Impressionist & Modern Art

An Intriguing Erotic Drawing by Pablo Picasso

By Sotheby's

“N o painter ever put his anxiety about castration more plainly than Picasso,” observed Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New. The late, great art historian was referring, specifically, to Picasso’s 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, adding that the picture’s “combination of form and subject was alarming”. Six decades later, we see in his explicit pencil drawing L’Etreinte, executed in Picasso’s 87th year, that the artist had clearly surmounted his castration issues. Now he could deliver the shock of the old.

The drawing is as bracing as it is intriguing. With an erect and very active male member at the heart of the composition, it doesn’t shy away from its subject matter. But nor does the picture simply deliver a conventional image of a couple seen in flagrante. It is a coiling spring of an embrace, anatomically expressive rather than physically realistic. The contours of the bodies weave around each other with an intensity magnified by the minimalism of the composition. The bed – the stage for this performance – is composed of just three lines.

Pablo Picasso, L’Étreinte, 1968. Estimate £300,000–500,000 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2020.

The male lover observes his paramour eye-to-eye from on high, while the woman languidly luxuriates in both his body and his gaze. The bearded man was a staple of Picasso’s late drawings and can be interpreted as a version of his father, the similarly hirsute Don José, while the woman receiving his adoration has a slipstream of coal-black hair similar to Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

In Picasso’s final decade, living quietly in his home in Mougins in the hills above Cannes, the artist withdrew and became detached from prevailing fashions. This was the heyday of Pop Art and Conceptualism, and Modernism’s emperor chose a self-imposed Provencal exile. But those Spanish fires still burned. With a final flourish he fixated on recasting the Old Masters – producing works based on the themes of Goya, Delacroix and Rembrandt – and amusing himself with amatory adventures (on paper at least).

Christopher Lloyd, former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, noted that Picasso’s final erotic drawings were full of vigor and humour. “There is no sense of inhibition,” he wrote, tactfully. “And there is certainly nothing bashful about the presentation of the female nude.” Nor, to be fair, with his presentation of the male nude. The octogenarian Picasso had become fixated with his own, flagging, virility but, he shows us here, there was still lead in his pencil.

“I spend hour after hour while I draw, observing my creatures and thinking about the mad things they’re up to,” Picasso once stated. “Basically it’s my way of writing fiction.” L’Etreinte is his erotic epilogue.

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