InSight No. XXIII
Pablo Picasso | Profils et Têtes
Pablo Picasso was a conjurer. Images with a life of their own proliferated from the tip of his pencil, always representational but rarely connected to any visual fact in the real world. It was the independence of these pictorial games that sustained his art across a long lifetime.
InSight No. XXIII
Profils et Têtes, 1967
Lucian Freud met Picasso in Paris shortly after the Second World War. He was particularly taken with Picasso’s skills as a conjurer, and later described to William Feaver some of the great master’s tricks.
Picasso was always a performer and the more people looked at him, the more he did it. He said, “Do you smoke?” then put his hand on to a huge Moroccan figured brass lid and lifted it and there was a packet of Gauloises [cigarettes]. […] We were leaving, and looked back and he was very high up, in the top floor of his house, and there was a bare [light] bulb outside the window and he was doing shadow pictures against a blank wall with his hands, birds and creatures.
These small performances were not simply games but part of Picasso’s lifestyle. He breathed imagery, and in a work like Profils et Têtes from a later stage of his career, he assembled a cast of crones, philosophers and homunculi which is at once convincingly vivid and stylishly deconstructed. This was the central contradiction of Picasso’s character: to be concerned with human nature and at the same time content to play, doodle and laugh.
Profils et Têtes belongs to a tradition of character studies which is itself much older than Picasso. It originated in the fifteenth century with Leonardo, whose vivid 'grotesque' studies treated medieval typologies in a naturalistic style.
Leonardo’s contemporary Albrecht Dürer also contributed to the early formation of caricature in his painting Christ Among the Doctors, painted in 1506. The work shows the pharisees arguing with Christ and trying to undermine him with their Old Testament sophistry. Where the figure of Christ is naturalistically modelled on an angelic child, the doctors are caricatures inspired by medieval stereotypes of vice and immorality. Picasso’s Profils et Têtes bears a passing resemblance to the composition of heads ranged across Dürer’s work, and both derive visual interest from the combination of various bizarre facial types.
Another enduring theme in Picasso’s career was physiognomy, a pseudo-science which sought to classify human personality by studying a person’s facial features. It enjoyed considerable popularity in the nineteenth century and informed Picasso’s treatment of the human face, which was not merely a visual game but also a quest to invent new characters and connected moods. One of the most original pictorial devices in his arsenal was to explode a face, composing it from multiple perspectives and integrating a profile view into an otherwise frontal image. A variant on this approach is found in Profils et Têtes. Though the large head on the right-hand side of the picture is principally composed from a facial profile, distinguished by an impressive Roman nose, it also contains a further element: a homunculus head, included within the outline of the larger head, which has a characteristically disassembled face which bears passing resemblance to certain bearded, tousle-haired antique Roman senators.
Though Picasso had used a profile view in many earlier works, in The Death of Casagemas (1901) and in several portraits of Dora Maar from the 1930s, for example, he experienced a redoubled fascination for it after meeting Jacqueline Roque in the early 1950s. (As Maar once told John Richardson, ‘everything changed when the woman changed’). A primitive aura of ancient Egypt is apparent in work he made after meeting Roque, who he depicted in a profile portrait lithograph in 1956. An interest in Egyptian themes persisted into the next decade, surfacing in a characteristically prurient oil painting of 1967, Nude Woman and Musketeer, where the enlarged black pupils carry an ancient Egyptian connotation. The work also demonstrates the continuing thematic use of profiles and the same style of bricolage, bringing together figures of different character and proportions, similar to that used in Profils et Têtes.
The year 1967 was not an easy one for the artist, however. Since 1937 he had maintained an impressive combined studio and living space in Paris at 7 Rue Grands-Augustin. Though he had left the city to work in a warmer climate, settling in Provence in 1955, it had a special importance to him and he had made some of his most significant works in the Grands-Augustin studio, including Guernica. Since the end of the Second World War, Paris had faced a housing shortage with many residential buildings destroyed during the conflict and a peacetime boom in the urban population. In light of his twelve-year absence, Picasso was evicted from his Paris base by the housing ministry. (By a bizarre coincidence of timing, even as the French state took away his property, in the same year it sought to award him with the Légion d’honneur – an accolade he refused.)
1. Pablo Picasso, Profils et Têtes, 1967, India ink on paper, 37.2 x 52.7 cm
2. Pablo Picasso in his Paris studio in 1945
3. Leonardo da Vinci, Five Grotesque Heads, c. 1490, Royal Library, Windsor (detail)
4. Albrecht Dürer, Christ Among the Doctors, 1506, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
5. Profils et Têtes (detail)
6. Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman and Musketeer, 1967, Musée Picasso, Paris
7. 7 rue des Grands-Augustin