Michel Leiris, 1963 (in Jean Leymarie, Picasso. Métamorphoses et unité, Genève, 1971, p. 191)
Of all the themes Picasso approached in his art, that of the “Painter and his Model” is without a doubt, along with the couple, the theme to which he devoted the most works. The subject appears as early as 1914 in the painter’s oeuvre, in a picture painted during a summer spent in Avignon, and notably in the picture he undertook at the request of Ambroise Vollard in 1926. Here Picasso depicts the painter and his model as inexorably united, linked by a network of black interlacing.
Throughout his life, Picasso never stopped reinterpreting, in various forms, this mythical theme of the artist-creator face-to-face with his source of inspiration. Thus, during the winter of 1954, he completed 24 drawings dedicated to the subject, depicting the painter as an old man and the model as a very young woman. He returned to the subject a decade later, during the era of the present picture. Between the two, Picasso essentially devoted his time to reinterpreting iconic works by great masters with his series dedicated to Velasquez’s Meninas, Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe de Manet and Poussin’s L’Enlèvement des Sabines.
It was in 1963 that Picasso renewed the theme of the painter and his model, which would become the emblem of the painter’s mature years. This time the artist approached this new cycle of works which an extreme frenzy, exclusively painting nothing but this subject for several months, without any preparatory sketches (from February to May 1963 and then in January, October, November and December 1964). The result of this period of intense creativity is almost 150 canvases depicting the painter and his model, which are all variations on the same theme. The present painting reproduces the composition of most of the works from this series: the undressed model occupies the right part of the canvas and seems totally separated from the painter by the insurmountable barrier of the easel. With pronounced eroticism, her body is reduced to a number of signs: dots for the breasts, a few lines for the feet … The true subject of the painting is the giant profile of the painter who occupies the upper part of the canvas and scrutinises the woman with a piercing gaze, the symbol of the artist’s creative omnipotence.
As Marie-Laure Bernadac emphasised, “Picasso painted, drew and engraved this subject so many times in the course of his life, from every possible angle, that it almost became a “genre” in itself, like the landscape or the still-life. In 1963 and 1964, he barely painted anything else; the painter, armed with his attributes, the palette and the paintbrush, the canvas on its easel, usually seen in profile like a screen, and the nude model, seated or reclining, in a studio with all the trappings of an artist’s studio: glassware, a sculpture on a plinth, a screen, a a lamp, a divan etc. So many stage props that in fact bore no relation to Picasso real situation, he painted without a palette and without an easel, directly on a canvas laid flat. More than an evocation of his own work as a painter, it was thus a resume of the profession” (Marie-Laure Bernadac, in Picasso. La Monographie 1881-1973, Barcelone, 2000, p. 439).
His obsession with this theme arose from several of the aging artist’s aspirations. After a decade spent reinterpreting past masters, Picasso firstly wanted to get back to the essence of his vocation: painting from a life model. The portraits he painted of his wife Jacqueline during the 1960s also reveal his delight in returning to the basics of his art. Furthermore, he had just moved to Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins where he hoped to find a calm haven suited to his artistic creation. His studio, forbidden to all, became his refuge, his sanctuary. Just as he had done in La Californie with his Paysages d’intérieur series of 1955, the “painter and his model” series shows Picasso’s desire to make the new Mougins studio his own. Finally, from an artistic point of view, rejecting the new trends in contemporary art (such as pop art and abstract art), Picasso makes this series a manifesto illustrating his conception of the painter’s profession. More than the confrontation of the painter and his model, it is the very act of painting that Picasso represents, the artist’s gaze as the starting point for all creativity. In doing so, Picasso aims to capture the complex and magical relationship between the model, who incarnates the real world, and the artist’s feelings. To quote Jean Leymarie, “The painter and his model is the dialogue between art and nature, between painting and the real” (in Jean Leymarie, Picasso. Métamorphoses et unité, Geneva, 1971, p. 279).
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