“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.
Not that I am going to justify the title of this article by magnifying out of all proportion the fact that Picasso’s lovers look like wrestlers. On the contrary, I would prefer to make the somewhat Jamesian point that the only real catch in the late work is that there is no real catch; that there is, by the same token, no real sex; and that these paintings, drawings, and prints are really about something quite different: the mysterious nature of the artistic process.
But let me go back for a moment to Picasso’s statement about the way bullfight drawings compensated him for missed pleasures, because this has an obvious relevance to the artist’s sex life, or lack of one.2 In the circumstances, the raunchy subjects of the last decade (cf., the earlier bullfight scenes) must be seen as a form of compensation for an inability to have sex. But does this entitle us to claim, as some critics have done, that Picasso’s baleful nudes flaunting their sexual parts are allegories of impotence? I don’t think so, for this negative view leaves out of account some very positive aspects of Picasso’s final works.
For while Picasso’s sexual powers may have waned, his artistic ones had if anything done the reverse. Whatever he may have felt about the onset of impotence, the compensatory pattern that the artist himself described enabled him to see sex and art as metaphors for each other. The tools of the artist’s trade—his brushes—became surrogates for sexual parts to be used on a canvas that was a surrogate for the model. Some years ago I asked a mutual friend to find out what that great dancer Lydia Lopokova might remember about Picasso in his days with the Diaghilev ballet. One incident had stuck in her mind. The curtain was about to go up on, I think, Tricorne, when Picasso decided to make some last-minute alterations to Lopokova’s costume. “As he painted my bodice,” she said, “he tickled my breasts with his brush.” Lopokova apparently told him to behave, that she wasn’t one of his canvases or one of his girls.
Forty years later Picasso did much the same thing, only vicariously, as witness numerous canvases done in 1963 and 1964 in which an artist uses his brushes on the painted image of a model as if he were making love to her; and in which he often blurs the distinction between the “real” model and the “painted” model. Time and gain a phallic thumb or phallic bunch of brushes stuck through the hole in a scrotum-shaped palette makes a pun on the artist’s sexual parts. Time and again the artist literally pokes the model with his brush. Instead of seeing these paintings as allegories of impotence, one could say that impotence had shown the artist how the creative and procreative processes can be seen as standing for each other.
Here I would like to emphasize that such flights of phallic fancy are not manifestations of the artist’s unconscious—or, for that matter, mine—but intentional pictorial puns that make provocative points. Sometimes the pun is a linguistic one transformed into pictorial terms, as when the clothed model is painted with a cat in her lap. Even punctuation is brought into play: a few months before he died, Picasso promised Hélène Parmelin a drawing, executed, he said, “par téléphone.” What could he mean? The drawing turned out to be aural in that it represented, besides a self-portrait and a horse, a girl whose sexual parts take the form of an exclamation mark—a neat comment on Parmelin’s telephonic style, and an ingenious aural/visual pun.
So much for the not very sexy sexual imagery that has discouraged popular acceptance of Picasso’s late work. Now for the other controversial issue: the artist’s flagrant borrowing from the old and not-so-old masters—Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Manet, Ingres among them. Certain critics have seen this—as they did Picasso’s sexual obsessiveness—as a symptom of failing powers and an impoverished imagination. I hope to show that it is nothing of the sort.
Why did Picasso lock horns with one great painter after another? Was it a trial of strength—arm wrestling? Was it out of admiration or mockery, irony or homage, Oedipal rivalry or Spanish chauvinism? Each case was different, but there is always an element of identification, an element of cannibalism involved—two elements that, as Freud pointed out, are part of the same process. Indeed Freud described the process of identification as “psychic cannibalism”: You identified with someone; you cannibalized them; you assumed their powers. How accuately this describes what Picasso was up to in his last years.
Picasso also cannibalized his friends, as I know from experience. He would switch on the magnetism and let his ego feed on whatever emotional response—critical understanding or silly starstruck enthusiasm—could be extracted from his companions. A day spent with the great man could thus induce spiritual exhaustion. Picasso cannibalized great artists in much the same way. He engaged them in mortal—or rather, immortal—combat, and devoured them one after another. With their powers added to his, this very small, very frail, very old man felt himself more powerful than any other artist in history, so powerful indeed that he embarked on a one-man apotheosis of post-Renaissance painting. The irony is that although Picasso was the most famous artist in the world, and a regular exhibitor, hardly anyone understood what he was doing.
Of all the artists with whom Picasso identified, Van Gogh is very seldom cited but is probably the one who meant most to him in later years. He talked of him as his patron saint, talked of him with intense admiration and compassion, never with any of his habitual irony or mockery. Van Gogh, like Cézanne earlier in Picasso’s life, was sacrosanct—“the greatest of them all,” he said. Hélène Parmelin has described how Picasso badgered the director of the museum in Arles to get him a photostat of a presscutting, the only documentary record of Van Gogh chopping off his ear and giving it to Rachel, the prostitute. He, who seldom framed anything, was going to frame it, he said. Parmelin also touches on another incident that I witnessed. Apropos a certain dealer who coerced his artists, or their widows, into exchanging a painting for a Rolls-Royce, Picasso said rather bleakly, “Can you imagine Van Gogh in a Rolls-Royce?” It became a standing joke: “Can you imagine Velázquez in a Rolls?” The answer I seem to remember was, yes. But Van Gogh never—not even a deux-chevaux.
At first glance Van Gogh does not manifest himself very overtly in Picasso’s work, certainly not as overtly as Manet or Velázquez. But that is largely because his influence is not a superficial stylistic question of borrowed compositions or anecdotal trappings, but a matter of deep spiritual identification. True, some of the landscapes or seascapes of 1967 recall the tornado turbulence, if not the ominousness, of Van Gogh’s terminal Cornfields. However, it is the paintings of a redbearded, straw-hatted artist at his easel (1963–1964), with their generic resemblance to Van Gogh’s self-portraits (one of which Picasso used to project, floor to ceiling, on the studio wall) that reveal the extent of the old Spaniard’s debt to the doomed Dutchman.
Why, one wonders, should a great artist want to paint self-portraits in the guise of another great artist? Does this mean that Picasso had lost some sense of his own identity? The answer has to be yes, but there is a positive aspect to this negative phenomenon. In losing your identity to someone else you gain a measure of control over them. These proxy self-portraits suggest that Picasso was out to assume something of Van Gogh’s identity and by osmosis something of the Protestant Angst, which is what sometimes makes northern Europeans so attractive—and sometimes so unattractive—to southern ones.
In his somewhat self-pitying Blue Period days Picasso had thought of Van Gogh as a kindred spirit—the quintessential “peintre maudit.” At the end of his life Picasso’s attitude to the Dutchman was less sentimental. What he wanted was to enlist Van Gogh’s dark spirits on his side, to make his art as instinctive and “convulsive” as possible—something that African art had helped him achieve in 1907, something that the Surrealists had helped him do in the Twenties. I suspect that Picasso also wanted to galvanize his paint surface—not always the most thrilling aspect of his work of the Fifties—with some of the Dutchman’s Dionysian fervor. It worked. The surface of the late paintings has a freedom, a plasticity, that was never there before.
Picasso, who was nothing if not detached about his achievements, was convinced that these late canvases were more expressive, more instinctive, than any of his previous work. Despite a few unresolved examples, this claim deserves to be taken seriously and not dismissed as an old man’s delusion. Death proved to be a great goad. The more one studies these late works, the more one realizes that they are—like Van Gogh’s terminal paintings—a supreme affirmation of life in the teeth of death. Knowing Picasso, I am sure he felt that he, too, was being cut off in his prime.
If Van Gogh became an explosive spirit lurking in the depths of Picasso’s psyche, how should we see Rembrandt, the other great Dutchman whose presence presides over the late work? More I think as an all-powerful God-the-father figure whom Picasso had to internalize before he died. Since Gert Schiff’s preface to the Guggenheim catalog and Janie L. Cohen’s recent article in Arts Magazine have both analyzed the impact of Rembrandt on Picasso,3 I will not go over the same ground again except to comment on Cohen’s suggestion that Picasso must have worked from Ludwig Munz’s book on Rembrandt’s etchings. She is doubtless correct, although I couldn’t find a copy of Munz when I went through Picasso’s books on a recent visit to Nôtre Dame de Vie. What I did find was a set of Otto Benesch’s six-volume catalog of Rembrandt’s drawings published by the Phaidon Press (London) in 1954. And these are apparently what engaged the artist’s attention during his convalescence from an ulcer operation in December 1966. Benesch’s catalog opens up some interesting leads, but I am less interested in the art-historical game of hunting down stylistic parallels than in trying to determine what Picasso’s obsession with Rembrandt was all about.
The artist has supplied us with a clue in the form of his famous Oedipal boast—first published by Jaime Sabartes (Picasso’s secretary) and unquestioningly accepted by every subsequent biographer—that his father “gave me his paints and his brushes and never went back to painting.” That Don José equipped his prodigy of a son with the tools of his trade goes without saying; as for the rest of the claim, it is the more interesting for being false—wishful thinking. For there is incontrovertible evidence that, far from abdicating in favor of his son, Don José continued to paint: every year, for instance, he portrayed the pigeon of the year for the Colombofila Society of Barcelona, of which he was president. Given Picasso’s fantasy—a fantasy he came to believe—about this symbolic paternal gift, it is surely possible that he entertained a similar fantasy about a far more formidable antecedent, Rembrandt, and that he was out to appropriate the Dutchman’s “brushes.” Just as Picasso used the joke that he had repaid his debt to his pigeon-fancying father many times over in kind—that is to say, in pigeons—were not his late works a way of paying Rembrandt back: in musketeers? For Picasso’s ubiquitous musketeers could not have a more Rembrandtian provenance; they had stepped straight out of The Nightwatch, which the artist used a slide machine to project in all its vastness on his studio wall.
“Every artist takes himself for Rembrandt,” Picasso once told Françoise Gilot, and this is truer of nobody than of himself. Picasso repeatedly inscribed books, especially ones to his Swiss friends the Rosengarts, with a sketch of a self-portrait of Rembrandt over his signature as if to advertise the degree of this identification. And long before Rembrandtian references became a regular feature of his work, Picasso used to say that the Dutchman was his kind of painter, that he infinitely preferred the Dutch to the Italian masters, whom he regarded as too “pompier,” too “artistic” (a very pejorative word in his vocabulary). The Dutch knew how to rub people’s noses in real life. It was also my impression that Picasso identified with Rembrandt because he felt that both had suffered a similar fate in old age. From being enormously popular chefs d’école both had turned reclusive; both were accused of not finishing their work; both lost out to new gods.
And then, as Cohen suggests, Picasso identified with Rembrandt “as an aging artist. Rembrandt’s pictorial identification of his own aging process as seen in his self-portraits was surely not lost on the aging Picasso.” This assumption is surely correct but I think we are entitled to go a step further and see Picasso’s identification with Rembrandt in the light of art-historical concepts of a great late period. Picasso knew all about the almost religious awe which certain art historians feel for the late works of certain artists. And he was equally aware that his own late work was seen by critics as a disintegration rather than an apotheosis—not high-minded enough for fashionable canonization.
In the circumstances what was more natural than that Picasso should identify with a great artist whose late work was rejected by his former followers, then vindicated by posterity, and ultimately revered for being centuries ahead of its time by modern critics? And what more natural than that Picasso, who saw himself as the greatest artist of his time, should lay claim, as if by right, to the mantle of one of the greatest artists of all time?
As for the various nineteenth-century masters included in Picasso’s pantheon, the most consistent favorite for more than seventy years was of course Ingres. Since a recent lecture by Robert Rosenblum demonstrated for the first time the full extent of Ingres’s influence on Picasso’s vision, I will not go into that again;4 or into the many Ingresque references in the late work, such as the ingenious variations done in 1968 on Ingres’s Bain Turc; or into the way Picasso, who fifty years earlier had invoked Ingres to preside over his change from cubism to neoclassicism, used Ingres in order to get even with one of his least revered masters, Raphael. These iconographical parallels are interesting, but more interesting is a less obvious link between the later development of Picasso and Ingres: the way each of them went in for an open-ended way of working based on a similar, peculiarly personal, sense of the past. Interesting because this link helps to explain why, only a month before he died, Picasso talked so obsessively to Pignon about Ingres. “One must paint like Ingres,” he said. “We must be like Ingres.” Picasso certainly wasn’t referring to the artist’s academicism or the neoclassicism that had once beguiled him, even less to Ingres’s preposterous airs as a chef d’école. And since Picasso specifically mentioned painting, he cannot have had Ingres’s passion for drawing in mind, although the conviction that drawing was, as it were, the armature of painting had been a lifelong link. What exactly did Picasso mean?
A plausible answer is to hand, thanks to the recent Ingres exhibition at Louisville, Kentucky, and Fort Worth, Texas—an exhibition that was organized from a radically new angle. Hitherto Ingres has been thought of as a great painter who had an unfortunate habit of watering down the historical figure compositions for which he was famous by churning out replica after replica—in the case of his wonderful Paolo and Francesca composition, some twenty paintings, drawings, and prints executed over thirty-five years. As a result Ingres scholars have tended to regard all but the earlier versions as mechanical copies of no great merit. Marjorie B. Cohn, who wrote a preface to the catalog of the recent exhibition, has turned this traditional view upside down. She has shown that, far from involving successive stereotypes—copies of copies of copies—Ingres’s approach was often a means of perfecting, of distilling his original image, of making it more expressive, formally, stylistically, anecdotally. When Miss Cohn says Ingres’s “canvas might be completed but the picture never was,” couldn’t she be referring to Picasso? And the same goes for her statement that “the aged Ingres committed himself to himself, in a grand disregard of the conventional expectations of the ‘original’ artist.”5 How true of Picasso no less than of Ingres!
Historians may have lost sight of this aspect of Ingres’s development. Not, however, Picasso, who knew Ingres’s work by heart and was certainly aware of how it applied to himself, of how his own oeuvre—like most of Ingres’s—has to be seen not as a succession of finished works but as a series of series, an open-ended process. So open-ended that, according to Picasso, “in finishing a work you kill it”—those are his very words—and you also kill something in yourself.
The nature of this ongoing process became clear to me when Picasso showed a group of friends, including myself, the impressive series of large ink-wash drawings of Jacqueline he had done a day or two before—on November 12, 1960, to be exact. As always he displayed his work as if it were by someone else, analyzing the drawings with detachment that bordered on alienation. Which did we think was the most expressive? This one? Why not that one? We had to weigh our words, because Picasso’s phenomenal recall meant that the answers, foolish or not, might well be recalled months, even years later. What interested us of course was what interested Picasso. “The first in any series,” he said; and then the penultimate one—the one that was still openended, the one before the coup de grâce. But what interested him above all was to study the whole sequence; this way he could follow the—even to him—mysterious workings of his genius, the evolution and transformation of an idea. Hence his meticulous dating and numbering which enabled him to establish what Braque called “les jalons de la récherche,” the stages in his search, the same process we can follow in Ingres’s work, only in very slow motion.
Other striking similarities: the way both Ingres and Picasso transformed their subjects into sculpture and then painted them; and the way both artists regarded their own past in the same light as they regarded the historical past: as an unending source of inspiration. For Ingres and Picasso their own pasts were history. Thus we find Ingres dipping into the repertory of his own work in the same spirit as he dipped into antiquity or the Renaissance. Picasso did much the same but of course went further. We only have to compare Picasso’s famous self-portrait of 1907 in the National Gallery, Prague, with the death’s head self-portrait of June 1972 (one of the last exhibits in the Guggenheim show; see illustrations on facing page and on page 21) to understand how he bounced late works off earlier ones, not because he was a burnt-out case, like Chirico or Chagall, but in order to beat himself at his own game. The Prague picture is in the nature of a manifesto: behold Picasso, the new Messiah of art, it seems to say, Matisse watch out! Sixty-five years later, when Picasso prepared to take leave of the world, how appropriate that he should revert in spirit and style to this symbol of his early breakthrough. The enormous eyes of the ninety-year-old artist still blaze forth defiantly from a mask that is, if anything, even more intransigent than the early one. “Plus ça change….”
Just as he felt free to appropriate whatever he liked from the most disparate sources, Picasso felt free, at the end of his life, to play as many tricks with the time warp as a science-fiction writer. He had no compunction about confronting famous artists and their famous subjects—regardless of century—with one another as well as with figures from his past, from his own life or from fiction. Rembrandt’s Stahlmeesters—or is it the Nightwatch?—have an evening out with a mixed bunch of Degas’s prostitutes and the artist’s girlfriends at Guy de Maupassant’s “Maison Tellier”—or is it the studio at Nôtre Dame de Vie? Sometimes Celestina, the procuress who figures in a famous portrait of the Blue Period, looks on inscrutably, sometimes the pope, sometimes someone who might be Michelangelo. At the very end of his life (1971) the watcher is Degas, and this brings me to another figure who haunts Picasso’s late work.
Gert Schiff and Christian Geelhaar have written perceptively about Picasso’s rapport with Degas.6 Nevertheless, since I helped in a very small way to rekindle Picasso’s interest in this artist’s monotypes, I would like to add a few facts to the record.
In 1958 Maurice Exteens sold the magnificent group of Degas monotypes that his father-in-law, Gustave Pellet, had purchased at the Degas sale to two Parisian dealers, Hector Brame and César de Hauke, publisher of Lemoisne’s catalogue raisonné of Degas’s work. In the collection was a brothel scene, entitled Sur le lit, which I bought for a pittance in view of its eroticism. Shortly after I acquired it, Picasso came to the house I then shared with Douglas Cooper. The monotype immediately caught his eye. “Degas’s paintings have never greatly interested me,” I remember Picasso saying, “but the monotypes are another matter—the best things he ever did.” He credited them with the black-and-white immediacy of a photograph and the éclat, the impact, of a Rembrandt drawing. Picasso said he had always wanted to own some, but Vollard never wanted to dispose of any of his. What could I do but give Picasso mine?—a gift he characteristically repaid with a no-less-remarkable drawing.
This little monotype whetted Picasso’s appetite and, with Cooper’s help, he set about acquiring whatever was left of the Exteens collection from Hector Brame and Reid and Lefèvre in London. Only the brothel scenes, Picasso insisted, none of the colorful landscapes, which he disdained as too abstract. After Picasso’s death his widow and son deeded most of the artist’s private collection, including the monotypes, to the Louvre, where it was exhibited in 1978. Curiously enough, “my” Sur le lit was not included in the bequest. Where, I wonder, is it hiding its face?
Picasso took the greatest pride in his new acquisitions and frequently displayed them to friends, once joking that Degas was his contemporary (true to the extent that Picasso was thirty-six when Degas died). However, he did not exploit them in his work for ten years, that is to say not until 1968, when the Fogg Museum at Harvard mounted an exhibition of Degas monotypes. The exhibition was commemorated by Eugenia Parry Janis’s fully illustrated catalog, a copy of which I recently found at Nôtre Dame de Vie.7 The fact that the first tentative references to Degas in Picasso’s work—in some of the suite of 347 engravings—do not relate to any of the monotypes in Picasso’s collection but to illustrations in Janis would seem to confirm that the Fogg catalog was his source of inspiration—at least at first.
Three years later—that is to say early in 1971—Picasso brought out his monotypes to show William Rubin and left them around for further study. He also, if I remember rightly, had a framed photograph of Degas in the studio—a photograph which incidentally had a curious resemblance to Picasso’s father. In the course of the next weeks, the monotypes and the photograph inspired Picasso to execute a series of brothel scenes in which Degas figures as a voyeur, not so much of sexual acts as of whores at play or on parade. For all that they date from Picasso’s ninetieth year, there is an amazing youthfulness, irony, and wit to these prints, also a paradoxical combination of detachment from and identification with Degas. Picasso, it is true, makes fun of Degas as the master of the “keyhole” (George Moore’s expression), but he also makes fun of himself to the extent that he uses Degas’s celebrated voyeurism to comment on his own voyeuristic obsessions.
Far from being a manifestation of senility or impotence, Picasso’s voyeurism must be seen as a positive force in his art—a phenomenon that goes back to his earliest days and recurs again and again in his career. In the circumstances we should not attach too much significance to Picasso’s ribald jokes about the indignities to which he had subjected Degas. For all their sardonic wit, these prints are about the way an artist—be he Degas or Picasso—takes possession of things and people with his eyes, the way he thinks with his eyes, makes love with his eyes, manipulates people with his eyes. Even when he was well over eighty Picasso still exploited the power of his magic eyes: he would fasten his huge pupils on some enthralled victim and will him or her to rhapsodic response—tears if possible. No, there was nothing senile or passive about Picasso’s voyeurism; on the contrary, there was something rapacious, something almost sadistic about it.
Picasso’s series of prints reveal Degas watching—hands often tucked behind coattails—occasionally drawing, but never making any other contact with the girls in the brothel. Far from being central to the action or the composition, the Degas figure is always in a very literal sense marginal—cut, as are the top-hatted clients in several of Degas’s monotypes, by the right or left margins, which thus constitute a kind of wall or door through which to peep. Picasso further stresses the contrast between the artist and his subject by depicting the former in a separate spatial continuum and by treating Degas differently from the other figures, in a manner that is less obsessively ornate, less embroidered-looking. Picasso plays one significant trick on the fatherlike figure of Degas: on occasion he adds a network of wrinkles to his face so that he looks even older than the ninety-year-old artist who is portraying him. And why not? As Picasso said to Brassaï, “Everytime I draw a man, automatically I think of my father…. I see all the men…with his features.” Indeed, so striking is the resemblance between Degas and Picasso’s father that one of the artist’s recent biographers, Patrick O’Brian,8 has mistaken the former for the later in references to these prints. O’Brian’s confusion is welcome for the Oedipal light it sheds on the earliest and the latest periods of Picasso’s art and life.
As for the girls, Félix Fénéon’s contemporary description of the whores in Degas’s monotypes applies equally to the ones in Picasso’s prints a century later: “There’s a collapse of hair on shoulders, bosom on hips, stomach on thighs…. The girls look like a series of bulging jointed cylinders.” Picasso even follows Degas in frizzing their hair into bangs over criminally low foreheads. He borrows from Degas the classic whore’s outfit: the ribbon around the neck, the black stockings, the galumphing boots, and shifts cut to reveal rather than conceal.
But despite similarities, Picasso opens up subjects that Degas had kept narrowed down, and closes down the space that Degas had been at pains to open up. The similarities and dissimilarities are immediately apparent if we compare the Degas monotype, done as an illustration to Maupassant’s “Maison Tellier,” which Picasso owned, with the variation that he perpetrated on it. (See illustration on this page.) Whereas Degas depicts a snug old soul in black bombazine, Picasso’s madam is a baroque harridan out of the eighteenth rather than the nineteeth century, a figure who might well stand for Misia Sert, to judge by the way Picasso used to describe her. In some of the other prints her face disintegrates in a tangle of arabesque-like wrinkles, warts, and facial hair; how her wig, surmounted by ostrich feathers and a huge jeweled butterfly, threatens to go off like a firework; and the complacently clasped hands with which Degas has endowed his madam are transformed by Picasso into a vaginal sign—another of his visual puns. The Degas/Maupassant tranche de vie ends up as theater of the absurd.
If many of the girls in this series derive from Degas, others have their origins in Picasso’s earlier work. As I said apropos Ingres, Picasso has a way of dipping into his own past, his own repertory of characters. And so we find the aforementioned Celestina of 1903 rubbing shoulders with The Man with the Lamb of 1943 and figures from the Vollard series of 1934, the “Antipolis” series of 1946, and the Verve series of 1953. Picasso also inserts people from real life—former mistresses for the most part—into his brothel. The glimpses that we get of girls who resemble Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, and Geneviève Laporte remind us that some of the Demoiselles d’Avignon were once identified as Fernande Olivier and Marie Laurencin. As for his wife Jacqueline, she is portrayed as shamelessly as any of the whores. These scurrilous references can of course be attributed to Picasso’s black sense of humor, his Spanish irony, or his misogynistic view of women as orifices, but we should not forget that once again the artist is equating sex with art, and that the brothel and the studio are metaphors for each other—places where fantasies can be realized, where self-expression is what matters.
Picasso especially admired the physicality of Degas’s “pig-faced whores.” “You can smell them,” he said. This physicality is of course what Picasso’s art was always about. Just as in his twenties he—and Braque—had devised cubism as a way of rendering reality more palpably than ever before, so in his eighties, as he told Hélène Parmelin, he aimed to do a painting of a woman on a chair that would be as real as the woman herself—so real that it would contain everything pertaining to the woman and yet would resemble nothing in our experience. So real that people seeing her would say “Bonjour, Madame.” And Picasso described how he had once shown some paintings to Braque: “Is this woman real?” Picasso had asked. “Could she go out in the street? Is she a woman or a picture?” Picasso went on at Braque. “Do her armpits smell?” And the two artists proceeded to use the armpit factor as a test of real painting. “This one smells a bit but not that one….” And in my hearing Picasso listed several more intimate attributes that he thought a painting of a woman should convey; but, like Parmelin, I will spare you the details.
The physicality with which Picasso endowed his late works is one of the main reasons why they met with such scorn. People were shocked, and as often happens when people are shocked, they pretended to be not so much shocked as disdainful; Picasso’s notion of l’éternel feminin was so “infantile” and/or “senile”—so “vulgar.” Ironically, they would come out with much the same accusations that an uncomprehending public had made against another artist who had a place of honor in Picasso’s pantheon, another artist with whom he identified, Manet. The only difference was that Second Empire philistines had the excuse of ignorance in the face of the Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Olympia, whereas a hundred years later critics were supposed to be proof against the shock of the new.
This shared feeling of rejection at the hands of an uncomprehending public goes a long way toward explaining Picasso’s continuing identification with Manet. 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, it is hardly surprising that he should identify with the first modern artist, one who had set out to shock the bourgeoisie and been pilloried for his pains, one who had been denounced for “shamelessness” and “vulgarity,” for painting “a yellow-bellied courtesan,” “a female gorilla made of india-rubber.” Had Manet painted Olympia in the guise of a Circassian slave or a coquettish Bathsheba, she would have given no offense. It was her blatant nakedness that was a threat. Picasso admired Olympia and the girl in the Déjeuner for all the things that the Second Empire had found so shocking, not least the juxtaposition of a naked woman and fully clothed men. And he set out to paint nudes who would be every bit as threatening, every bit as shocking as Manet’s.
No doubt about it, Picasso’s “super-real” (his word) women are threatening. Had they been pretexts for brilliant displays of painterly skill like Matisse’s Odalisques, or—on a much lower level—perverse specters of sex appeal like Dali’s or Bellmer’s rubbery anthropoids, they would have proved acceptable. But these hefty, smelly creatures who scratch their parts and pick their terrible toes with banana-sized fingers, and expose themselves in a matter-of-fact, unerotic way, threatened a generation nurtured on art that had been deodorized and sanitized, a generation that had mostly turned away from reality except in the gimmicky or eye-fooling forms of pop art or photorealism.
A further obstacle to liking these late works is the deceptive clumsiness of their technique. People who should have known better suggested that the artist had become senile and sloppy and that his hand had lost its cunning. Nonsense, as anyone could see from the drawings and prints in the Guggenheim exhibition. The qualities of the paintings, it is true, are harder to appreciate, until one realizes that Picasso has brought off the supremely difficult feat—especially for such a virtuoso—of obliterating all trace of virtuosity from his work.
No, far from losing any of its cunning, Picasso’s hand still had, if anything, too much. Hadn’t his greatest handicap always been dexterity? Picasso claimed that he had always had to fight this, had always had to make things as difficult as possible for himself and, by extension, for other people. True, dexterity, or rather his ingenious attempts to conceal dexterity, does on occasion get the better of him. Seldom, however, in the last paintings. The great technique is there, of course, above all in the infinite variety of the formal invention and in the wonderful plasticity of the paint, but it is never an end in itself.
In fact, the clumsiness of Picasso’s 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—except abstractionism—with space and form, color and light, fact and fiction, time and place, and, of course, identity. Did the artist come to see himself as God? After all, he ends by manifesting himself in most of the images he created. Those huge ubiquitous eyes would suggest this—all of them, even Jacqueline’s, unquestionably Picasso’s.
The extent to which masters of the past manifest themselves in Picasso’s late work (even when they didn’t, he said he felt them breathing down his neck) entitles us to see the studio at Nôtre Dame de Vie as a kind of pantheon. Presiding with him over this pantheon is the last figure I intend to discuss, the greatest influence on the late work, none other than the artist’s wife, Jacqueline. When Jacqueline first appeared on the scene, most of Picasso’s entourage thought her too naive about modern art and intellectual, literary, or political matters to become Picasso’s consort. How wrong they proved! Within a year or so Jacqueline developed an instinctive understanding of what Picasso was about. She became a more effective muse than any previous wife or mistress, and her presence permeates his work for the rest of his life. Most of the images of women from 1954 onward are Jacqueline in a greater or lesser degree.
Jacqueline had a far from easy time. Picasso manipulated people—often by way of his work—as ruthlessly as he manipulated form. Take his first portraits of Jacqueline. The long-necked, sphinx-like image that Picasso contrived bore little resemblance to his new mistress, who was pretty but neither long-necked nor sphinx-like. He had, as he said of another subject, improved her circumstances for her. But consciously or not, Jacqueline took the hint and, like her predecessors, soon began to bear an uncanny resemblance to the dramatic image that Picasso had contrived for her. In a subsequent metamorphosis she even came to resemble the artist himself.
Once the image had been established, Picasso did not hesitate to manipulate it in ingenious and occasionally diabolical ways, manipulating Jacqueline’s feelings in the process. Subtle adjustments to the portraits enabled Picasso to worship or humiliate or test her, indicate love or anger or desire and even on occasion predict one of her frequent bouts of illness. This prediction might take the form of a drawing like one done on Saint Valentine’s Day, 1957, in which Jacqueline’s anguished portrait is superimposed over a network of zigzag lines in fever-chart pink. When Jacqueline, who was nothing if not suggestible, fell ill the following day, the artist could take pride in his prophetic powers. Once Picasso showed me a particularly souffrant portrait of the period and joked rather cruelly that a doctor could base a diagnosis on it.
All things considered, Jacqueline was the perfect wife for her tyrant of a husband. Perfect not least because she managed to reverse the process—first pointed out by Françoise Gilot—of Picasso’s women starting as goddesses and ending as doormats. The dédicaces on the countless drawings he gave her reveal that Picasso became more and more besotted as he became more and more reliant on Jacqueline. And no wonder. Apart from being fanatically devoted, Jacqueline was extremely capable. She developed the most varied skills, acting in turn as secretary, interpreter, agent, cook, poet, driver, nurse, photographer, model, and trouble-shooter. The last capacity was the only one she resented, because it earned her the distrust of the artist’s courtiers. Picasso had a way of setting her up as a lightning conductor for any animosity that might, or might not, be headed his way. For instance, if he felt like keeping a publisher or an exhibition organizer waiting days on end for an audience, the explanation would be that Jacqueline had failed to pass on the message. Hence her reputation for being obstructive and inimical.
True, Jacqueline went along with the artist in his rejection of his illegitimate children—an act that darkened his last days with litigation—but Picasso apparently gave her no choice. Recognizing his children involved recognizing the fact of his own death, and this he was constitutionally unable to do. Even making a will was out of the question. “I know I would die the next day,” he said, camouflaging his “après moi le déluge” stance behind a smoke screen of superstition.
In the last resort this final period must be seen as “l’époque Jacqueline.” It is her image that permeates Picasso’s work from 1954 until his death, twice as long as any of her predecessors. It is her body that we are able to explore more exhaustively and more intimately than any other body in the history of art. It is her solicitude and patience that sustained the artist in the face of declining health and death and enabled him to be more productive than ever before and to go on working into his ninety-second year. And lastly it is her vulnerability that gives a new intensity to the combination of cruelty and tenderness that endows Picasso’s paintings of women with their pathos and their strength. The artist’s children may have had their reasons for seeing her as a Kalilike figure, but for Picasso Jacqueline was, in a very literal way, Nôtre Dame de Vie.
July 19, 1984
Hélène Parmelin, Picasso: The Artist and His Model (Abrams, 1965). ↩
As Picasso admitted to Brassaï, “whenever I see you, my first impulse is to offer you a cigarette, even though I know very well that neither of us smokes any longer. Age has forced us to give it up, but the desire remains. It’s the same thing with making love. We don’t do it any more but the desire is still with us!” ↩
“Picasso’s Exploration of Rembrandt’s Art,” October 1983, Special Section, vol. 58, no. 2. ↩
Robert Rosenblum, “Picasso and Ingres,” first delivered for the International Foundation for Art Research, January 19, 1983. ↩
Marjorie B. Cohn, In Pursuit of Perfection: The Art of J.-A.-D. Ingres. The J. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (December 1983–January 1984); The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, March–May, 1984. ↩
Christian Geelhaar, review of Ausstellung Pablo Picasso: 156 Graphische Blätter, 1970–1972, Kunsthaus, Zürich, March–May 1978, Pantheon, vol. 36, July/August/September 1978. See also Geelhaar’s preface to the catalog of Das Spätwerk—Themen 1964–1972, Kunstmuseum, Basel, September–November, 1981. ↩
Eugenia Parry Janis, Degas Monotypes: Essay Catalogue and Checklist (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1968). ↩
Patrick O’Brian, Pablo Ruiz Picasso: A Biography (Putnam, 1976). ↩