The figure of the musketeer has a long history in visual art, represented in works by Frans Hals, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, El Greco, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. The subject of the Musketeer is a pointed reference to the revered artists of the past, an affirmation from Picasso that he belonged to this lineage of great masters. More than any other artistic hero of the past, it was the work of Rembrandt that Picasso most identified with, yet the speed and spontaneity with which he painted his late works were reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists. Rather than dwelling on the human anatomy and perspective, Picasso focussed on the elements of his subject that fascinated him and employed a contemporary style and sense of humour entirely of his own. The process of creating a picture was more important for him than the finished result: ‘I am down to the stage when the movement of my thought is of more interest to me than the thought itself’ (quoted in K. Gallwitz, Picasso Laureatus, Paris, 1971, p. 166). Brilliantly demonstrated by Tête d’homme, it is desire that radiates from Picasso’s late work; the desire to paint without restraint, thought or impairment. Aware of his advancing age, waning energies and unavoidable mortality, Picasso’s thirst for life is manifested in his musketeers, which have a vital and immediate power.
The swashbuckling character of the musketeer leaps from the page of Dumas’ novel into a new modern life on the canvas. Within the decade of the 1960s, America’s war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly desperate and Soviet forces had invaded Czechoslovakia, ending the Praque Spring, while Picasso was retreating in a world of ‘backward-looking romantics and nostalgic dreamers’ (M-L Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. Cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p.82). As seen in the facial expression of the musketeer - one of comic confusion and shock - the work is invariably mock-heroic, with the man’s grandiose self-confidence called into question. Moreover, Picasso is arguably translating his staunch pacifism into his work by portraying a musketeer who is ordinarily inclined to bellicose behaviour but, with no sword in sight, actually looks harmless and congenial. His anachronistic attire, curled hair and beard are a fitting allusion to war itself being outdated and futile.
Picasso’s appropriations of musketeers provide a tantalising insight into his personality. Hélène Parmelin recalled how Picasso would play games in front of the canvases with her and her husband, the painter and sculptor Edouard Pignon. Picasso would point to various musketeers and remark ‘With this one you’d better watch out. That one makes fun of us. That one is enormously satisfied. This one is a grave intellectual. And that one, look how sad he is, the poor guy. He must be a painter’ (quoted in Picasso: Tradition and Avant-garde, exh. Cat., Museo del Prado, Madrid, 2006, p. 340). The theme of the musketeer withholds personal qualities of the artist and was a last effort to reclaim a heroic stance in life, to affirm his ability, through skill and wit, and to ultimately remain in control of his fate during the final stage of his long life.
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