The Catch in the Late Picasso

Picasso: The Last Years, 1963–1973 Gallery of New York University, January 23 to March 9, 1984

an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, sponsored by the Grey Art

Picasso: The Last Years, 1963–1973

by Gert Schiff
Braziller/Grey Art Gallery, 143 pp., $17.50 (paper)

I paint the way some people write their autobiography,” Picasso told Françoise Gilot. Likewise Dora Maar—another of the artist’s mistresses—said that the transformations in Picasso’s style reflected transformations in his private life. When the woman changed, everything else changed: not just the art, but the house Picasso lived in, the poet he would have around, the circle of friends, and the dog. The last time one of these transformations took place was in 1954, after Françoise Gilot had walked out and the artist had taken up with Jacqueline Roque. In honor of this new relationship, Picasso moved to a grandiose villa back of Cannes; he reappointed Jean Cocteau as his poet laureate, saw less of Parisian intellectuals and communists, and took up with an assortment of bullfighters, photographers, printers, and potters who were less engagés. He also came into possession of a dachsund called Lump.

The coincidence of his new mistress’s resemblance to one of the figures in Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger had an Orientalizing effect on Picasso’s style, as witness bland (for Picasso) studio scenes depicting Jacqueline in a djellaba against a background of palm trees and belle époque fenestration. Maybe because the artist was more contented—or less discontented—than he had been in years, this was not one of his most inventive periods. However, clouds soon began to gather. Complications in Picasso’s work meant complications in his life: Jacqueline was recurrently ill; the Hungarian revolution had soured Picasso on communism; a seventy-fifth birthday had been most unwelcome; and high-rise buildings and paparazzi were encroaching on his privacy. It was time to move away from Cannes. In 1958, Douglas Cooper and I put Picasso on to buying the Château de Vauvenargues on the slopes of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, but he used this primarily as a country retreat.

Finally in March 1961, Picasso and Jacqueline celebrated their marriage and installed themselves, a few months later, in a handsome, well-protected villa on a hill outside Mougins. Besides having an idyllic terraced setting, the villa along with the area surrounding it had been named after a neighboring pilgrimage chapel—Nôtre Dame de Vie—and this certainly commended it to someone whose greatest fear was death. The house lived up to its auspicious name. Picasso spent the last ten years of his life there, working on what amounted to a whole new oeuvre. Although derided by most pundits of the period, this has now emerged—thanks to the recent exhibition at the Guggenheim—as a phenomenal finale to a phenomenal career.

The claustrophobic nature of so many of the late works—huge staring figures that threaten us—reflects the claustrophobic life that great fame and great age obliged Picasso and his young wife to lead. The audiences on a regal scale that had been a regular ritual at La Californie dwindled to visits by a few close friends and associates. Apart from going to Paris for an operation, Picasso gave up traveling. Indeed …

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