of the woman which dominates so much of the canvas.
Looking at this visceral depiction of the nude, one is reminded of John Richardson's observation that Picasso's late works, like his Cubist pictures, appear as though they could pass the 'armpit test'. This was the result of a discussion between Braque and Picasso in which they had hoped to convey more than just the appearance of their subjects, but also some other dimensions of information, some deeper truth. Certainly, the sprawling nude in Le baiser appears to pass that test. Looking at the earthy naked figure, with breasts and genitalia on bold and emphatic display, one understands Picasso's declaration that, 'You have to know how to be vulgar, paint with four-letter words. I do it more and more every day' (Picasso, quoted in W. Spies, 'Painting against Time', pp. 14-45, Spies (ed.), Picasso: Painting against Time, exh. cat., Vienna & Dusseldorf, 2006, p. 20).
As was only appropriate in the work of an artist who was a prolific and notorious womaniser, couples were a recurrent motif in Picasso's oeuvre. Even in his earliest exhibitions in Barcelona and subsequently in Paris, men and women were shown clutched in embraces. Looking at Le baiser, one detects in the carnal, animalistic energy of this writhing couple, this mass of body with grasping hands, a similar perspective to that which characterised Picasso's surrealistic images from the 1920s. In those works, strange, biomorphic forms were locked in consuming, carnivorous embraces, perhaps reflecting Picasso's own horror at being anchored in marriage with Olga Khokhlova. In Le baiser, any sense of horror has been removed: while the bodies are locked, writhing together in a manner reminiscent of the televised wrestling which Picasso followed so keenly during this period, the overall atmosphere is essentially romantic. This is emphasised by the verdant flora in the background and by the woman's breasts, which are playful visual puns on cherries, and even include the linking stalk. This is a painting about enjoyment, and the sweeping brushstrokes and sensual range of textures of the oils ramify that, indicating Picasso's own thrill in rendering this scene.
Picasso had long felt as though he was in dialogue with many of the great painters of the past. This was all the more true during the post-War years, when he openly created his own reprisals of celebrated paintings such as Delacroix's Les femmes d'Algers, Velasquez's Las Meninas and, the year before he painted Le baiser, Ingres' Le bain turc. By dint of the fact that the couple in this picture is shown outdoors, with the man clothed and the woman naked, there appears to be a reference to Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, which Picasso had also reincarnated in his own idiom during the previous decade. At the same time, the figure of the artist, with his beard and straw hat, recalls one of Picasso's other long-dead mentors: Vincent van Gogh.
The reference to Van Gogh is accentuated in Le baiser by the mouth-watering green of the background and the swirling, spiralling lollipop-like blue flowers that punctuate it, recalling the Dutch artist's own paintings, for instance the sky in Starry Night. Richardson has observed that Van Gogh remained a vital touchstone for Picasso, although the nature of his influence shifted. At the beginning of his career, Picasso had looked to him as a fellow peintre maudit, a tragic example of the cost of genius and of the perils of lack of recognition. During the post-War years, though, it also was because of their shared lust for life, for light, and for the sensuality of the South of France that Picasso looked to his predecessor, as well as the expressionistic paint handling on such clear display in Le baiser. The landscape within which Picasso was living during this time, and indeed the arena where he went to see the corrida, were those where Van Gogh had trod eighty years earlier. This clearly struck a chord with Picasso, who was a superstitious and mystical man: he may have hoped that some of his forebear's spirit lingered on still, that he might be able to invoke it in his works. Certainly, Picasso has painted Le baiser with a passion that is evident in its bold colours, the looping rings that form the column-like trees in the background, the almost fluid forms of the two bodies and most of all the highly-variegated surface that allows him to throw the impastoed areas into bolder relief through contrast with the areas left in reserve, with the primed canvas showing through. As is the case in the thick oils of some of Van Gogh's most celebrated masterpieces, this adds a dimension of tactile, and therefore sensory, interplay to Le baiser.
The clear evidence of Picasso's exertions in creating this painting reveals the extent to which he remained a tireless innovator regardless of his advanced years. During the post-War period in particular, Picasso had cast aside some of the more obscure notions of representation with which he had played such an important role in changing the face of figurative art such as Cubism and Surrealism, and instead began to create images that had a new strength, a new directness. This was echoed in the vividness of the brushwork itself. So here, Le baiser is like a jolt of energy, an instantly readable picture filled with atmosphere and information alike.
The palpable energy that characterises Picasso's late works has often been seen as an almost existential attempt to ward off death, to fend off intimations of mortality; this idea is reinforced by the roles of his male protagonists, who function almost as substitutes for the artist himself, carrying out the various romantic acts or tales of derring-do of which is was now less capable. In his romantically-themed pictures in particular, many people have posited that Picasso's vigorous pictures with subjects involving couples provide an insight into the artist's life with his second wife, Jacqueline, whom he had married in 1961 after several years already living together. Certainly, while the male figures often function as tangential alter egos for the artist, the women seem to be based on Jacqueline. For Picasso, painting her appears to have been a form of sensuous possessive act, a way of caressing her and getting close to her desireable body. This was also the motivation behind many of his scenes, often highly explicit, of couples throughout his career.