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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, except for a few corridas at Fréjus (the last in 1970), he seldom left the immediate neighborhood even to go to Vauvenargues. Nôtre Dame de Vie and more especially his studios became Picasso’s entire world, a microcosm of the universe, what Gert Schiff in the pioneering preface to the catalog of this exhibition calls Picasso’s Theatrum Mundi.

In the absence of outside stimuli, the pattern changed. Picasso’s work did not chronicle his day-to-day life so much as his fantasies. Here he drew on his novelist’s imagination and his incomparable memory—memories of early years in Spain in particular—and on books: Spanish classics, most of French literature, thrillers, English authors, particularly Swift and Sterne, American ones like Hawthorne and Melville, art books of every kind, books that accumulated in piles all over the floor, never on shelves. A gold mine of iconographical clues lies hidden in this eclectic library.

Age had not mellowed Picasso’s disposition, and in the last ten years of his life he had good reason to be gloomy. He was bitter that his former constituency had forsaken him, especially now that he had made a major breakthrough and was doing what he felt was work of great innovative power. He was bitter, too, that young artists had gone after new gods, false gods—Marcel Duchamp in particular. Picasso had never taken Duchamp seriously, his camp followers even less so. “They’ve looted Duchamp’s store,” he said of the Neo-Dadaists, “but all they’ve done is change the wrapping paper.” And on another occasion: “When somebody wants to say something good about [abstract art], he talks of music…. I think that’s why I don’t like music.”

No less upsetting, some of those closest to him were at best lukewarm in their support, at worst treacherous. Picasso’s dealer, Kahnweiler, may have been way ahead of the game before 1914, but by the 1960s he no longer understood what Picasso’s paintings were about. “But what can one expect?” Picasso joked bitterly, “He’s at least a hundred years older than I am.” And then Douglas Cooper, who had served with such honor as Picasso’s Falstaff, did himself in with his idol by writing a vituperative article which dismissed the Avignon exhibition of 1970 as “gribouillages“—the doodlings of a senile and impotent man. If they weren’t defecting, old friends seemed to be dying—that too was unpardonable. And then there was the onset of impotence, the imminence of death.

Fortunately these dark clouds had a beneficial side to them. Picasso’s work went from strength to strength. The early Sixties were strong but the late Sixties were even stronger. Meanwhile Jacqueline was proving the ideal wife—patient, perceptive, formidably protective. And Picasso was proving amazingly vigorous for a man of his great age—hard of hearing but sharp as ever in mind and eye and spirit. And although much of the art world had drifted away from him, Picasso could still count on some devoted supporters. Chief among these were Edouard Pignon, with whom he ceaselessly talked about painting, and his Polish wife, Hélène Parmelin, whose books about Picasso dans l’intimité from the late Forties up to his death are of the greatest value as records of a period too recent to have been properly chronicled. Parmelin is the only writer who has succeeded in catching the exact ring—the paradox and pyrotechnics—of Picasso’s talk, and in evoking the Sturm und Drang no less than the fun and games of the artist’s everyday life.1

The other principal habitués of Nôtre Dame de Vie were the Crommelynck brothers, Piero and Aldo; they not only worked on the sets of prints—which are among the glories of the artist’s last phase—they were like a second family to him. The Crommelyncks, their wives and children, figure in numerous prints and drawings of the period, and I think that Aldo’s extraordinary eagle-like looks inspired the eagle-like appearance of some of the musketeers and the phallic noses of kissing couples (profiles and tongues locked into each other as tightly as bits of a puzzle) of the 1960s. Besides their Paris atelier, the Crommelyncks had an engraving studio in an old bakery at Mougins, and most days, when they were in the Midi, they would drop in on Picasso around teatime to see if their services were required. More often than not they were, and they would stay on preparing the plates, pulling trial proofs, helping with corrections until well into the night.

One cannot overestimate the role that these young printers and their attractive wives played not just in Picasso’s art but in his daily life. There were of course other friends who continued to visit the studio until shortly before Picasso died, not least that painfully good writer Michel Leiris, and his wife, Zette (Kahnweiler’s partner), as well as David Duncan, the artist’s court photographer, Swiss dealers like the Gérald Cramers and the Rosengarts, Pierre Daix from Paris, and Roland Penrose from London, and Spanish cronies who kept him in touch with his roots and his past.

On my last visit to Nôtre Dame de Vie, Picasso was in a talkative mood. He got on to a promising subject—the mundane things that affected his work. Picasso said that anyone who bothered to check the dates would discover that his bullfight subjects were usually executed on a Sunday, the traditional day of the corrida. As compensation for not being at the bullring, he would find himself enacting on paper the spectacle he was missing. And because Picasso’s imagination was always harnessed to the facts of his life, the scenes would usually be specific, often set in the Roman arena at Arles; and the silhouette of the toreador—tall, elegant, intent—would usually correspond to Luis Miguel Dominguín.

At the end of his life, Picasso said, this compensatory pattern no longer applied, at least to bullfighting, for the simple reason that he had virtually ceased going to corridas. Almost the only tauromachic references are some paintings of toreros—kin to his musketeers—dressed in the style of Goya’s Tauromaquia, but these have more to do with the artist’s feelings about the Spanish tradition than with bullfighting. The bull—that symbol of sexual potency—has all but vanished from Picasso’s work. Nor does the bullring figure in the artist’s last tauromachic painting: the large seated figure, done after a bullfight at Fréjus in October 1970, of a black matador from Mozambique. Did this masterpiece represent a conscious farewell to the bullring? Probably because Picasso thought so highly of it that he hung it in a place of honor at Nôtre Dame de Vie, close to his great Matisse Still Life with Oranges.

Meanwhile Picasso had found a curious substitute for bullfights. To distract herself during the long hours when her husband was working, Jacqueline had bought a television set. This acquisition had little appeal for the artist until the day he discovered Catch. “Catch” is short for “catch-as-catch-can,” and it is “Franglais”—one could hardly say French—for all-in wrestling. To some extent its rituals parody the rituals of the bullring. There is violence but it is more farcical than solemn; there are fetishistic costumes but they are more comic-strip than hieratic; and there are sexual overtones, but they are more honky-tonk than darkly sacrificial. Picasso, who had always been a devotee of the circus, especially enjoyed the clowning aspects of Catch. The more grotesque the antics, the more pleased he would be, especially if there were more than two entangled participants. To Jacqueline’s surprise, Picasso got hooked on Catch. Catch was the only thing that could keep him from the studio. Pignon was also a Catch fan, and the two artists would keep each other abreast of forthcoming bouts.

As I said earlier, the circumstances of Picasso’s life are always mirrored in his art. Catch is a case in point: it inspired several images in the late work, drawings and prints rather than paintings—images in which the figures seem to be wrestling but often turn out to be making love. But it is not just the tangled limbs of the lovers that are redolent of wrestling; it is the general air of burlesque violence—the Three Musketeers as seen by Mack Sennett—that flavors the late graphics with a surreal hint of Catch.

  1. 1

    Hélène Parmelin, Picasso: The Artist and His Model (Abrams, 1965).

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