‘Art should not be a trompe-l’oeil, but a trompe-l’esprit.’ – Pablo Picasso
(Picasso, in Robert Desnos, Écrits sur les peintres, Paris, 1984, quoted in Picasso’s Masterpieces: The Musée Picasso Paris Collection, Paris, 2014, p. 106).
‘You see, for me a painting is a dramatic action in the course of which reality finds itself split apart. For me, that dramatic action takes precedence over all other considerations… When I paint, I always try to give an image people are not expecting and, beyond that, one they reject. That’s what interests me. It’s in this sense I mean I always try to be subversive.’ – Pablo Picasso
(quoted in E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 640).
‘Paintings are but research and experiment. I never do a painting as a work of art. I search incessantly, and there is a logical sequence in all this research. This is why I number them. It’s an experiment in time.’ – Pablo Picasso
(quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 72).
‘The true heirs are us. The painters, those who carry on painting. We are the heirs of Rembrandt, Velázquez, Cézanne, Matisse. A painter always has a father and a mother, he doesn’t spring from nothing’ – Pablo Picasso
(Picasso, in Marius de Zayas, “Picasso Speaks. A Statement by the Artist,” The Arts, May 19, 1923, quoted in Picasso’s Masterpieces: The Musée Picasso Paris Collection, Paris, 2014, p. 532).
‘…the last seven years of Picasso’s life constituted a Great Late Phase, one in which he felt free to do whatever he wanted, in whatever way he wanted, regardless of correctness, political, social, or artistic.’ – John Richardson
(Richardson, ‘Great Late Picasso,’ in Picasso: Mosqueteros, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 15).
Painted during the winter of 1968, Pablo Picasso’s monumental composition Homme et femme fizzes with erotic tension, the bodies of its two amorous protagonists intertwining and overlapping as they lie together in an intimate moment of sensual pleasure. Emerging from the artist’s renewed interest in the charged interaction between the painter and his model, a theme which occupied him almost continuously throughout the final decade of his life, this work not only offers a glimpse into the heady, passionate relationship between Picasso and his muse, but also the extreme zeal with which he approached the act of painting at this time. Picasso was filled by an enormous urge to create during this final chapter of his career, resulting in a great flourishing of painterly work that was characterised by its passionate vitality, fervent energy and distinct sense of spontaneity. Adopting an abbreviated style of painting, described as écriture-peinture, and rendered in bold, expressive strokes of paint, these compositions stand as an affirmation of Picasso’s continued artistic dynamism during the last decade of his life, and the endless wells of creative inspiration that lay within his imagination.
Picasso had returned to the subject of the painter and his model following of a decade-long exploration into the themes and iconography of the great masters of art history. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he conducted in-depth studies of a selection of masterpieces by artists including Delacroix (in his Femme d’Alger series, 1954-1955), Velàzquez (Las Meninas, 1957), Manet (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1960-1962), and lastly Poussin (L’enlèvement des sabines, 1962-63), absorbing the compositional techniques of his predecessors and then translating them through a decidedly non-traditional language into his own, unique variation of the subject. By directly engaging with the work of these revered artistic figures of the past, Picasso was not only measuring himself against their achievements, comparing the strength of their imagination against his own, he was also assessing his position within this esteemed lineage of great European painters.
These investigations also lent themselves to Picasso’s working practice at the time, in which he actively pursued a serial procedure in his painting, examining, assimilating and re-interpreting a chosen style, subject or manner across multiple canvases. Taking great pleasure in the act of painting itself, he allowed the process of creation to take prominence over the finished image. As he explained to Francoise Gilot: ‘It’s the movement of painting that interests me, the dramatic movement from one effort to the next, even if those efforts are perhaps not pushed to their ultimate end … I’ve reached the moment, you see, when the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself’ (Picasso, quoted in E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 640). Similarly, he told 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’ (Picasso, quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 72).
However, the task of reinterpreting Poussin’s calamitous scenes of distress, rampage and terror during the winter of 1962 had left the artist feeling drained. As the new year dawned, he resolved to turn away from these allusions to the past, and instead seek out a new theme which he hoped would reinvigorate his art. Hélène Parmelin, the wife of the painter Edouard Pignon and a close friend of Picasso at the time, witnessed first-hand this sea-change in the artist’s focus: ‘And now he says he is turning his back on everything. He says he is flinging himself into an incredible adventure. He says everything is changed, it’s all over, painting is something quite different from what we believed, perhaps it’s even the exact opposite… “We have to look,” says Picasso, “for something that develops all on its own, something natural, and not manufactured, it has to evolve just as it is, in its natural shape and not its shape in art … Grass like grass, a tree like a tree, and a nude like a nude.” … In February 1963, Picasso broke loose. He painted ‘The Painter and His Model.’ And from that moment he painted like a madman. Perhaps he will never paint again with such frenzy’ (H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, trans. C. Trollope, London, 1966, pp. 84-84).
The resulting works delve into the fundamental connection between the artist and his muse, revelling in the very act of looking itself, and the ways in which the figure could be translated through the artist’s subjective vision, into a paean of the female form. In many versions the artist is seen before his easel, paintbrush in hand, gazing at his model as she adopts a variety of dynamic poses; in others, the artist stands alone, lost in thought at the edge of a half-painted or empty canvas, while in another strand, the artist disappears altogether, and the nude model alone fills the expanse of the canvas. All suggest the excitement of rediscovery though, as Picasso, in the shape of the painter, becomes both observer and creator, the passive voyeur and the active agent in the scene, absorbing the view before him whilst simultaneously generating it. As he continued to explore this theme throughout the 1960s, the painter gradually emerged from behind his canvas, moving ever closer towards the reclining nude model, eliminating the barrier between the two until they become joined in a passionate embrace. Describing this evolution as the ‘ultimate conclusion’ of Picasso’s investigations into the subject, Marie-Laure Bernadac sees in this meeting of the two characters a fundamental transformation, as they shift from representing the artist and his model, to a paradigmatic vision of male-female relationships (Bernadac, ‘Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model,’ in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 55).
Filled with a powerful sense of monumentality, Homme et femme delves into such a relationship, the two figures dramatically occupying the entire canvas in such a way that the viewer’s attention is focused solely on the intensity of their connection. The monumental figure had long played a central role within Picasso’s oeuvre, dominating the pictorial space with its presence and physicality. In his early proto-Cubist phase, the artist used the figure as a vehicle to deconstruct and radically reconfigure reality into a series of faceted forms, allowing the human body to fill the canvas in works such as L’Amitié (1907-08) and Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Similarly, in the 1920s the human form became the primary vehicle through which Picasso achieved the remarkable volte-face of his embrace of Neo-Classicism, painting exaggeratedly volumetric and voluptuous nude figures as in Deux femmes nues assises (1920), in an almost parodic reference to the retour à l’ordre that was sweeping through the European avant-garde in the wake of the First World War. As the 1960s dawned, the figure was once again at the forefront of his mind, as he sought a new mode of pictorial expression which would allow him to explore and celebrate the very act of painting itself.
Displaying a distinct confidence and self-assuredness as she reveals her naked body to the desiring gaze of her partner, the female character in Homme et femme does indeed appear to be the embodiment of l’éternal féminin. Lounging nonchalantly before her admirer, she raises her arms above her head in a manner that frames her face and reveals her nude body in its entirety, her posture echoing the sensuous odalisques of Ingres and Matisse. With her dark hair, hieratic bearing and Grecian profile, the recumbent female nude appears to be an homage to the artist’s wife Jacqueline, the muse who entranced Picasso throughout his later years, filling his imagination and fantasies with her petite, yet voluptuous, form. Though she never modelled for him in the traditional sense, Jacqueline’s presence permeated every aspect of the artist’s work, captivating his imagination and inspiring a myriad of sculptures, drawings, etchings and paintings in her likeness. While Bernadac has characterised Jacqueline as ‘the ultimate odalisque’ in terms of ‘her physique, in her strange likeness to the women in the [Delacroix] painting, her sensuous nature,’ Picasso’s depictions of his last love went beyond a mere celebration of her physicality, capturing aspects of her personality and temperament in a manner that reveals the close intimacy the two shared (Bernadac, ibid).
The male figure, meanwhile, remains entirely captivated by the woman, his eyes cast wide as he stares appreciatively at the sensual, curvaceous body before him. A surrogate for the artist himself, this virile, romantic figure was an extension of the swashbuckling mosquetero character that had first emerged in Picasso’s work during the final months of 1966. With their dandyish poses, elaborate costumes and debonair appearances, Picasso’s musketeers appear as mock-heroic cavaliers, often brandishing their swords towards their female companions in a gesture that alluded to their sexual prowess. Though the present male character is nude, and therefore without his usual weapon, the pipe he clenches between his lips acts in a similar manner, a playful nod towards the man’s intentions and the lust the female figure arouses in him. However, citing the emblematic tradition of seventeenth century Dutch painting as a possible source, in which tobacco smoke was seen as a symbol of the futility and fleetingness of love, Gert Schiff has observed that these ‘smoking musketeers invariably have a wistful expression, as if musing upon some lost or inaccessible happiness’ (Schiff, Picasso: The Last Years, 1963-1973, New York, 1983, p.40). While Picasso had indeed quit smoking by this time, it was but one of a number of pleasures in which he felt he could no longer indulge – as he explained to 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’Epoque Jacqueline,’ in op. cit., p. 29).
As such, Homme et femme may be seen as the concrete expression of Picasso’s own passion-filled, sexual fantasies, his longing and desire channelled into the figure of the smoking mosquetero as he stares at the woman. Filling the entire breadth of the canvas with her statuesque form, she is the central focus of the work, captivating her male partner, and the artist, with her sumptuous curves and raw sexuality. Certain features are enlarged and given particular prominence in the composition, such as the woman’s feet, her shapely breasts, even her underarm hair, as if Picasso is guiding our attention to the aspects of her body which acted like magnets to his gaze. Nowhere is this more striking than in the open reveal of the woman’s vulva, its prominent position and clear delineation revealing the hold it had over the painter’s imagination. In some ways, the model’s pose echoes Gustave Courbet’s notorious L'Origine du monde (1866), its bold, unashamed display of the mons veneris and foreshortened view up the woman’s thighs recalling the scandalous nineteenth century artwork. However, in Homme et femme Picasso chooses not to focus solely on this site of sexual pleasure, but rather paints the woman in her entirety, celebrating the seemingly endless array of attractive qualities he discovered in her form, from her large eyes that return his steady gaze and the gentle parting of her full lips, to the manner in which her loosely coiffed hair tumbles around her face and the soft, silky texture of her skin.
While Picasso had always merged and synthesized numerous sources in his work, compositions such as Homme et femme are defined by their expression of the artist’s lived experiences in the moment of their creation. Residing in almost complete seclusion with Jacqueline at Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, the artist was able to immerse himself entirely in his work, painting without disturbance for long hours each day. The result was an exuberant burst of creativity that belied the artist’s age, as he produced an astounding body of work that valiantly proclaimed his undiminished powers of creation. This fervent energy is reflected in the bold, gestural brushwork the artist employed in the compositions of this period – forms are modelled in long, sinuous strokes of pigment, before being filled with broad passages of colour that demonstrate the vigour with which the artist attacked the canvas. In Homme et femme Picasso’s mastery of the painterly medium is clearly evident, each brushstroke imbued with a distinct power and confidence, as he translates his vision on to the canvas. The rich green tones used in the outlines and shading, meanwhile, are reminiscent of the hues that the artist employed in his early Cubist landscapes and portraits from 1908 to 1909, while also recalling the delicate tonalities of his reinterpretations of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. This extensive use of green, a colour that traditionally symbolises life, renewal and energy, may be seen to reflect Picasso’s own joie de vivre and creative drive during this period, as he threw himself into his painting and revelled in the romantic atmosphere of his life with Jacqueline in the South of France.
It is this passion for painting, for life, for creation itself, which makes Picasso’s art from the twilight years of his career seem so vital and compelling to this day. Driven by a heady mixture of desire and memory, they show an artist painting without restraint, as he tried to express all that remained within his creative imagination, before it was too late: ‘I have less and less time to paint,’ he proclaimed in a moment of poignant honesty, ‘and I have more and more to say…’ (Picasso, quoted in M-L. Bernadac, p. 85).