P ainted in 1969, Buste d’homme is a striking self-portrait by Picasso which epitomises the bold energy of his late works. Throughout his career Picasso referred to his painting acting as a diary of sorts and that is also true of the art he made during the last years of his life. In 1961 he entered his eighth decade; as the acknowledged master of twentieth century art he had nothing to prove and yet, as he recalled, he was gripped by the feeling that he had: ‘less and less time and I have more and more to say’ (Picasso quoted in K. Gallwitz, Picasso Laureatus, Lausanne & Paris, 1971, p. 166). This feeling is the driving force behind the creativity and spontaneity of his mature work and his significant recourse to archetypal figures and symbols. The seemingly limitless energy that characterises so much of his work reaches its apotheosis in this final burst of creativity.
Combining expanses of vivid primary colours with strong black lines and geometric shapes, Buste d’homme is typical of Picasso’s work from this period. The bright blue of the background evokes the Mediterranean skies of his home, Notre Dame de Vie in the South of France; the painting is full of warmth and vitality. At the same time, the male figure is immediately recognisable as one of the musketeers that reappear throughout the paintings of this decade – identifiable in this case through the playful half moustache on the left of the figure’s face.
For Picasso, the musketeer signified the golden age of painting, and allowed him to escape the limitations of contemporary subject matter and explore the spirit of a past age. Here was a character who embodied the courtly mannerisms of the Renaissance gentleman, and Picasso's rendering of this image was also his tribute to the work of two painters he had adored throughout his life – Diego Velázquez, Frans Hals and Rembrandt. Indeed, Picasso devoted a large portion of his production throughout the 1960s to the reinterpretation of the old masters, an experience in which he reaffirmed his connection to some of the greatest painters in the history of art. As Elizabeth Cowling observed: ‘In old age, when he no longer went to Paris and left his country house outside Mougins with the greatest reluctance, Picasso immersed himself in masterpieces like Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (1630-1), Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642) and a van Gogh Self Portrait (1889) by projecting slides blown up to a gigantic scale onto his studio wall’ (E. Cowling in Picasso. Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery, London, 2009, pp. 12-13).
Vincent van Gogh was the artist Picasso admired most and he referred to him frequently throughout his career. In Picasso’s final decade, Van Gogh came to be the greatest source of inspiration: ‘Of all the artists with whom Picasso identified, van Gogh is the least often cited but probably the one that meant the 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…. Why, one wonders, should a great artist want to paint self-portraits in the guise of another great artist?... The answer is surely that in losing your identity to someone else you gain a measure of control over them…I suspect that Picasso also wanted to galvanize his paint surface…with some of the Dutchman’s Dyonisian fervor. The surface of the late paintings has a freedom, a plasticity, that was never there before; they are more spontaneous, more expressive and more instinctive than virtually all his previous work’ (John Richardson in Late Picasso, Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972 (exhibition catalogue), The Tate Gallery, London & Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1988, pp. 31-34).
Buste d’homme belongs to a small group of works in which Picasso deliberately explored one of Van Gogh’s most powerful portraits – his Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat from 1887. The allusion is made clear by the bright yellow hat that the figure wears, but Picasso also captures the chiaroscuro of the face and the intense focus of the eyes that balance one each side of the strong vertical of the nose. In combining this reference to Van Gogh with the figure of his alter-ego – the musketeer – Picasso is making a powerful statement about his place in the history of art.
The work was exhibited in a one-man show that Picasso planned in the hallowed halls of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon. Each work displayed in this exhibition was hand selected by Picasso for inclusion. The grand scale of the setting was ideally suited to the monumental scale and tone of Picasso’s paintings, many of which, including the present work, were thinly-veiled depictions of himself. This self-reverential exhibition at the former seat of the Papacy was the ultimate act of self-canonization for the artist, who was already considered a god in the world of art. As Susan Galassi commented in 2009: ‘With this last chapter he closes the circle of his art and at the same time opens the way for a younger generation of artists, those who followed the abstract expressionists and reacted against their dogmatic cult of originality. For the 1960s pop artists and the succeeding generations of post modernists Picasso’s variations entered into the mainstream of iconic masterpieces and served themselves as source for re-creation’ (S. Galassi in Picasso. Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 117).