Picasso approved the choice of Homme à l’épée, painted on 25 July 1969, to adorn the poster for the exhibition Picasso: Oeuvres 1969-1970, which his dear friend Yvonne Zervos had conceived and organized on his behalf, held at the Palais des Papes, Avignon, May through September 1970. Christian Zervos, the long-time chronicler of Picasso’s production and Yvonne’s husband, wrote the preface to the official catalogue illustrated in black-and-white (op. cit.). The poet Rafael Alberti, also especially close to Picasso during this period, wrote the text for Picasso en Avignon, a book published in 1971 (op. cit.) to commemorate in full color this landmark event, the largest and–because the featured works were brand new–the most controversial of the exhibitions held during Picasso’s final years.
“Pablo Picasso invades the Palais des Papes at the head of a column of over a hundred men”– Alberti wrote, as if he were scripting a bulletin for a news broadcast–“accompanied by more than thirty women, two dwarfs, two harlequins and one pierrot, various children... people of a great size, surging out of the most diverse costumes and backgrounds, with the most violent dissonances, insulting arabesques, and the most harmoniously inharmonious explosions” (ibid., p. 7).
“The swordsman guarding the door from the poster might well be the Grand Master, the Captain General,” Alberti declared, as he characterized Homme à l’épée. “He commands respect with his reds and yellows, the colors of a standard; his enormous-handled sword held in the curl of his claw; his firebrand mouth and his blackened beard and hair shot through with traces of grays, whites and purples. One eye is high and the other is low, fixed in a hard stare, piercing, deadly, comparable only to the pupils of the painter and gazing from under the cocked hat with the oversized brim bordered in white–a white light, spectral, illuminating his face and running down his shoulders to the frightful hanging free hand and then over to the other, rampant with sword; cut in half by the red and yellow of his doublet and a white-yellow ribbon underlined or pointed in green...followed by other captains, all of them extraordinary in their posture, gestures, countenance” (ibid., p. 195).
The Homme à l’épée–an hidalgo, a Spanish gentleman here clad in the heraldic colors of his land–led this company of swashbucklers, Picasso’s personal bodyguard, as it were, whom the artist called his mousquetaires, or in Spanish, mosqueteros. John Richardson has pointed out that the latter term has a broader, more inclusive meaning than just denoting a soldierly musketeer–“in the Spanish golden age, the noisy groundlings in the corrales,” derived from “mosquitos”–in the present context, those assorted camp-followers to the armed men who serve their king (Picasso Mosqueteros, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 22).
The mousquetaires had indeed invaded and completely taken over Picasso’s studio during the late 1960s. Earlier in the decade Picasso had cast his favorite persona as an artist type, a character like the 17th century painter Frenhofer in Balzac’s L’Oeuvre inconnu, or in the bohemian mold of the late 19th century, like Lantier in Zola’s L’Oeuvre (modeled on Cézanne), or even Van Gogh, the exemplar of a fraught, fabled life in art, tragically cut short–the fate of a peintre maudit. Picasso also often assumed as an alter ego–even in his studio situations–the figure of a brawny Mediterranean fisherman, a modern Odysseus, either young or old, with tousled hair and a curly beard, clad in a striped sailor’s vest, such as Picasso himself liked to sport. The adventurous and virile knight-musketeer now replaced the fisherman as Picasso’s favored outdoors type. This fellow was even more at home in the studio–like some lesser pupil of an El Greco or a Velázquez he was practiced in the art of painting, and simply as a man he loved the company of a beautiful young woman, as his model to paint, and as the object of his affection to seduce.
Then in his late eighties, Picasso was inclined to travel only locally–to the bull-fights at Fréjus, for instance–in order to avoid, as the world’s most famous living artist, the attention of annoyingly curious crowds. He preferred instead to spend as much time as possible hunkered down in his work in the studio, while his wife Jacqueline fended off at the gate all but a choice handful of old friends. Even if his vaunted sexual powers were finally on the wane, he still possessed and increasingly indulged, by way of compensation, his ever excitable and voluble imagination, creating his own theater of memory. Picasso thus transformed himself into the brave, adventurous, and virile musketeer, or more broadly into a 17th century cavalier, a rakish nobleman skilled with the sword, daring in his romantic exploits, and in his tastes and appetites a worldly gentleman who enjoyed all that life had to offer. He might wear an elegant little beard and long wavy hair, or in a dissipated, down-on-one’s-luck state take on a shabbier aspect, while still clad in the requisite doublet and ruffled collar. This was the mask Picasso held up most frequently to the world in the pictures he created during the remaining years of his life.
The mousquetaire make-over emerged in the aftermath of a medical crisis that befell Picasso in late 1965. The resurgent inflammation of a duodenal ulcer necessitated an urgent trip to the American Hospital in Neuilly, where physicians operated, in secret, on Picasso in November. His convalescence, at the age of 84, was understandably slow. For most of 1966 Picasso devoured literature, re-reading his favorite classics, including Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (1844), the engaging tales of Athos, Porthos and Aramis, which Richardson has stated “the artist evidently knew by heart.” The latter also mentioned that the artist was likely familiar with director Bernard Borderie’s popular 1961 film Vengeance of the Three Musketeers; Picasso and Jacqueline loved to watch movies on television (Picasso Mosqueteros, exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 20). Picasso’s reading also included Shakepeare, but most significantly for his art, he had been intently studying Otto Benesch’s six-volume compendium of Rembrandt’s drawings, which he kept in his library.
Temporarily sidelined, Picasso produced only drawings, and these at a curtailed rate, during 1966. The first mousquetaires appear as swordsmen in two sheets dated 29 December 1966 (Zervos, vol. 25, nos. 246 and 258). When he resumed painting on canvas on 21-22 February 1967, the transformation into period attire had been accomplished; both canvases he painted on those days show an artist costumed as a 17th century cavalier, paintbrush and palette in hand (Zervos, vol. 25, nos. 280-281). The mosqueteros, in all the panoply of their kind, each with his own story to tell, soon gushed forth.
Picasso painted Homme à l’épée on 25 July 1969, more than two years into this unrelenting campaign, longer than Louis XIII’s siege of La Rochelle in Dumas’ novel. From their first appearance Picasso’s choice of the mousquetaires as his primary driving theme seemed to nearly everyone a willfully odd and retrograde idea at a time when America’s war in Vietnam continued to dominate the headlines. During the previous year Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies had invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to Dubcek’s liberalizing Prague Spring. Paris was still recovering from the throes of the great student uprising, les jours de Mai, which had forced President de Gaulle from office. The world’s greatest living artist appeared to have retreated into a world peopled with “backward-looking romantics and nostalgic dreamers” (M.-L. Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 82), more like the hapless Don Quixote than the profoundly committed creator of Guernica. Many assumed that Picasso was thumbing his nose at the new modern art of the post-war era, when emotive abstraction was in, the figure out, and many artists had dispensed with the notion of a subject altogether.
Ironically embodied in the image of a man dedicated to bellicose behavior, of the kind that had caused so much mayhem and carnage down through the centuries, Picasso’s mousquetaires are nearly all comically mock-heroic; these pretenders to derring-do often appear ridiculously overblown in their grandiose self-confidence. That the artist had insinuated his famously long-held antiwar views into the comical demeanor of these military misfits was obvious from the outset, but only over time has the subtlety in Picasso’s understanding of the 60s scene become more clearly apparent. In this regard, Dakin Hart’s essay “Peace and Love Picasso” in the 2009 Gagosian Gallery catalogue rings loud and true. He called Picasso's musketeers "a kind of multinational, trans-historical hippie army.”
“Picasso chose Dumas's musketeers as a subject,” Hart explained, “because they provided ideal raw material for the construction of a martial counterculture. As soldiers, Dumas's musketeers are (in a very typically Picassian way) more dedicated to the cult of life than to the organized business of death. Few armed forces have ever been more creatively inclined to privilege their phalluses over their swords... Picasso deployed the only forces under his control, in the way that made the most sense to him, turning his musketeers into an extended commentary, not on the war in Vietnam per se, but on war in general... His reactions to contemporary events may be veiled in anachronistic costumes, art historical quotations and centuries-old literary references, but the spirit of his work is perfectly of the moment" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, pp. 254-255).
The mousquetaire paintings contain a laundry list of human foibles, but while there may be occasional moments of melancholy, there is never darkness nor manifest evil, and at all times these spunky fellows charm and amuse by dint of their presumed lack of any self-discipline, their essential good nature, and the irresistible appeal of their earthy humor. Picasso was fond of these creations, and liked to ascribe personal qualities to them. Hélène Parmelin recalled how the artist would play games in front of these canvases, with her and her husband, the painter Edouard Pignon. Picasso would point to one or another musketeer and remark, “With this one you’d better watch out. That one makes fun of us. That one is enormously satisfied. This one is a grave intellectual. And that one... look how sad he is, the poor guy. He must be a painter...” (quoted in Picasso: Tradition and Avant-garde, exh. cat., Museo del Prado, Madrid, 2006, p. 340).
The persistent influences of the grand European baroque that guided the stream of mousquetaires were, from the Mediterranean south, the Spanish school–El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya; and from the North Sea, the Dutch–Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, and most recent of all, Van Gogh. “Innocent painting exists. The Impressionists are an example of innocent painting,” Picasso commented to André Malraux. “But not the Spaniards. Not Van Gogh. Not me. Sometimes the Dutch can be taken for Spaniards, right?” On another occasion Picasso exclaimed, “I’ve got no real friends, I’ve got only lovers! Except perhaps for Goya, and especially Van Gogh” (quoted in A. Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, New York, 1974, pp. 18 and 138).
“What he wanted was to enlist Van Gogh’s dark spirits on his side, to make his art as instinctive and ‘convulsive’ as possible,” Richardson has written. "I suspect that Picasso also wanted to galvanize his paint surface– not always the most thrilling aspect of the epoch before Jacqueline's –with some of the Dutchman's Dionysian fervour. It worked. 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 imminence of his own end may also have constituted a link with Van Gogh. 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" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, pp. 32 and 34).
The mousquetaire paintings were the final major series of variations on an old master theme that Picasso undertook during his late period; this group was far more sprawling and open-ended than any sequence he had done previously. The sheer scope of this endeavor provided ample opportunity to investigate the dual aspects of art-making that were foremost among Picasso’s concerns during these final years: tradition and process. The musketeers served as a means through which Picasso could engage the great artists of the past whom he admired, allowing him to arrive at an understanding of his own position and achievement within the continuity and traditions of European painting. Having emerged from his study of Rembrandt, the mousquetaire theme also provided an avenue to channel the entirety of the achievement of the supreme Siglo de Oro in Spanish painting. These resources encouraged Picasso to take stock of his Spanishness and the role of his native heritage in his work, which he could undertake only outside the land of his birth, because he had vowed never to return home while the murderous fascist dictator Franco was still alive and ruled Spain.
The mousquetaires moreover perfectly suited Picasso’s work habits at this time. He preferred to work employing a serial procedure, painting numerous variations on a theme, as an effective means of examining, assimilating and re-interpreting a subject, style, manner, or the richness of an entire sensibility. Picasso had become increasingly engaged in painting as “process,” in which the act of painting, not the completed art work, was a sufficient end in itself. Picasso described how he took special pleasure in the “movement of the painting, the dramatic effort from one vision to the next, even if the effort is not carried through... I have reached the stage where the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself” (quoted in K. Gallwitz, Picasso Laureatus, Paris, 1971, p. 166). In 1956 Picasso explained to Alexander Liberman, the editor of Vogue magazine, that “Paintings are but research and experiment. I never do a painting as a work of art. All of them are researches. I search incessantly and there is a logical sequence in all this research. That is why I number them. It’s an experiment in time” (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 72).
The musketeer series was indeed an “experiment in time,” and in more than one sense. It was a significant exercise in sequential imaging, as Picasso described above. The mousquetaires were, moreover, a journey into time, one that followed a route from Picasso’s Mougins studio in the late twentieth century to Dumas’ novel written in the mid-nineteeth, and then three centuries deeper into the past to the Baroque era of Rembrandt and Velázquez. As Picasso grew old and reclusive, and the real world of physical delight receded from his grasp, an inner world not subject to the boundaries of time or place evolved in its stead. Picasso constructed a veritable musée imaginaire, an edifice that he maintained in his own mind, of which he was artificer, arbiter, and curator, that contained the genius of many centuries, as well as his own.
The 1970 exhibition at the Palais des Papes is known as Avignon I; a second exhibition, comprising the work of 1970-1972–Avignon II–ran in May-September 1973, opening less than a month and half after Picasso’s death on 8 April. Avignon I included 165 paintings done between 5 January 1969 and 2 February 1970, together with 45 drawings in various media. Among the throngs in attendance at the 1970 Avignon exhibition were numerous young people. Their reaction to Picasso's rambunctious mousquetaires, sexually explicit nudes and passionately embracing lovers was noticeably more sympathetic than that of their elders, and by far more enthusiastic than the critics. Parmelin and Pignon noticed the youthful aspect of the artist's most fervent admirers at Avignon I:
"One day, [we] found ourselves in Avignon at the Palais des Papes, among the crowd at Picasso's exhibition. Elbow to elbow,” Parmelin wrote. “Many hippies or their ilk, with hair, beards and hats, of the type Picasso enjoyed passing in the street. Many young people expressing their freedom through colors and clothing... Pignon tells me he has a strange feeling. He no longer seems to know whether the crowd is rising into the walls or whether the canvases are descending to mingle with the crowd. There is, finally, such a close correspondence between the crowd and the canvas, he says, that they are the same thing" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 244).
Picasso was delighted at the response of these young people, which he attributed to the freedom they found in his recent paintings. He told Pierre Daix, "If I'm painting better, it's because I've had some success in liberating myself" (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Work, New York, 1993, p. 365).
Even during years prior to the Avignon exhibitions, Picasso's late work had disappointed many critics as being unworthy of a famous, elder master, especially the one who was universally acknowledged to be the world's greatest living artist. A similar reaction persisted during the shows. "It was the critics who were most disconcerted, seeing the show as a compilation of summary painting, improvisations done in febrile haste, and the erotism of an old man,” Daix explained. “Whereas in fact Picasso had given them an extraordinary demonstration 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" (ibid.).
Picasso's impact on younger painters did indeed become clear during the 1980s. Four late Picasso paintings were included in the exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1981; they were hung together with recent canvases by Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz, Per Kirkeby, Philip Guston, Markus Lüpertz, Anselm Kiefer, Frank Auerbach, Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, among others. Writing in the catalogue preface, Christos M. Joachimides declared, "Interest in [Picasso's] powerfully expressive late work is just beginning. This is the work which, like some incredible mutation, embodies the spirit of a very young artist who gives form to his perception of the world in fresh, unsullied, aggressive images" (C.M. Joachimides et al., A New Spirit in Painting, exh. cat., The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1981, p. 16).
Today, nearly thirty years after the London exhibition, and 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).