The amorous couple was a dominant theme during the final years of Picasso's life. The present work, painted when the artist was 88, is a poignant manifestation of this subject. The male figure, serenading his lover as his limbs intertwine with hers, underscoring the physical melding of two bodies into one unified form. As was the case for the artist's late compositions, the female figure is a reference to Picasso's wife Jacqueline, and the male figure to the artist himself. Confronted by waning virility and his own mortality, Picasso approached the present work with a passion and tenderness that is evidenced in the tenderness shared between the two figures.
The theme of embracing lovers can be found as early as the artist's Blue and Rose Periods and recurs from that point in drastically differing manifestations, such as the masterpiece from his Classical period, La Sieste. There is, however, something notably more emotionally-charged and conflicting about the works from his late years with Jacqueline. The present work, in fact, can be seen as Picasso's sentimental nod to the sensual pleasures that he is now too old to enjoy. The bloom of youth has long faded, and the couple here is a poignant reminder of a time now passed.
Themes of passion would dominate these late years, such as the virile musketeers and pipe-smoking brigadiers entangled in romantic encounters with women, or the relationship between the painter and his model as depicted in the studio. The present work, along with several others painted around the same time, sheds these narrative contexts to focus solely on the physical and emotional unity of the figures. Given the collision of two bodies, these works reference the physical intimacy and latent sexual desire that was at the core of Picasso's most dynamic compositions. As the artist's granddaughter Diana Widmaier Picasso writes of these late works, "These are not embraces but wrestling matches the sexes have abandoned themselves to. The unleashing of sexual passions is total, a lack of inhibition stamped with bestiality, animality.... Undoubtedly the influence of the Surrealists the painter rubbed shoulders with is not alien to this impassioned debauchery. The colors of blood and death are omnipresent and oppressive. You can hardly avoid associating the dominant red of Picasso's signature with the red nail polish of Jacqueline, the companion of his final years" (Diana Widmaier Picasso, op. cit., pp. 29-30).
The theme of the serenade is one which Picasso devoted a series of pictures from the 1960s, known as Aubade, in which a young man plays the flute to a voluptuous earthly goddess as she revels in the delight of his music. The escapist theme, with its visions of basking in sensual pleasures, was a pleasurable fantasy for a man in declining health. But in this picture, Picasso has reinterpreted the theme with even more poignant references to his past, reviving the guitar playing man from the compositions of his youth and casting him here in this nostalgic composition. Gert Schiff explains, these works provided the basis for a small series of works that included the present painting: "During the winter of 1969-70 ... he painted kissing and copulating couples, all larger than life. Once more he empathized with one of his artistic forebears and depicted Douanier Rousseau, a friend of his youth, embracing his second wife. Picasso portrays the aged couple at a high pitch of emotion. The inspiration came from their portraits, painted by Rousseau himself, and which Picasso owned" (Gert Schiff, Picasso, The Last Years, 1963-1973, New York, 1983, pp. 50-52).
The present work was one of the paintings included in the 1970 exhibition of Picasso's art at the Papal Palace in Avignon. The exhibition is one of two that would be staged at this extraordinary venue, and it is considered the first half of the artist's grand finale of his long and extraordinary career. Although Picasso's late period was greatly misunderstood by the public, these pictures would later be regarded for their immensely expressive power and visual impact. Referring to Picasso as "the Pope of modern art in exile," Marie-Laure Bernadac has written the following about that landmark exhibition: "Hung unframed, in tiers, and arranged in series, an exuberant and colourful procession of cavaliers, couples, nude women and solemn portraits filled the bare walls of the chapel like sacreligious votive plaques; this was Picasso's 'Last Judgement'. An art 'full of sound and fury', in which everything moves and resonates, hurrying the eye from one canvas to the next amid the clatter of sabres, the sweep of plumes, the twist of bodies, the wild, visionary eyes, the strident colours, the frenzy of brushwork: Picasso is presenting us with this artistic last will and testament" (M. L. Bernadac, in Late Picasso, op. cit., pp. 91-92).
Oil on canvas
Avignon, Palais des Papes, Picasso 1969-70, 1970, no. 151, illustrated in the catalogue
63 3/4 by 51 1/8 in. 162 by 130 cm
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, vol. 32, oeuvres de 1970, Paris, no. 20 illustrated pl. 13
Rafael Alberti, Picasso - le rayon ininterrompu, Paris, 1984, illustrated, no. 48, illustrated in color
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. The Final Years, 1970-1973, San Francisco, 2004, no. 70-018, illustrated p. 9
Arnold Herstand & Company, New York
Acquired from the above in 1986