On 23 May 1973, a large exhibition was opened at the Palais des Papes in Avignon comprising works from the past three years by Pablo Picasso, each one selected by the artist himself. Tête d'homme was one of the works in this show which, by an accident of fate, was to become a posthumous survey of Picasso's recent works, as he died on 8 April that year, after the exhibition had been organised but before it had opened. In this way, the show revealed the artist taking his final bow. It was only too appropriate, then, that many of the pictures in the exhibition featured the heads of men who were often analogues for the artist himself. This was the case with the harlequins, matadors, musketeers and artists who populated a number of the pictures, including Tête d'homme. In this work, which Picasso had painted on 19 January 1972, the hat appears to recall some of the floppy headwear worn by Picasso's dandyish musketeers; at the same time, it echoes the figures inspired by Vincent van Gogh who populated some of Picasso's pictures, especially following his move to the South of France where the Dutch artist himself had lived.
Picasso would have been gratified at some of the controversy that the 1973 exhibition in Avignon caused. His recent paintings such as Tête d'homme were often filled with a palette that was almost provocative in its deliberate refusal to pander to public tastes. Instead, Picasso revealed the extent to which he was continuing to push the boundaries of art, taking painting to pieces in order to reconstruct it in new and unexpected ways. His emphasis on the processes involved in creating Tête d'homme is underscored by the way in which he has contrasted thick, gestural brushstrokes with areas left deliberately in reserve, which add to the luminosity of the figure's head.
Picasso's exploration of painting came from deep in the core of his own existence: by the time he created Tête d'homme, he was was a living legend, identified with figurative painting by generations. While figuration and facture, at each end of the artistic spectrum, may have been disregarded by artists who had espoused either abstraction or Pop, Picasso was continuing to probe its relevance, and was doing so in a manner that also explored his own life and legacy. So, in Tête d'homme, his own dark eyes seem to penetrate the viewer. In addition, his entire head is shaped in a manner that recalls a painter's palette, highlighting his own identification with his artistic vocation.
Looking at Tête d'homme, the man is wearing a hat and a richly-decorated top. Are the stripes indicative of the rich materials worn by the toreros who featured in a number of Picasso's works from the period, or do they echo the iconic shirts that he himself wore so often, and with which he would even become identified? The hat, which may recall the musketeers, is at odds with the stubble-like facial hair. This implies that it may be the sort of straw hat that Picasso showed in some of his fictitious projections of Van Gogh, in which he would sometimes show him embracing outdoors, sometimes looking out from the canvas. Certainly, the arresting stare of the figure in Tête d'homme recalls Van Gogh's celebrated and penetrating self-portraits, several of which featured similar straw hats. For Picasso, during this period, Van Gogh had become a spectral companion; he would project images of self-portraits onto the walls of his studio and cherished a photocopy of the clipping announcing in a local newspaper that Van Gogh had cut off his own ear. Many of Picasso's contemporaries had died by the time Tête d'homme was painted, and he was looking increasingly to the artists of the past in order to find companions and inspiration.
John Richardson has pointed out, in terms relevant to Tête d'homme, that the example of Van Gogh became all the more vital to Picasso in his later years as, instead of seeking to tap into the vision of the artiste maudit as he had during his Blue Period, he sought a more expressionistic means of painting: 'What he wanted was to enlist Van Gogh's dark spirits on his side, to make his art as instinctive and "convulsive" as possible... I suspect that Picasso also wanted to galvanise 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' (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, 'L’Epoque Jacqueline,’ pp. 17-48, in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, pp. 32-34).
Van Gogh, then, served as a precursor to the frenetic painting style so in evidence in the curving, vigorous brushstrokes of the shirt in Tête d'homme, the heavily-worked background and the stabbed stubble of the face. At the same time, Van Gogh's tragic death doubtless also informed Picasso during this period, during which he was becoming increasingly aware of his own mortality. Tête d'homme was painted some months before the haunting death's-head-like self-portrait that Picasso created and showed to Pierre Daix, which resulted in a number of skull-like images. Yet already, in its whiteness and the contrast with the dark cavities of the eyes, there is a hint of that in this earlier painting. The gaze of the man in Tête d'homme is both endearing and imploring, as though he were conscious of his own vulnerability. This results in Tête d'homme appearing as a poignant image of the artist's projected sense of self during that period; it is a telling reflection of its success in Picasso's own eyes that he selected it for what was to become his posthumous show in Avignon the following year.