Attired in a ruffed collar and a yellow doublet adorned with vermilion chevrons and stripes, this Homme assis is a swordsman in Picasso’s company of mousquetaires, the signature subject in this artist’s astonishingly prodigious oeuvre during his final years, the crowning achievement of a career that lasted more than three-quarters of a century. Picasso in his late great work chose as his art historical avatar the mousquetaire, a swashbuckler of varied background with courtly aspirations, renowned for unstinting loyalty as a bodyguard to his king, his skill with the sword in battle, and most appealingly to Picasso, his unabashed boisterousness and insatiable taste for womanizing in the off-hours. This was the mask Picasso held up most frequently to the world in the pictures he created during the remaining years of his life.
In Homme assis Picasso specifically cast himself as the Spanish incarnation of this character, the 17th century Spanish hidalgo, a knight and a gentleman, on whom he bestowed the mirada fuerte, his own famous “strong gaze.” Rendering him in the light and shade, sol y sombra, of the Mediterranean–fierce, sun-struck yellow, red, and green against dark alizarin and black–Picasso has emphatically evoked the heraldic scarlet and gold of the Spanish flag. Since the tragic end of the Civil War in 1939, Picasso had refused to set foot in Spain while the fascist dictator Franco remained in power. The artist is perhaps honoring, in the design of this cavalier’s costume, the Senyera of Catalunya, the regional flag of red stripes on a yellow ground derived from the coat-of-arms of the medieval Crown of Aragón, which once included the lands where today the Catalan language, publicly suppressed during the Franco years, is again freely spoken.
By the late 1960s, Picasso travelled only locally–to the bull-fights at Fréjus, for instance–in order to avoid the attention of curious crowds. He preferred instead to spend as much time as possible at work in his studio, furiously painting against that unknown but diminishing measure of time he knew remained to him, while his wife Jacqueline fended off at the gate all but his few old friends then still living. During this prolific period, in splendid isolation, Picasso increasingly indulged his ever excitable and voluble imagination to create his own theater of memory, summoning to this stage characters from his past, on whom he impressed allusions to past masters and styles. He was constructing in his art a grand musée imaginaire unbounded by any walls of time and place.
The mousquetaire make-over took place in the wake of emergency surgery Picasso secretly underwent in Paris, to remove an inflamed duodenal ulcer, in November 1965. Convalescing slowly during 1966, the artist devoured literature, revisiting his favorite classics, including Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (1844), the engaging adventures of Athos, Porthos and Aramis, which John Richardson has stated “he evidently knew by heart” (Picasso Mosqueteros, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 20). Picasso’s reading also included the plays of Shakespeare. Most significantly for his art, he had been intently studying Otto Benesch’s six-volume compendium of Rembrandt’s drawings.
The first mousquetaires appeared as swordsmen in two drawings 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). Wave after wave of mousquetaires soon sprang forth.
Picasso’s sudden obsession with this band of brothers-in-arms seemed to many a willfully odd and retrograde pursuit at a time when America’s war in Vietnam dominated the headlines. Paris was still reeling from the throes of les jours de Mai, of the great student uprising. Amid the radical tumult of the Sixties, Picasso’s apparent retreat into centuries past made him seem more like a Don Quixote, out of touch with the times, than the profoundly committed creator of Guernica. Many in the art world assumed that Picasso was thumbing his nose at the new aesthetics of the day, when even the future of painting as a viable art form was in doubt.
While a few mousquetaires affect a pretentiously aristocratic manner, most are comically anti-heroic, like the characters in Robert Altman’s satirical anti-war film M*A*S*H (1970) and the long-running television series spun-off from it. That the artist had insinuated his famously long-held pacifist views into the picaresque demeanor of these military misfits was obvious from the outset, but the nature of Picasso’s relationship to the Sixties scene has only recently become more clearly apparent. In his essay “Peace and Love Picasso,” Dakin Hart discussed the social significance of the mousquetaires as "a kind of multinational, trans-historical hippie army engaged in a catalogue of alternatives to fighting.”
“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... 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" (ibid., pp. 254-255).
Picasso’s mousquetaires comprise a catalogue of human foibles. There may be moments of melancholy, but never tragedy nor manifest evil, and at all times these spunky fellows charm the viewer by dint of their exuberant lack of self-discipline and the irresistible appeal of their earthy humor. “With this one you’d better watch out,” Picasso quipped to Hélène Parmelin, while standing among his mousquetaires. “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 great masters of the grand European tradition that inspired and shaped Picasso’s mousquetaires belonged to, from the Mediterranean south, the Spanish school–El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya; and from northern Europe, the Dutch–Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, and most recent of all, Van Gogh. 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. 138 and 18).
“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” (Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 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 is far more sprawling and open-ended than any sequence he had done previously. The sheer scope of this endeavor provided ample opportunity for Picasso to engage the great artists of the past whom he most admired, allowing him to arrive at an understanding of his own position and achievement within the continuity and traditions of European painting.
With the mousquetaires Picasso employed a serial procedure, taking care to date and number each picture, generating numerous variations on a theme, as an effective means of examining, assimilating and re-interpreting a subject, style, or manner in every aspect that had caught his eye. 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. “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).
Picasso included Homme assis in his landmark exhibition Picasso: Oeuvres 1969-1970, which his friend Yvonne Zervos had organized on his behalf, held at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, May-September 1970. Known as Avignon I, this show comprised 165 paintings created between 5 January 1969 and 2 February 1970, together with 45 drawings in various media. A second exhibition, Avignon II–dedicated to paintings only that Picasso had done during 1970-1972–opened in May 1973, less than a month-and-a-half after the artist’s death on 8 April.
Among the throngs in attendance at the 1970 Avignon exhibition were numerous young people, whose reaction to Picasso’s rambunctious mousquetaires, sexually explicit nudes and passionately embracing lovers was noticeably more sympathetic than that of their elders, and far more enthusiastic than the critics. “One day, [we] found ourselves in Avignon at the Palais des Papes, among the crowd at Picasso's exhibition. Elbow to elbow,” Parmelin recalled. “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.” Her husband, the painter Edouard Pignon, wondered “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" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 244).
Many critics wondered if such paintings were worthy of the world's most renowned living artist. They viewed Avignon I “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" (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1973, p. 365).
"In retrospect, the parade of vehement canvases from Avignon has the appearance of a posthumous manifesto for a new painting,” Werner Spies affirmed, a quarter-century after Picasso’s death. “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).