‘The spirit of the corrida is part of his way of life. He has bulls in his soul’
(Hélène Parmelin, Picasso Says…, London, 1969, p. 80)
Picasso's love of the bullfight was an essential and deeply impassioned element in his personal sense of españolismo, and an important source of his imagery. He was a true aficionado, ‘by tradition, by blood and by artistic devotion,’ in the words of his lifelong friend Jaime Sabartés (J. Sabartés, quoted in V.P. Curtis, La Tauromaquia: Goya, Picasso and the Bullfight, exh. cat., Milwaukee, 1986, p. 70). Picasso championed the postwar revival of the bullfight in southern France. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the public often caught sight of the world's most famous living artist in the stands of the old Roman arenas at Arles, Nîmes and Fréjus, with his companion and future wife Jacqueline Roque, and their friends. Picasso knew all the famous matadors, and especially admired Luis Miguel Dominguín, who, in a gesture of mutual regard, made a gift of one his ceremonial jackets to the artist.
The years 1959-1961 marked the high point of Picasso's treatment of the bullfighting theme in his art, during which time he produced four illustrated books devoted to this subject, most importantly La Tauromaquia, 1959 (Cramer, no. 100), his counterpart to Goya's work of the same title from 1815, and Toros y Toreros, 1961 (Cramer, no. 112), in which the artist provided illustrations for a text by his friend Dominguín. Picasso executed most of his corrrida scenes in brush and ink, working primarily with silhouetted forms in a kinetic and summary style.
A humorous portrayal of a matador and picador in the appreciative company of two naked prostitutes, Courtisanes et toreros stands out among the bullfight drawings of this period. In terms of the attention Picasso gave to detail, the various ways in which he employed the ink technique, expertly layering his washes to create a rich chiaroscuro effect – indeed, in its complex conception and sustained effort overall, this ‘drawing’ is virtually a fully-fledged painting in black-and-white. It is unlike other concurrent corrida scenes in that it takes an amusing look at toreros in their less noble and glamourous off-hours, presumably just after a fight, from which they have emerged unscathed, triumphant and are now eager to celebrate. Picasso has given each of these ladies and gentlemen a distinctive personality, captured in one moment of an inferred story-line. These aspects look forward to the character and narrative-driven mosquetero drawings of Picasso's final years, among which the toreros occasionally returned to put in an appearance.
Courtisanes et toreros prefigures a series of bullfighters and women that Picasso executed in June 1960 (Zervos, vol. 19, nos. 301-345). This drawing, however, remains very much in a class of its own – it is arguably not until the large gouache and wash mosquetero drawings of 1972 that one again encounters its like in Picasso's oeuvre. Here the artist introduces a character device that he would turn to frequently in his later drawings, an interested observer who lurks at the periphery of the scene – in this instance, the figure silhouetted against the light in the doorway, an idea the artist derived from Velázquez's Las Meninas, which he had treated in a series of interpretations during 1957. This figure, whom Picasso would transform into the voyeur seen in many of the late drawings, is a stand-in for the artist, as he looks in on a world that he would give much to be a part of, not merely as an aficionado, but as a real player.