PABLO PICASSO, TÊTE D’HOMME ET NU ASSIS, 1964
1964 was a productive year for Pablo Picasso. Even as he turned 83 years old, Picasso was so consumed by his work that Christian Zervos’s catalogue raisonné dedicated an entire volume to 1964. At the center of this active period was a series of paintings in which he explored the recurring theme of the artist and model—a series which simplified the complex relationship therein to an economy of gestural marks. As Michel Leiris has noted, whether depicted as a musician, sculptor, or within the “fictitious studio-scene showing a character we can take to be Pablo himself, sitting at an easel opposite a woman in the nonchalant pose of a model,”[i] the artist is a consistent and fruitful motif throughout Picasso’s oeuvre. The present work, Tête d'homme et nu assis, is a striking example from the 1964 series. Here Picasso incorporates a timeless interpretation of the origin of painting with an awareness of his own presence in the studio, and a specific regard for his subject—Jacqueline Roque, the artist’s last and longest-serving muse. Just as Picasso was acutely aware of his performative role as an artist and of his studio as a stage-like setting, he was also engrossed with art history itself, and looked to the Modernist canon as a script to be reinterpreted.
Throughout the decade prior to painting the present work, Picasso was deeply absorbed in studying the achievements of his art historical predecessors and peers. Curator Marie-Laure Bernadac writes, “The period from 1954 to 1963 is entirely dominated by the painting of the past, and by a review of his own painterly resources and those of his contemporaries, Matisse and Braque. Picasso ceaselessly analysed, decomposed and recomposed other men’s masterpieces, digesting them to make them his own.”[ii] One of the historical paintings that perhaps most captivated Picasso in these years was Manet’s seminal Le déjeuner sur l'herbe from 1863—already almost a century old by the time Picasso set out to paint it. Notorious in its own time as an affront to the traditions of academic painting—and as a scandalous splicing of a contemporary scene with a neoclassical nude, who is suddenly capable of returning the viewer’s gaze—Manet’s canvas appeared to Picasso in the 1950s and ‘60’s still radical and ripe for reenvisioning.
In the Tate’s 1988 Late Picasso exhibition catalogue, Picasso's biographer John Richardson delves into the kinship the artist felt with Manet, and how he sought to rouse reactions even more visceral than those the French painter received:
“Given that Picasso had an instinctive grasp of art history, and a very clear idea of where he, Picasso, stood in relation to the past and the present, he had no problem identifying with Manet as the first modern artist, one who had set out to shock the bourgeoisie and had been pilloried for his pains, one who had been denounced for ‘shamelessness’ and ‘vulgarity’... And he set out to paint nudes who would be far more threatening, far more shocking than Manet’s.”[iii]
Picasso’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe d'après Manet series occupied him for more than two years around 1960, and in each of the 27 paintings from this body of work, he incessantly renegotiated the image toward the relationship between painter and sitter, toward a depiction of the act of painting itself.
“He returned to his point of departure: the scene of enactment, as it were, the fundamental battleground, the face-to-face confrontation between the painter and the model.”[iv]
At the time he painted Tête d’homme et nu assis, Picasso had devoted nearly a decade to working from art historical sources, and he began to focus his attention back to the living model in his studio:
“By 1963 painting had been his model for ten years, in which he had analysed and taken apart the paintings of other artists, and in which he had also taken sculpture a great leap forward through the development of planar sculpture. Having now done all he could with subjects of general import and multi-figure compositions, he returned to his point of departure: the scene of enactment, as it were, the fundamental battleground, the face-to-face confrontation between the painter and the model. This was the decisive turning point of the period.”[v]
Of all of his muses, Picasso dedicated the most of his canvases to depicting Jacqueline Roque. The artist first met Roque in 1953 in Vallauris, where he maintained a sculpture studio and where the pair would eventually marry in 1961. Roque’s distinguished features began to appear in Picasso’s paintings of the mid-1950s and can be recognized in hundreds of works from his final two decades. The serial nature of these works was undergirded by Roque’s constant presence in the painter’s studio, and by the artist’s wrangling with themes of male desire and the female nude.
“The clumsiness of Picasso’s very late paintings is disingenuous to the point of deceptiveness. Technique, said Picasso, is important, ‘on condition that one has so much… that it completely ceases to exist.’ There is nothing hit-or-miss about his seemingly hit-or-miss style. The point was to preserve the directness and spontaneity of his first rush of inspiration, to be as free and loose and expressive as possible. In old age Picasso had finally discovered how to take every liberty with space and form, colour and light, fact and fiction, time and place, not to mention identity.”[vi]
“A dot for the breast, a line for the painter, five spots of colour for the foot, a few strokes of pink and green… That’s enough, isn’t it? What else do I need to do? What can I add to that? It has all been said.”[vii]
The present painting, done in Mougins December 3, 1964, is one from a 1963-64 series done upon a number of themes that long defined Picasso’s career: male desire and the female nude, the artist and the model, and modes of representation. Picasso first began his The Artist and his Model series in 1963 and by late 1964 he had started to work with this specific composition of the male artist, represented by only a totem-like head, with his gaze set upon the seated, diminutive female nude. Picasso’s Tête d’homme et nu assis incorporates sparse and highly stylized figuration that draws out the tensions between the figurative and the abstract, between how the world is perceived and how painting mediates the perception. Bernadac terms this style Picasso’s “ideographic writing” and explains that it “is a way of abolishing the distance between the thing that is to be said and the way in which it is shown, so that the image is the object… Picasso succeeds [here] in painting by drawing.”[viii] Picasso’s simplified compositions use swift, concise brushstrokes to convey psychologically complex images. Commenting on these succinct gestures at the time, Picasso told writer Hélène Parmelin, “A dot for the breast, a line for the painter, five spots of colour for the foot, a few strokes of pink and green… That’s enough, isn’t it? What else do I need to do? What can I add to that? It has all been said.”[ix] As Bernadac concludes, “The aesthetic and formal revolution that took place in those last years... was as fundamental in its own way as the Cubist revolution.”[x]
i. Michel Leiris, “A Genius without a Pedestal,” in Late Picasso: Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, Prints, 1953-1972 (London: The Tate Gallery, 1988), 13.
ii. Marie-Laure Bernadac, “Picasso, 1953-1972: Painting as Model,” in Late Picasso, 54.
iii. John Richardson, “L’Epoque Jacqueline,” in Late Picasso, 41-42.
iv. Bernadac, 73.
vi. Richardson, 42.
vii. Pablo Picasso, quoted in Brigitte Léal, et al., The Ultimate Picasso (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 464.
viii. Bernadac, 85.
ix. Picasso, in Léal.
x. Bernadac, 49.
Above: David Duncan, Pablo Picasso and his wife Jacqueline, La Californie, 1960 © David Duncan