Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris (acquired by 1980)
Corporate Collection, U.S.A.
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, Picasso, 1980, no. 45, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (titled Torero)
Rafael Alberti, Picasso: Le rayon ininterrompu, Paris, 1974, no. 11
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, œuvres de 1970, Paris, 1977, vol. 32, no. 290, illustrated pl. 101
Neil Cox & Deborah Povey, A Picasso Bestiary, London, 1995, p. 35
Painted on 23rd October 1970, the present oil is the last matador work in a series Picasso started in late September of that year, and is a culmination of a life-long obsession with the theme. Picasso’s first painting Le petit picador jaune, executed in Málaga in 1889-90, represents a matador on a horse in the arena, observed by the spectators behind him. At the age of eight, Picasso was taken to the bullring by his father and this experience certainly had a strong impression on the boy. Bullfighting was later to become one of his most important subjects, and he returned to it – in various guises - at many stages of his career, from the sunlit corrida oils and pastels dating from 1900-01, to the Minotaur figure of his Surrealist phase and the war-time drama of Guernica. In September and October 1970, following a bullfight at Fréjus, he returned to the celebrated theme of the matador for a final time.
Unlike his other depictions of the matador from this period (fig. 3), in which the figure is depicted against a plain, monochrome background, the present work is unique for combining the image of the matador with that of the arena. The lower half of the background represents the sand of the bullfighting ring, with the spectators in the upper half. Although executed in a quick manner verging on abstraction, the depiction of the audience recalls not only Picasso’s earlier renderings of the subject, but also that of his predecessors such as Goya and Manet, in which the bullring is characteristically divided into sections in light and shade. ‘Sunlight and shade form the two areas of seating in the bullring […]. Bullfights are staged in the afternoon, when the heat can be unbearable, and so those who can afford the seats enter by the door marked ‘Sombra’. The blacker side of the ring is the colour of the bull himself, whilst those seated in the sun are allied to the Traje de Luces, the immensely coloured and embroidered “suit of lights” of the Matador’ (Neil Cox & Deborah Povey, A Picasso Bestiary, London, 1995, p. 40).
During the last years of the nineteenth century Picasso stayed in Madrid, where he copied the old masters at the Prado, and was no doubt influenced by Goya’s bullfighting scenes. During his first show at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in Pars in 1900 Picasso exhibited a number of his latest works, mostly pastels and drawings. Following the success of the bullfight scenes in particular, which were the first works to sell, on his return to Spain he created a number of oils painted in dazzling colours that recreate the vibrancy of Andalusian light and the violence of the bullfighting ritual. Writing one of the first reviews of Picasso’s art, the young critic Frederic Pujulà i Vallès commented on these works: ‘The effect of the blinding light beating down on the rows of seats is unbelievable: so are the silhouettes of the bullfighters and the clusters of spectators in the stands’ (F. Pujulà i Vallès, quoted in John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, London, 1991, vol. I, p. 154).
Despite leaving Spain to live in Paris in his youth, Picasso retained a sense of Spanish identity until the very end of his life. He grew up watching bullfights in Málaga, and when he wished to draw attention to his heritage, he turned to the imagery of the bullfight. The return to the subject in the present work illustrates how the ageing artist dwelt on his earliest memories and the pantheon of Old Master painters for inspiration in his late art. Personal memories become intertwined with his artistic heritage, and in this final series of matador portraits the ghost of Goya is strongly present. Picasso’s matadors are dressed in the style of figures from Goya’s time (fig. 4) and represent a final tribute to La Corrida, the dance of life and death that symbolised the extremes of the Spanish temperament, and to the heroic figure of the matador who embodied Picasso’s own Andalusian machismo.
The bullfight became a symbol for the most public display of violence, bravery and ability, and its attraction for the artist certainly lay in its powerful contradictions of grace and brutality, entertainment and tragedy, Eros and Thanatos and, ultimately, life and death. Neil Cox and Deborah Povey wrote: ‘The bullfight was, of course, immensely important to Picasso. The play of domination and subjugation, grandeur and pathos which characterises his pictures of bulls and their Cretan cousin the Minotaur, is essentially a product of that almost religious intensity of the rituals of the ring’ (N. Cox & D. Povey, op. cit., p. 29). In the present work, however, Picasso balances the ritualistic aspect of the matador in his elaborate costume with a human dimension lacking in many of the earlier depictions. With his large, wide open eyes reminiscent of Picasso’s renderings of Jacqueline, the matador displays a vulnerability and a sense of mortality that reflect the artist’s own concerns towards the end of his life.
For the elderly artist, the matador was one of a cast of characters that were a means of projecting different aspects of his own identity. In Picasso’s late paintings the subject ‘always plays a part, or wears a disguise: as a painter at work or as a matador-musketeer [...]. Picasso’s confrontation with the human face, which makes him into the great portrait-painter of the twentieth century, brings him back to a confrontation with himself, the painter, young or old’ (Marie-Laure Bernadac, in Late Picasso (exhibition catalogue), The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, pp. 81-83). These portraits of the various archetypes that populated Picasso’s personal mythology were part of a final synthesis which merged the artist’s personal history with the cultural heritage of the Western artistic tradition, and developed a direct and spontaneous style that celebrated the act of artistic creation.
Combining the complexity of the theme, loaded with personal and art historical references, with the freedom and spontaneity of execution, Le Matador belongs to an important series of late paintings. It was included in the exhibition of Picasso’s last great works, organised by Jacqueline at the Palais des Papes in Avignon shortly after the artist’s death in 1973. Painted in quick gestural brushstrokes and with an extraordinary sense of energy, the present work bears witness to the creative force that characterised Picasso's late years. Having gone through many phases of stylistic and technical experimentation, by this time Picasso had acquired a confidence of expression and freedom of execution that enabled him to paint monumental works, and Le Matador is a brilliant display of the virtuosity with which he combined the complex elements that had shaped his life and art.
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