This series of self-portraits is connected to an event that took place in the summer of 1972, when Picasso’s biographer Pierre Daix was taken into the artist’s studio to examine what he recently had created. Picasso said, “I did a drawing yesterday; and I think maybe I touched on something. It’s not like anything I’ve done before.” Then, as Daix tells us, “when he went to open the porticoes I saw how his gaze emerged as I’d never seen it before from the drawing. He held the drawing beside his face to make it quite clear that his fear was unfounded” (P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, London, 1994, p. 369). Directly confronting the drawing and his face - which he did in front of a renowned biographer – was the unequivocal evidence that Picasso wanted to emphasize the interpretation of this work for posterity.
Picasso’s late portraits represent a psychological projection of the artist's complex and multifaceted identity, illustrating the unruly amalgam of influences and contrary personas that made up the mental backdrop of this protean artist. Gary Tinterow commented on another portrait in the series that “in one image he had conflated views of himself at 25, 90 and after his death” (G. Tinterow, Master Drawings by Picasso (exhibition catalogue), Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 1981, p. 234). It returns to the violent strokes and huge eyes of the some of his early Paris work, which launched Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and with the expressionist handling of the pencil and modelling of the face evokes his 1907 self-portrait now in Prague (Zervos, vol. II*, no. 8). At the same time, it relates to a major theme of his late works collectively referred to as his Musketeer series. These paintings, which are understood to be representations of Picasso’s alter-ago, reveal the artist’s attempt to ward off death with a final burst of creativity. Having gone through so many phases of stylistic and technical experimentation, Picasso pared down his style in order to paint works in quick, spontaneous brush-strokes. The musketeers are humorous caricatures and also brutally honest self-portraits, in which he reflects upon Rembrandt’s idea that as we grow older, our lives are etched onto our faces, showing our true nature. Further, in recasting the iconography of old master painters such as Rembrandt and Velàzquez, Picasso was, at the end of his career, consciously aligning himself with the greatest artists of the Western canon. The late work by Picasso would also have an impact on a future generation of painters, as Simonetta Fraquelli comments: “His capacity for emotional depth and painterly freedom in his late painting, together with his wide-ranging engagement with the imagery of the great paintings of the past, was to have a lasting influence on the development of neo-expressionist art from the early 1980s onwards” (Picasso: Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), The National Gallery, London, 2009, p. 146).
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