Dark eyes stare out from the canvas, the pupils gleaming obsidian globes. Despite the beard on the face of this gentleman of undetermined centuries past, the gaze appears to be that of Pablo Picasso. Painted on 9 July 1969, Tête d'homme is one of a string of pictures of fantastical pseudo-historical figures that Picasso created from the mid-1960s onwards. Characters such as the man in Tête d'homme seem to have their feet firmly planted in the Seventeenth Century, a notion emphasised both by the hair and by the ruff of his clothing. At the same time, the means in which this possibly swash-buckling personality from days of yore has been captured by Picasso reveals emphatically twentieth-century credentials. The face has been created from a turbulent mass of brushwork that results in rich globules of oil alongside vibrant swirls of paint, revealing the artist's own vigour and passion as he put brush to canvas. The face comprises bold dashes of paint, arcing strokes that define the cheek-bones, annotation-like cedillas of black which outline the eyes, themselves reminiscent of the stylisations of ancient Egyptian statuary and friezes. This is a crucible, a melting pot of ideas and of creativity. The pulsing energy of the picture is as visible in the swirls of the man's hair as it is in the flashes of raw colour seen at the edges of his head, the intense turquoise and yellow glimpsed through the dominant grisaille.
From the mid-1960s onwards, a menagerie of seventeenth-century characters invaded Picasso's pictures, pulling the artist along in the wake of their fantastic imaginary adventures. Picasso found himself tapping into a well of creativity and inspiration as these figments rushed from his brush onto the canvas. A great range of subjects had inspired him, from Alexandre Dumas' Les trois mousquetaires to William Shakespeare. With the pointed moustache and slight turn of the head emphasising one eye more than the other, Tête d'homme also bears a strong resemblance to Philippe de Champaigne's portrayals of Cardinal Richelieu, for instance the central image of his triple portrait, again linking the figure to the Musketeers and their arch rival. Jacqueline told André Malraux, though, that many of these figures had instead emerged when Picasso had returned to studying Rembrandt (see A. Malraux, Picasso's Mask, New York, 1976, p. 4). As Picasso himself had explained some time earlier, 'Every painter takes himself for Rembrandt' (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto & London, 1964, p. 51). Looking at Tête d'homme, the truth of this relative to Picasso is clear: this could be the modern descendent of the self-portraits in which the Dutch Old Master had traced the gradual shifts of his appearance over the span of his life, just as Picasso himself would do. This, then, appears to be a painting about painters, and therefore about painting. For Picasso, the presence of a bearded man related his images to Rembrandt and also to his own father, another artist - and indeed, another painter whose own legacy cast a long shadow and needed to be tackled. Similarly, the character shown in Tête d'homme may be a reflection of the Golden Age of painting in Picasso's native Spain, reflecting the appearance of such figures as Diego Velasquez and El Greco.
The force of the appearance en masse of the various characters in Picasso's paintings during this period would lead to one of the most important post-war exhibitions of his work. After Christian Zervos and his wife Yvonne were granted a display of Tête d'homme and its fellow paintings, they became the architects of this exhibition, coinciding with the Avignon Festival. Zervos recalled the initial parade of pictures and his and his wife's reactions to them when they saw them in 1969:
'Questions crowded around these figures. We were compelled to ask ourselves: Where did Picasso acquire the secret endowing his characters with permanence and grandeur? What was the driving force that made them grow and ripen in such a singular fashion? What were the powers that allowed the artist to lend his figures intangible qualities? How did he manage to sustain the plenitude of their forms? We became intensely absorbed in the task of penetrating the mystery of these characters and divining the secret plans whereby Picasso managed to impose an ever-renewed order' (C. Zervos, 'Pablo Picasso: 1969-1970', pp. 292-94, in J. Richardson, ed., Picasso: Mosqueteros, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 293).
Showing only pictures from 1969 and the beginning of 1970, this show, which featured Tête d'homme, took place in the ancient splendour of the medieval Palais des Papes in Avignon. There, scores of Picasso's images of painters, musketeers and lovers stared down from the walls, a gleefully brash horde of portraits filled with a wit and vitality that banished any of the staidness sometimes associated with the rows of Old Master portraits often seen in historic buildings. The tension between the old and the new was accentuated by the original display of the paintings in Avignon, which were shown frameless against the ancient stone walls, a riot of colour and activity in those restrained environs.
Yvonne Zervos died before the exhibition opened; Christian Zervos, the eminent publisher, author and collector who would compile the catalogue raisonné of Picasso's works, himself undertook the hang at Avignon. He also wrote the preface to the catalogue, discussing these pictures, which overspill with life and character. For Zervos, the flood of Picasso's pictures in 1969 reflected his prolific energy, as he channelled an unfettered creativity into pictures such as Tête d'homme. This was a vital antidote to the aimlessness that he perceived in the artistic avant garde of the time, where concerns about styles and materials were leading to creative impasses and empty gestures. Picasso's brash, brazen figures like Tête d'homme and its fellows showed an alternative, wittily embracing the past in order to bring into existence something new. Discussing these pictures and their unfettered vitality, Picasso told Pierre Daix, 'If I'm painting better, it's because I've had some success in liberating myself... And every so often, there is just that little something extra' (Picasso, quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, trans. O. Emmet, New York, 1993, p. 365).