‘”When things were going well”, murmured Jacqueline nostalgically, “he would come down from the studio saying, “They’re coming! They’re still coming”’
(Jacqueline Picasso, quoted in A. Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, New York, 1976, p. 78)
‘They came to Pablo when he’d gone back to studying Rembrandt’
(Jacqueline Picasso, quoted in G. Schiff, Picasso: The Last Years, 1963-1973, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 31)
‘Picasso affirms the erotic dimension of life, in love as in art, and in which he paints with an unprecedented wildness… Picasso remains, to the very end, the painter of man, of flesh, of physical love: hence his attachment to the figure and to the material density of the canvases; hence, also, his obsession with death as the sole obstacle to life’
(Picasso, quoted in M-L. Bernadac, ‘Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model’ in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 90)
‘Whenever I see you, my first impulse is to...offer you a cigarette, even though I know that neither of us smokes any longer. Age has forced us to give it up, but the desire remains. It’s the same with making love. We don’t do it anymore but the desire is still with us!’
(Pablo Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, 'L'Epoque Jacqueline,' in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 29)
'Picasso is the man to beat.’
(Willem de Kooning)
Painted with gestural, lavishly and passionately applied brushstrokes and an impulsive sense of spontaneity, Mousquetaire et nu assis is among the first of the triumphant, swaggering cavalcade of musketeers and cavaliers that trooped into Pablo Picasso’s art in 1967. A virtuoso image of virility and vitality, this impressively sized painting presents the quintessential figure of the musketeer, who is this time accompanied by a sensuous, seated nude. With her shock of dark hair, hieratic posture, and her large, all-seeing almond shaped eyes, there is no question as to the identity of this woman: she is Jacqueline, the artist’s final, great love, muse and wife, whose presence permeated every female figure in this final chapter of Picasso’s life. Like Titian, Rembrandt, Matisse or de Kooning, in the final years of his life, Picasso had a great flourishing of artistic activity during which he produced an astonishing number of paintings and drawings, driven by an indefatigable will to create. With one eye towards the Old Masters and another towards the Informel, Picasso shows himself still challenging the history of art, carrying out iconoclastic attacks, plundering the past and doing so in a strikingly fresh, gestural way. Steeped in eroticism, a machismo sense of bravado, and pulsating with a vital sense of energy, this painting paved the way for the themes, style and execution that would come to define Picasso’s late, great work.
Throughout his life, Picasso had frequently been drawn to historical, classical, or mythological ‘types’: he was the melancholic harlequin, monstrous minotaur and the courageous torero. Now, in the final decade of his life, able to travel only locally, and with his vaunted sexual powers on the wane, Picasso transformed himself for a final time into the brave, adventurous and virile musketeer, clad in ornate costumes, ready for daring escapades, romantic exploits and heroic deeds. In this final act of self-rejuvenation and artistic resurgence, this character became the façade that Picasso presented to the world during the remaining years of his life.
The figure of the musketeer or mousquetaire had first appeared in Picasso’s art towards the end of 1966, just a few months before he painted Mousquetaire et nu assis. While enduring a lengthy convalescence at his home, Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, after undergoing surgery in December 1965, Picasso immersed himself in the world of literature. Retreating from the outside world, he turned inwards to his own memory, as well as to the imagination of novelists, devouring everything from Shakespeare to Balzac and Dickens. When Pierre Daix asked why the mousquetaires made such a sudden appearance in the artist’s work, Picasso replied: ‘It’s all the fault of your old pal Shakespeare’ (Picasso, quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 355). Yet, it was undoubtedly a novel that Picasso was already deeply acquainted with that truly transported him to the world of the musketeer: Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. When he began painting again a few months later in the spring of 1967, these swashbuckling characters leapt from the pages and into a new life through Picasso's paintings. They are chivalric, they speak of adventure, they hail from the past yet have a distinctive breath of modernity about them.
With his creative powers back in full flow, Picasso painted with a new and impassioned vitality as these dynamic and vivacious imaginary characters filled his canvases at an astounding, awesome speed. ‘”When things were going well”, murmured Jacqueline nostalgically, “he would come down from the studio saying, “They’re coming! They’re still coming”’ (J. Picasso, quoted in A. Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, New York, 1976, p. 78). With dark, wavy hair, an elegant moustache and a dashing, ornate, vivid blue uniform, the male protagonist of Mousquetaire et nu assis is the very epitome of this musketeer. Rendered with bold brushstrokes, and a language of reduced, simplified signs, lines and forms, the two protagonists are presented in an indefinable setting, surrounded by soft, swirling pale blue brushstrokes. In this way, Picasso welcomes us into the realm of his imagination, bringing the viewer into this fantastical, passion-filled romantic liaison; the handsome figure of the musketeer in a moment of repose with his nude lover.
It was not just literary sources that stimulated Picasso’s irrepressible imagination, but the figure of the musketeer also had a wealth of varied art historical origins: from Hals and Rembrandt, to Meissonier, El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. This striking, dark-featured character, half-Spanish, half-French, half-Dutch, with his elegant seventeenth-century garb, could as easily have stepped out of Las Meninas as The Night Watch. An indicator of the rich variety of artistic precedents that Picasso looked to in the creation of this figure is evident in a signature that the artist inscribed on the reverse of Le Mousquetaire (Zervos 25, no. 323), painted shortly before the present work: ‘Domenico Theotocopulos van Rijn da Silva’, an amalgamation of the names of El Greco, Rembrandt and Velázquez; the artistic pedigree that Picasso considered himself an heir. By picking and appropriating different quotations from the revered artists of the past, Picasso was not only measuring himself against them, but was exercising his artistic power, demonstrating to himself and to the world that he was one of this haloed lineage of great masters. John Richardson has stated this perfectly, writing, ‘Why did Picasso lock horns with one great painter after another? Was it a trial of strength – arm wrestling? Was it out of admiration or mockery, irony or homage, Oedipal rivalry or Spanish chauvinism? Each case was different, but there is always an element of identification, an element of cannibalism involved – two elements that, as Freud pointed out, are part of the same process. Indeed Freud described the process of identification as “psychic cannibalism”. You identified with someone; you cannibalised them; you assumed their powers. How accurately this described what Picasso was up to in his last years’ (J. Richardson, ‘The Catch in the Late Picasso’, The New York Review of Books, 19 July 1984, n.p.).
More than any other in this pantheon of artistic heroes, it the work of Rembrandt whom Picasso most identified with, or ‘cannibalised’, in his creation of the musketeer. ‘Every artist takes himself for Rembrandt’ (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 51), Picasso once remarked to Françoise Gilot, and he increasingly identified with the Dutch artist, a strange surrogate father-figure that the artist could never quite surpass. ‘And what more natural than that Picasso, who saw himself as the greatest artist of his time, should lay claim, as if by right, to the mantle of one of the greatest artists of all time?’, Richardson has concluded. As has been frequently documented, at the time he painted Mousquetaire et nu assis, Picasso liked to project a slide of Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch (1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) onto the walls of his studio, the musketeer-like guards stepping from his walls and into his world, and he likewise poured over Otto Benesch’s multi-volume catalogue raisonné of his drawings. Like Picasso, Rembrandt had had a long and prolific career, and was also fond of inserting himself in different guises into his paintings. As a result, references to his work abound in Picasso’s work of this time.
In Mousquetaire et nu assis, Picasso has referred to one of his great hero’s works in particular, his Self-Portrait with Saskia (circa 1636, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden). Depicting the young artist wearing a flamboyant hat and sword as he frolics with his young wife Saskia, this painting had first inspired Picasso in 1963, when he painted one of the first of his artist and model series, Rembrandt et Saskia (Zervos 23, no. 171). Reminding him not only of his identity as an artist and his affiliation with Rembrandt, but also perhaps of his own relationship with his younger wife Jacqueline, this work clearly remained a vivid presence in Picasso’s mind, as he returned to it once more in 1967, with the present Mousquetaire et nu assis. Here, Picasso has maintained the pose of the seated artist embracing his wife, but has disrobed the female figure, imbuing the composition with a distinct, palpable and contemporary eroticism. This is one of a number of similar works all of which refer to Rembrandt’s masterpiece that Picasso painted at this time. Of this pivotal group, two are now in museum collections, one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the other, the Kunstmusem Basel, part of a donation Picasso made himself in 1967.
A few years later, the heady sexual tension evident in Mousquetaire et nu assis would come to a climax as Picasso depicted his protagonists in frenzied embraces, passionately kissing. This latent eroticism is a characteristic that defines Picasso’s work of this time. Placing the female form under an intense scrutiny, Picasso presented an untempered vision of eroticism; a projection perhaps of his own sexual desires which were unable to be fulfilled due to his old age. Like smoking, which the artist had been forced to quit, Picasso could no longer indulge in sexual activity. As he remarked to his great friend, the photographer, Brassaï, ‘Whenever I see you, my first impulse is to...offer you a cigarette, even though I know that neither of us smokes any longer. Age has forced us to give it up, but the desire remains. It's the same with making love. We don't do it anymore but the desire is still with us!' (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, 'L’Époque Jacqueline,' in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 29). As a result of this unfulfilled desire, Picasso’s art became filled with images of recumbent, often explicitly revealing nudes, either alone or accompanied by virile male figures, in states of embraces; a substitute for his own physical needs. Indeed, for the great artist, the act of painting and sex became intertwined: as he stated in reply to a question about the difference between art and eroticism, he replied unequivocally, ‘There is no difference’ (Picasso, quoted in ibid., p. 29).
Like the undulating, sensuous bodies of the figures in Titian’s late work, Picasso rendered the nude figure with an immediacy and explicit sexuality that had never before been seen in his work. In these final years, the artist sought to capture the carnal physicality and inherent sensuality of the female form with an unrestrained, unhampered immediacy. As he told Hélène Parmelin, ‘I want to say the nude. I don’t want to make a nude like a nude. I only want to say breast, say foot, say hand, belly. If I can find the way to say it, that’s enough. I don’t want to paint the nude from head to foot, but just be able to say it. That’s what I want. When we’re talking about it, a single word is enough. Here, one single look and the nude tells you what it is, without a word’ (Picasso, quoted in H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, London, 1966, p. 91). The nude figure of Mousquetaire et nu assis encapsulates this notion. Presented as an array of connected, voluptuous circles and circular forms, which signify her breasts, torso and legs, her genitalia is brazenly exposed – a feature frequently seen in Picasso’s work of this time – in this mass of undulating femininity. This sensuality is further heightened by the contrast of the nude figure with her male counterpart. Picasso has portrayed the musketeer with an assortment of straight, geometric line, reducing these figures to a playful language of signs.
It was this desire to beat the inexorable passage of time that led Picasso to paint with a new urgency and speed. In many ways reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists, in particular Willem De Kooning, who famously said that Picasso was, ‘the one to beat’, his brushstrokes are thick, visceral and immediate; when he was shown reproductions of De Kooning’s work, Picasso reportedly called them ‘melted Picasso’. Like Picasso, De Kooning experienced a powerful surge of creativity in the late 1970s, towards the end of his life, creating a series of magnificently expansive, abstract, so-called ‘pastoral’ paintings, which saw the artist revelling in the fluid, expressive possibilities of paint itself to present a culmination of the themes and concepts that had preoccupied him throughout the course of his career. What these late works of Picasso and De Kooning show is the artists losing themselves in the very act of painting itself. In an outpouring of energy and creativity, they wholly immersed, and almost abandoned themselves, to the expressive potential of oil painting – revelling in its colour, material quality and application – the medium whose purpose, as De Kooning once stated, was solely for the depiction of flesh. In Mousquetaire et nu assis, the viewer is met with the forceful, irrevocable, near abstract gestures that boldly declare the hand of Picasso himself; memorialising his presence in paint upon the canvas. One can feel in the defiantly brash brushstrokes Picasso’s urgency and his powerful, unrelenting compulsion to paint; ‘I have less and less time’, he said in a moment of poignant honesty, ‘and I have more and more to say’ (Picasso, quoted in M-L. Bernadac, op. cit., p. 85).
It is desire then above all that radiates from Picasso’s late work. Desire for a woman, desire for sex, desire to paint without restraint, thought or impairment. And it is this desire, as well as the open, even existential, thirst for life of an artist all too aware of his increasing age that charges Mousquetaire et nu assis with its vital and immediate power. ‘Ultimately, love is all there is’ (Picasso, quoted in Richardson, op. cit., p. 80) and it was this love of art, life and above all, creativity that defines Mousquetaire et nu assis and these late, great works.