PRINT March 1984


Pablo Picasso still is It where the course of Modern art is concerned. Only his death in 1973 at the age of 91 could stop his overwhelming production and open the way for a long overdue reevaluation of his career. Among the most exciting and relevant revisions is the new view of “late Picasso” put forth by Gert Schiff, the Modern art historian and curator of the first comprehensive show on Picasso’s last ten years, 1963–73, held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, from March 2 to May 6, 1984. I conducted the following interview with Schiff on July 25, 1983, in New York City. The exhibition under discussion was originally commissioned by New York University’s Grey Art Gallery & Study Center.

Ronny Cohen: What kinds of subjects did Picasso treat during the last decade of his career?

Gert Schiff: This period starts with his last painting of general human and political concern, namely, what is mistakenly called Rape of the Sabines [1963], the great painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It seemed that Picasso was concerned with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 at the time he received from the Salon de Mai a commission to paint something related to Delacroix. But he didn’t want to paint something related to Delacroix. Instead he chose to base his whole conception on Poussin and David. He took the Poussin painting in Chantilly, The Massacre of the Innocents [ca. 1628], the David Sabines [1799], and originally also Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines [ca. 1635–37], and turned them into a series of paintings of which the Boston picture is the culmination. It is a great statement against war and violence, and represents the last time that he painted something of universal, human concern. From then on he turned to entirely private and personal subjects.

RC: Like what?

GS: First of all the series of painter and model which kept him busy from 1963 through 1965.

RC: How did Picasso approach this traditional theme then?

GS: It was an investigation of the conceptual nature of his own art. He never, or at least hardly ever, painted after the live model. He also didn’t paint on an easel, preferring to put his canvas on a tabletop or, if it was too big, on the floor. So the depictions of painters at work in this series are not autobiography or a direct reflection of his practice. They are always about the contrast between artistic and pragmatic truth. In his paintings there is always a different treatment of painter and model, and always the simultaneous use of different styles. Picasso can be very witty. For instance, there is a series where you can see how the painter gets more and more embarrassed since he cannot bring his pictures to the point where he wants them and the model in turn loses confidence, teases him, and she too gets bored and angry. Painting becomes a kind of continuation, by substitution, of love-making. There is this beautiful idea that as a painter he can create people, that he can create the ideal woman whom he loves to embrace. That is expressed in a very telling way in those examples where the painter is shown not just painting on a canvas but lovingly going down with his brush on the outlines of his living model in front of him.

RC: Doesn’t this series include prints as well as paintings?

GS: Yes. The prints from the painter-and-model series are among the very beautiful graphics executed in the early 1960s, which are practically unknown. Quite a number of them are in the exhibition, including a very beautiful portrait of Jacqueline, a double portrait. Picasso was at his most innovative and boldest technically in doing these etchings, where he combined techniques and used obsolete techniques such as aqua fortis, always to surprising effect. I dare say the twelve or so etchings from the early 1960s will be one of the surprises in the show. Everyone knows by now Suite 347 and also the last 156 etchings, but these earlier ones are comparatively little known.

RC: When were they executed?

GS: Again, 1963–65.

RC: Returning to the question of subject matter—what did Picasso treat next?

GS: Between 1966 and 1968 he was very concerned with bucolic subjects. There are great drawings of these charming little figures: boys eating melons, a young man playing a flute trying to charm a woman, a man carrying a sheep—which, by the way, in this context is not meant to be sacrificed, as in the case of his great sculpture in Vallauris. It is all very playful and friendly, and a joyous atmosphere pervades.

RC: To what do you attribute Picasso’s interest in 17th-century art, an interest that also surfaced in the mid-1960s?

GS: You must, of course, take into account that late in 1965 Picasso had to undergo surgery and it took him about half a year to be fit to paint again. During this time he studied many things but above all Rembrandt; Rembrandt’s influence has not yet been examined. It is Rembrandt’s art that is responsible for this enormous upsurge of 17th-century imagery that we find in Picasso’s painting from 1966 on. He called these 17th-century characters, of whom he painted so very many, “Musketeers.”

RC: Why musketeers?

GS: It is difficult to ascertain where he got this term from. It may have been that he saw one of those innumerable movies about Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers. In any case there are quite a variety of 17th-century characters, some related to specific Rembrandt portraits, some only vaguely related, some also related to Spanish and even French sources. For instance, he did a fairly straightforward paraphrase of Philippe de Champaigne’s portrait of Cardinal Richelieu [1635], and he painted variations on those famous dwarfs at the court of Philip IV whom Velázquez had painted. The musketeers relate back to Picasso’s own childhood, to his earliest impressions of the Spanish stage in plays by Lope de Vega and Calderón. They are, like so many other of his works, a recreation of the art of the past in terms of his most advanced style. In these musketeers are new, very tricky and intriguing combinations of profile and front view. In some examples the chin points to the right while the nose points to the left, and there are any number of transitions between front and profile views, or combinations of two profiles. That sometimes helps him to give these musketeers a truly martial visage. Faces as it were slashed by one stroke of the sword, weatherbeaten and stamped by all the horrors of 17th-century warfare. At the same time, the musketeers are also very lusty. They reappear in the graphics in Suite 347, called that because it consists of 347 etchings done in a six-month period in 1968. There the musketeer appears as an adventurer courting women, visiting bordellos. Interestingly enough he also occurs in the role of voyeur. The Spanish word for musketeer, mosquetero, has a double meaning. It means not only the soldier, but also the nonpaying spectators at the back of the audience in the Spanish theater of the Golden Age. In other words he is a viewer, and a viewer is a voyeur. Picasso was probably ridden then by the problem of diminished sexual prowess, although his sexual drive and sexual interest were still very much alive. So he depicts musketeers and elderly men in a state of frustration unable to act in the company of a female who is exposing herself.

There are many variations on this theme in his etchings and drawings, sometimes very sad and poignant, then again more ironic. There is a lot of humor involved. In the last 156 etchings Picasso did something very funny. He owned 11 of the series of 50 monotypes by Degas of life in the bordello. His question was, if Degas made these monotypes he must have visited such houses, and if he visited such houses, what did he do there? Picasso came to the conclusion that he did very little—that he mostly looked. So he made the splendid and very humorous series of 40 etchings of Degas in the whorehouse. Degas, shy, inhibited, with his hands in his pockets or behind his back, just looking at the girls, and the girls teasing him. He may be invited to celebrate the birthday of the madam, but he’s always the odd man out. Yet what happens to Degas is essentially the same thing that happens to Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses.

RC: You mean the bordello is given a psychological dimension?

GS: The bordello becomes the place where all his dreams, wishes, and fears come true—the theater of hallucinations that can be transformed into a medieval setting or into an ideal Greece where the prostitutes become nymphs. After so much voyeurism there is a splendid joke in the version he does of Salome’s dance. Salome is shown dancing around a silver platter with the head of the Baptist; the dead head opens one eye in order to catch a glimpse of that private region with which he wanted nothing to do while he was alive.

RC: Naughty! What came next?

GS: In the end Picasso painted a great many paintings, all very rapidly. He was no longer concerned with finish. He worked serially. If he didn’t find the ideal solution for a self-imposed problem in one painting, then he would pursue it through a series of paintings. In his subjects, he emphasizes the continuity of life. There is the child, the male child always bursting with vitality and rapidly outgrowing the parent’s care. That is a symbol of Picasso’s positive attitude towards life, his feeling for the continuity of life, of the perpetuity of vital energy. He painted faces—musketeers again, some very poignant and sad. Many can be recognized as symbolic self-portraits in which he clearly anticipates his death. Some are spectral. His virtuosity at this point is breath-taking. He can create a face, a character the likes of which has never been seen, out of just two colors, in the most spontaneous and near automatic paint process. And he can also vary old techniques in the treatment of the new faces. He can go back to much older inventions, rebuilding a new figure from work that dates back perhaps fifty years.

RC: You mean his own work.

GS: Yes. But he doesn’t imitate himself, but rather transforms his older inventions as easily as he did with Rembrandt or Velázquez. People say that at the end he was pouring out picture after picture, without really having something to say, but it’s not true.

RC: With all that Picasso did from 1963 to 1973, why is it that until very recently this period was underestimated?

GS: There are a couple of reasons. First there is the very personal character of his work in this period. Why, for instance, does the leading creator of our time choose to paint Baroque images? Another reason why the work has been so disliked by the public is the apparent sloppiness of his execution. The “sloppiness” was a shorthand that he developed because he felt he was engaged in a race with death. He wanted to say all that he had to say, and he didn’t want to lose time. If one is familiar with his work, one finds that what at first seems sloppiness is refined economy and the most deliberate and conscious use of his pictorial means. Then, again, there is the violence and vehemence of his pictorial language. His pictures are so strong that they attack the viewer relentlessly. I remember when his paintings from this period were exhibited in Avignon in 1970 and 1973 in this enormous gothic space with whitewashed walls. One would have thought that the walls and the large space would have been enough to attenuate their impact somewhat. But no, they were so strong that they kept the viewers in a state of agitation. And, finally, there is the sexual element—some people may object to that. They may feel his insistence upon intimate female anatomy is carried too far. But that’s their own problem. In any event one can say that from an anthropological point of view Picasso has enlarged our knowledge of human nature, because never before has the sexual craving of a very old man been expressed so powerfully and in such great depth. So even for psychologists, in this sense, the pictures shed light.

RC: What else distinguished his output during this late period?

GS: If one looks at these pictures, the variety is enormous, the inventiveness enormous. There is a lot of humor, more and more in Picasso’s old age. It is characteristic of him, he who always felt involved in dialogue with the great masters of the past—Courbet, Manet, Degas, Ingres, Velázquez, Delacroix. What interested him in his extreme variations of old master paintings was to find a common denominator between their art and his own. That must have taught him something about painting, in the conceptual sense, and was for him also the yardstick by which to measure his own accomplishments.

RC: In 1983, when artists take a freewheeling attitude towards the past and in essence work off it and from it as much as against it, the late Picasso offers an intriguing precedent.

GS: His attitude was one of deep but completely irreverent veneration. His homage in paint to his great predecessors was always clad in a language of affectionate mockery. So his way of appropriating works of others is quite often parody, but parody on the highest possible level. Parody was even part of his parlance, of his everyday language, as I learned from his daughter Paloma. He would refer to the Rape of the Sabines, which in French is L’Enlèvement des des Sabines, as L’emmerdement des Sabines, which sums up his whole attitude with regard to his great forebears in painting.

RC: Did he find inspiration from the popular media?

GS: Absolutely. He used to watch TV—in particular a series about circus acrobats—and he loved the wrestling matches on it. There’s a wonderful story: Picasso saw an old movie, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and told a friend that he was completely obsessed by it and had made a series of drawings inspired by it. Only, if one looks at these drawings, they have nothing to do with the Bengal Lancers. There is always a sultan with a big turban, and a couple of beauties from his harem. In one depiction where the sultan has a flower in his hand, Picasso said, look, how curious, the lance has become a flower. Otherwise there is not the faintest trace of lancers in these drawings. His circus performers can remind one eventually of the horror movie Freaks, by Tod Browning. I am convinced that if one were to go through all the movies he could have seen on TV in the South of France during these years, many iconographic puzzles and surprising uses of themes, particularly in his graphics and drawings, could be explained.

RC: You’ve just given the topic for a dissertation! Can you comment on one of the most haunting creations of this period, the last Self-Portrait?

GS: It’s from a private collection in Japan, and has never been exhibited in America before this show. It is an absolutely ghostlike self-portrait. He portrays himself as a skull with such an astonishing bold outline it’s as if the continuity of the body’s integrity was already damaged. He uses a curious and rather sickly scale of colors, namely pale purple and olive green, along with black and white and a little sepia. When he showed this drawing to his friend, biographer and cataloguer Pierre Daix, he showed it to him in the full awareness that here he had done something very special. He himself said it was unlike anything he had ever done before. Daix immediately recognized that in this last self-portrait, of June 30, 1972, Picasso had used the same colors he had used for the still life commemorating the death of his friend the sculptor Julio González. In other words, he knew what it was about. At one point, Picasso asked Daix, “What do you think of this work?”. Daix knew he was not allowed to lie, so he said it reminded him of the still life after the death of González, Picasso accepted this without a word.

RC: Is the last painting that Picasso did in the exhibition?

GS: No, unfortunately. It is of a musketeer with a bird on his shoulder, a very elaborate variation upon one of the most tremendous paintings by Rembrandt, The Falconer [ca. 1661], in Göteborg, Sweden. It was painted from a reproduction. Picasso liked to make a compound of a face and a hat—those broad-brimmed 17th-century hats—placing one eye in the brim of the hat, for example. That’s what he has done with this picture, too. He slashes the compound in such a way that it finally looks like the arms of a windmill, which is very fitting, given its Dutch source. He had painted it earlier, in 1972, but he repainted part of it—something he hardly ever did—just a few days before he died. It was literally the last painting he laid his hands on.

RC: Isn’t the late period among the most heavily documented in Picasso’s career?

GS: Yes, he documented his every turn of mind by dating all his works. Very often he would finish two or three paintings, and even more drawings, in a day. When he worked on the same work over a period of time he would write down, say, November 11, 12, 15, 21; December 10—as many dates as he had spent time on the painting. He was very fastidious about it. He had a very nice idea about what he was doing. He said there might be a future science—la science d’homme—the science of man, which might use his dates as a day-by-day record of his mental and artistic development. And so he wanted to help those future scientists by providing those precise dates. The amusing point, of course, is that he considered his own highly idiosyncratic art as typical of mankind. That is to say, the science of Picasso was to him the science of man.

RC: So he took a very universal view toward himself.

GS: Absolutely—and he was right.

RC: It seems to me that Picasso has provided a kind of inventory of styles, attitudes, and approaches still operative in the 1980s.

GS: It is part of his self-styled role as the keeper of the pictorial tradition, the pictorial inheritance of the West, which he is completely capable of maintaining to the very end. To the end he has at his command the purest neoclassicism, as well as the expressionist idiom, which for instance comes out in one magnificent landscape—he painted very few landscapes during his last years—which we have borrowed from the Musée Picasso collection. No wonder the current NeoExpressionists take such an interest in him. Of all the artist admirers of his late style, David Hockney is one of the most enthusiastic. He has lectured on the period, and owns one painting from it.

Then, of course, there is the Cubist inheritance. A transformed version of Cubism is present in these works whenever Picasso finds new ways of combining different aspects of the face or the human figure.

RC: Picasso seems to have taken an open approach to color in this period.

GS: The color becomes ever more intense, and some-times strident. He tries unusual color combinations, for instance, pink and brown, or purple and black and yellow. Blue plays a great role again, but it is not the decadent blue of “the blue period”; it is now a much more sonorous, and so to speak, Mediterranean blue, the blue of the sky and the sea. One could say that in the term used by Paul Klee, his color has become totalfarbig, that is to say, all-encompassing. He uses every possible hue and tint, although at some point he also paints all in gray. He had always been a great painter in gray since Cubist times.

RC: Ultimately, how would you rate this period in terms of his entire career?

GS: Very high. No question. Certainly there is no lessening of quality or intensity. On the contrary, it is full of new departures formally and iconographically, and it is carried by a condensed energy.

RC: Do you have any thoughts about the current interest in late periods of major artists?

GS: It may have to do with the fact that our own civilization has become overripe.

Gert Schiff is a professor of fine arts at New York University Institute of Fine Arts. Ronny Cohen is a critic who lives in New York.