By the year 1969, Pablo Picasso had become a living legend.
A household name to even the artistically uninitiated, his villa, Notre-Dame-de-Vie, situated just beyond the village of Mougins in the Alpes-Maritimes, was beset throughout the summer by peering tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the master at work.
Fame and approbation, however, came as a contradiction to Picasso. In years gone by he had overturned traditional views and values in the art world. He was a rebel and revolutionary, one who believed in the genius of children over the technical repression of formal teaching and realistic representation.
Yet now at the grand old age of 87, and with the emergence of Pop Art, performance ‘happenings’, and the birth of the art ‘concept’, he was viewed as part of the same establishment he had once torn down – the now-revered relic of a once-radical era. Critical acclaim brought with it sterility, and nothing killed the creative mind like outpours of public adoration.
There lay open to him two options: to retreat gratefully and gracefully from the public eye and withdraw happy with his legacy; or to thrust himself back into the contemporary art scene with renewed energy and vigour.
With Picasso, there could be only one choice, the astounding result of which were the Portraits Imaginaires.
The sheer volume of Picasso’s final years is breathtaking to behold, the numbers seemingly impossible for so old a man to have accomplished.
Carsten-Peter Warncke, in the second volume of his Pablo Picasso (Taschen 1992), reveals the statistics for the artist’s unbelievable output: 347 etchings between March and October of 1968; 167 paintings from January ’69 to the same month a year later; 194 drawings from December ’69 to January of ’71; 156 etchings from January 1970 to March ’72; 172 drawings between November ’71 and August ’72; and a massive 201 paintings from September 1970 to June ’72, all produced between the ages of 87 and 91 before his death in April ’73.
Picasso’s final years were a creative frenzy, in which the artist seemed constantly to be attacking canvases, plates, prints, and any other material that came to hand.
So, when in 1969 a large delivery of art supplies arrived at his Mougins studio, fuel for the next furious cycle of production, he was not content to use the new inks, paints, and brushes alone. Everything – from the hairy string and thick paper wrapping of each parcel to the corrugated cardboard boxes in which they had arrived – suggested a potential surface for experimentation, and he quickly went to work painting a series of 29 portraits in unusual style.
Produced in oils and gouache applied directly to the unprepared boxes and paper sheets, these bizarre portraits feature the moustachioed musketeers that dominate his final works, alongside depictions of Balzac, Shakespeare, and more aggressively abstracted female faces.
In his twilight years, faced both with imminent death and future immortality as the 20th century’s greatest artist, Picasso had begun to ruminate on the persona of the artist, returning time and again to Rembrandt and the idea of the ‘creative genius’.
In these ‘imaginary’ portraits which so clearly channel Rembrandt’s directness, his love of costume and the power of the subject’s gaze, Picasso announced to the world that he was the modern-day master, a final reassertion from his endless well of wit and creativity before his inevitable apotheosis as a God of modern art.
So pleased was Picasso with the results of his experiment that he sought out a printmaker to reproduce them as a suite of lithographs, a search that led him to Marcel Salinas.
An Egyptian by birth, Salinas had abandoned a career in law to become an artist himself. Unable to make a stable living as a painter, in 1955 he had applied for a job in a Parisian atelier, learning the skills of modern lithography and quickly becoming a renowned publisher in his own right working alongside such major artists as Max Ernst and René Magritte.
Portrait Imaginaire – 19.3.69. II (left) and Portrait Imaginaire – 19.3.69. I (right)
Two trial proofs were demanded of Salinas before work on the suite was begun. So impressive were they that Picasso offered Salinas top billing alongside his own name upon publication, the only printer to earn such an honour from Picasso in a lifetime of numerous atelier collaborations. With the artist closely supervising, each portrait was reproduced by hand, drawn directly onto its lithographic block before being printed for inspection.
Picasso offered his corrections and alterations before marking the prints with ‘bon à tirer’ (literally ‘good to pull’, indicating his satisfaction with the print quality), the entire process taking over a year to complete. Once published, each block was destroyed and the two editions of 250 each – ‘F’ for the French market, ‘A’ for America and the rest of the world – were hand-numbered ready for distribution.
One of the very last print suites Picasso ever published, the Portraits Imaginaires are the culmination of an inexhaustible mind’s many years of creation, a kind of swansong celebrating the various evolutions of the artist’s style over the decades of his career.
Here are his beginnings as a young portraitist and innovative founder of Cubism (see the condensed positions of mouths, noses and eyes, sometimes stacked one atop of another); here are the abstractions of the 1930s and ’40s, the invocation of so-called ‘Primitive’ art and its stylised designs; here is the mythologising, the flavour of heroism evoked in his later matador paintings.
Such is the cult of Picasso that it can be difficult to separate the man from the myth, a separation made more complex by the fact that so many of the outlandish accounts of his career are invariably true.
In the Portraits Imaginaires, we are confronted with the undeniable skill of the artist, a flair and passion that defied his weakening age and which cannot be disputed by even the most cynical of critics. Picasso was, by all accounts, the greatest of his time: were proof ever needed, this suite would suffice.