Pablo Picasso quoted by Brassaï, Conversations avec Picasso, Paris, Gallimard, 1964, p. 198.
When he painted Homme au maillot in 1965, Picasso, aged 84, was living in Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins with Jacqueline whom he had married in 1961. Now in the twilight of his life, during these final years the artist found time for introspection in the sanctuary of his studio where he found a peace that was conducive to artistic creation. It was also a period of intense creative activity for the aging artist and he began to paint with renewed frenzy. After ten years during spent reinterpreting the great masters of the past, Picasso now wished to get back to the essence of his vocation as an artist: painting from life models. This desire to return to the fundamentals of painting was expressed through numerous portraits: of Jacqueline, whom he paints in diverse costumes and settings, but also an important series of male portraits, which are self-portraits in disguise, as he engages with the stereotype of the painter confronting his own image.
The present canvas belongs to a series of portraits of men that was first begun in 1964. Between 10th and 24th October 1964, Picasso painted 29 variations on this theme, giving the model different hairstyles and freely altering his features. The man depicted is sometimes presented as a youth, sometimes an old man, sometimes bearded, sometimes clean-shaven, sometimes wearing a hat, sometimes not. The series was taken up again in May 1965, the date of the present work. This method of painting a succession of portraits around the same theme recalls the powerful series of self-portraits painted by Andy Warhol around the same time.
In Homme au maillot, Picasso depicts an unshaven man in a striped vest. Though it is not possible to state with certainty that this is a self-portrait by the artist, this remains the most plausible interpretation, given that Breton stripes had been famously associated with Picasso since the 1950s.
With increased urgency as he faced his final years, here Pablo Picasso invents a new, raw, elliptical, and spontaneous way of painting, employing simplified signs to convey the human figure. The new manner of painting reduces beings to their primal essence; this is the case in Homme au maillot, painted with a great economy of means which heightens its expressivity and power. The elliptical and synoptic language of Picasso’s late style is expressed through visual shortcuts and formal purification, whereby the artist seeks to evoke the very essence of the body and anatomic detail. The reduced colour scheme, essentially comprising of black, white, green and pink, further emphasises the expressive, minimalist representation. The canvas thus fuses drawing with colour, in a quest for a total and syncretic art, in order that “drawing and colour become the same thing” (Hélène Parmelin, Picasso dit..., Paris, 1966, p. 85). This pursuit of spontaneity and rapidity stems from a primal desire to say the essential with the simplest means possible.
The portrait of a man thus emerges on the canvas, created with broad brushstrokes, with thick impasto, in a mere few concise touches, in an action painting to rival that of the American avant-garde. With broad strokes of colour, Picasso models the face of his subject, dividing it into several distinct parts, creating a visual effect that is strikingly similar to the work of Andy Warhol at the same period. The distortions of the face also echo the art of Bacon and Basquiat. The result is a strikingly expressive portrait of astounding modernity, testament to the skill of an artist, who, even as he approached his death, was still able to revolutionise conceptions of art.
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