Picasso painted numerous portraits of male friends and colleagues during his early career. He is, of course, far more famous for later having obsessively depicted the notable women in his life–Fernande Olivier, his first wife Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot and finally Jacqueline Roque, his lover since 1954, whom he married in 1961. While he occasionally drew portraits of male literary friends and a few other men after the mid-1920s, he never painted them, and only rarely depicted anonymous male subjects. The heads, busts and figures of men and boys suddenly abound, however, among his late works in all media. Who, then, is the unnamed fellow in this Buste d’homme, which Picasso painted in 1965, and what may his presence signify in the artist’s oeuvre?
With the emergence in 1963 of his artist and model series, Picasso had forged the highly charged sexual dynamic that would galvanize the full compass of his late work. The painter, as a surrogate for Picasso himself, typically gazes intently upon his female subject; the model, for her part, always embodies some aspect of the artist’s wife Jacqueline. She became his ever-attendant muse, l’éternel féminin whom he daily experienced in her ever vital, flesh-and-blood presence, revealing her in his paintings always nude, in pictorial scenarios that suggest sophisticated games of desire and seduction, coyness and consent, in which an appealing air of often humorous eroticism betoken a civil and good-natured contest of the sexes. As the perennial object of his desire, Jacqueline was a constant in his life, the very essence of beauty and love as perpetual ideals to which he did homage in his art. Picasso, on the other hand, assumed a more mercurial role in his pursuit of the creative life, taking on a diversely protean nature as the character types into which he projected his male presence.
Picasso had been painting his artist and model series for less than a year when he transformed his chosen painted persona from the artist absorbed in his studio work into other noticeably different male types, usually workingmen who labored outdoors, in the full glare and open air of the outside world. These may be men young, old or somewhere in between. There are fellows who smoke, a habit Picasso had recently been compelled to give up. Back in August 1938, Picasso painted some brawny mariners sucking like children on ice cream cones, oblivious to the fact that Europe was edging toward war. The curly haired young man Picasso has depicted in this Buste d’homme is one of the capably active, virile men who began to appear in droves among Picasso’s paintings and drawings beginning in the spring of 1964. During certain periods they outnumbered his female subjects.
This fellow is of an indeterminate age—he is neither a beardless youth, nor quite yet a much older, seasoned and all-too-wise man of the world. He appears, in any case, ready and eager for the task at hand. He is one such type that Picasso and Jaqueline might have encountered in Cannes and its environs during the mid-1960s, someone who likely made his livelihood from the Mediterranean, as an able-bodied sailor, a dock worker, a fisherman or fishmonger. Or, as John Richardson has noted, in early 1965 Picasso employed Maurice Bresnu as his driver—“Henceforth Bresnu-like men with curly beards and blobs of dark hair would appear ever more frequently in the artist’s imagery.”
Indeed, this unshaven fellow is in the classic Mediterranean mold, of a type as old as antiquity. His forbears in earlier millennia might have joined the Argive expedition to the shores of Troy, accompanied Theseus on his quest for the Golden Fleece, or in real history been traders between southern Europe and the Levant. He might have helped turn the tide of battle aboard the galleys at Salamis, Actium or Lepanto. Picasso could easily relate to this kind of man—the sea was in his blood, too. He been born by the Mediterranean, in Málaga, Spain. He grew up in La Coruña, on the Atlantic coast; his family subsequently moved to Barcelona, again on the Mediterranean. When as a family man during the 1920s and 1930s he needed a vacation away from Paris, he normally chose destinations on the Atlantic or Mediterranean coasts.
If there is a single emblematic archetype for this hardy, ancient man of the sea, one might choose clever Odysseus, or in a more youthful guise, his faithful son Telemachus. The mythical element is always present when Picasso evokes the sea and its lore. His summer seaside holidays during the late 1920s and 1930s stimulated the surrealist tendencies in his work during the inter-war period. He had been spending more time in the Midi since the end of the Second World War, and in 1948 purchased a house in Vallauris. When he moved a final time in 1961, to the villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, overlooking Cannes and the Mediterranean, he had ended up but a short distance from the Hôtel Vaste Horizon, where he had summered for three consecutive years during the late 1930s.
This Buste d’homme shows off the mirada fuerte, the strong gaze, for which Picasso was famous, an indication that the artist has in some way projected himself into this character, as a surrogate or an alter ego; elsewhere the artist attired these men in the striped fisherman’s jersey he liked to wear at home. These powerful eyes are one of the most striking and beguiling features seen in the ancient portraiture to which Picasso here has likely alluded, the mummy portraits painted two millennia ago in the Fayum region of Graeco-Roman Egypt, which he and other modern painters had studied in the Louvre.
For these male heads and busts Picasso devised a particular set of facial traits, a physiognomy comprised of swerving, overlaid and intersecting strokes of a loaded brush, to suggest the shape of the nose, the shadow on a cheek, the wide open eyes and raised brow. A dual array of small circles represents the man’s curly hair; crisscrossing strands of paint describe his thickly woven pullover. “A few lines,” Picasso declared, “that’s enough isn’t it? What more need I do?... What has to happen, when you finally look at it, is that drawing and colour are the same thing” (quoted in Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 85). These descriptive, gestural lineaments of color merged with more varied and summary means of applying paint to canvas that would comprise Picasso’s very late style at the end of the 1960s.
The brawny, unshaven workingmen of the mid-1960s soon gave way in early 1967 to the elegantly pointed moustaches and goatees of Picasso’s newly favored personae, characters in the heraldic costume of cavaliers and mousquetaires that he lifted from the Spanish Siglo de Oro and the northern Baroque of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Hals. In this guise of mock-historical role-playing Picasso presented himself to the world during the final years of his life.