Couple, le baiser is one of Picasso's boldest interpretations of the theme of lovers in a passionate embrace, representing a culmination of his exploration of this subject that preoccupied him between October and December 1969. Precedents for Picasso's treatment of this motif can be found within the artist's early œuvre, however the sense of immediacy and urgency evoked by his paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s is unparalleled. In this series, Picasso alternated between the portrait and landscape formats, and variously focused on heads, busts or full-length representations of the figures, experimenting with the different formal arrangements of his characters. His creative output at this time was remarkable and this series of paintings illustrates the breathtaking flood of invention and fantastic vitality that characterised Picasso's late years.
In the present work, the two figures are depicted in profile, filling the canvas with an explosive force. Although the artist makes no attempt to depict the specific physiognomy or naturalistic representation of particular models, the female figure is understood to be Picasso's wife Jacqueline Roque, and the male figure is the artist himself. The physical closeness of the lovers in the throws of an embrace and the bright, lively palette that Picasso used to render the figures and the foliage that surrounds them, belies the emotional profundity that these compositions held for him. In the series of Le Baiser and L'Etreinte paintings of 1969 (figs. 1-3) Picasso takes the painter and model theme, that preoccupied him throughout the 1960s, a step further. There is no longer an easel separating the two figures; the erotic tension of earlier works is finally consummated as the painter and his muse become entangled in a forceful embrace. Furthermore, the couple has moved from the artist's studio into nature, emphasising their freedom and the almost primitive intensity of their act.
The theme of embracing lovers can be found as early as the artist's Blue and Rose Periods (fig. 4) and recurs from that point on in drastically differing manifestations. There is, however, something more physically and emotionally charged about the works from his late years with Jacqueline. Couple, le baiser moves beyond the latent eroticism and sense of tenderness embodied by his earlier works to a more uninhibited interpretation of the passionate encounter. As the artist's granddaughter Diana Widmaier Picasso wrote 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' (D. Widmaier Picasso, Picasso, 'Art Can Only Be Erotic', New York, 2005, pp. 29-30).
Themes of sex and passion appear in many guises throughout Picasso's late work, 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 artist's studio or in an outdoor setting. The present work, along with several others painted around the same time (figs. 1-3), eliminates this narrative and monumentalises the lovers' heads and busts as they embrace. Picasso reduces the background to the foliage that surrounds the couple, showing the figures in an almost cinematic close-up. The vibrant palette, dominated by primary tones combined with black and white heightens the physical and emotional resonance of the embrace. The collision of two profiles recalls the important series of sculptures by Brancusi on the theme of the kiss. Yet, the sense of playful innocence in Brancusi's sculpture is replaced by an intense, almost violent, rawness in Picasso's own work.
A stirring testament to the artist's temperament during the last years of his life, Couple, le baiser is a powerful exploration of a theme that occupies an important position in Picasso's œuvre. Marie-Laure Bernadac wrote on Picasso's particular and unsurpassed talent as it applied to his compositions of lovers in the 1960s: 'The violence of the eroticism, both male and female, to which Picasso gives material expression in his painting, expresses itself in concrete form in the theme of the kiss. Man and woman, the infernal couple, are seen in every conceivable position - "ultimately, love is all there is," he said - and all their frantic embraces: the raw realism of his 'Kisses' sums up the place that physical passion occupies in his life... Picasso makes two beings into one, expressing the physical blending that takes place at the moment of the kiss. Never has erotic force been suggested with such realism' (M.-L. Bernadac, 'Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model', in Late Picasso (exhibition catalogue), The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, pp. 80-81).
In executing such erotically charged paintings as Couple, le baiser, the artist channelled the concerns with his own fading virility that preoccupied him at this advanced age. Often taking the role of a voyeur, watching his own characters in the seduction game, in the present work Picasso paints himself – with a suggestion of his signature striped shirt – as one of the protagonists. The intensity of the couple's embrace is formally accentuated by bringing them into a close-up perspective, and exaggerating their hands and facial features. By reducing the background to minimal stage props, and bringing the man and the woman forward in such a way that they occupy the entire canvas, Picasso eliminates the distance from the subject, thus forcing the viewer into a direct confrontation with these monumental, sculptural figures. The quick, broad brushstrokes further emphasise the physical force of the kiss, and exemplify the extraordinary creative energy, vitality and ease of execution of Picasso's late years.
Fig. 1, Pablo Picasso, Le Baiser, 1969, oil on canvas, Musée Picasso, Paris
Fig. 2, Pablo Picasso, Le Baiser, 1969, oil on canvas. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 7th May 2008
Fig. 3, Pablo Picasso, Le Baiser, 1969, oil on canvas, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Fig. 4, Pablo Picasso, Les Amoureux, 1900, pastel on paper, Museu Picasso, Barcelona
Fig. 5, Picasso and Jacqueline Roque in Mougins, 1963. Photograph by Lee Miller
Oil on canvas
116 by 89cm.
45 5/8 by 35in.
Painted on 28th November 1969.
Avignon, Palais des Papes, Pablo Picasso, 1969, no. 121, illustrated in the catalogue
116 by 89cm. 45 5/8 by 35in.
Rafael Alberti, Picasso en Avignon, Paris, 1971, no. 66, illustrated in colour
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, œuvres de 1969, Paris, 1976, vol. 31, no. 524, illustrated pl. 151
The Picasso Project, Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. The Sixties III, 1968-1969, San Francisco, 2003, no. 69-530, illustrated p. 278
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris
Sale: Sotheby's, London, 26th March 1980, lot 65
Sale: Sotheby's, London, 24th June 1986, lot 61
Stanley J. Seeger (sold: Sotheby's, New York, The Stanley J. Seeger Collection of Works by Picasso, 4th November 1993, lot 485)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner