A testament to Picasso’s love of printmaking is the plethora of prints
which he created in his final years, at a time when he surely knew his days were
numbered. In particular, he created his largest series of prints in this last
period, namely, The 347 Series in 1968, aptly named for, you guessed it, the
number of prints it comprised. This print belongs to that series. Compare this
output to the sum total of all of his unique works of 1968, including paintings,
drawings, and sculptures, which equaled 250 works.
There are several salient features of this series. They generally
comprise etchings, aquatints, or some combination of the two.
Though they vary greatly in size, they tend to be dominated,
often hilariously so, by the subject of sex. Brothel scenes and
sex between individual couples are common. The former often contain
a portrait of Degas, whose sketches of brothel scenes Picasso
had recently acquired. These brothel scenes contain a delightful
assortment of consenting adults and voyeurs, including a priest
in the latter category.
Whereas the brushstrokes of Picasso’s paintings of the
period are the largest of his life and the depictions are similarly
among the sparest of his long career, the prints in contradistinction
involve as fine a line as ever. Picasso seems to have been saying
through these prints that even as a nonagenarian he still had
a razor-sharp gaze and steady hand—if his paintings tended
toward abstraction, it was by choice and not as a product of
his old age. His advancing age did of course take its toll in
other ways. But although his virility is believed to have waned
a decade prior to his death, clearly his mind delightfully remained
in the gutter!
This particularly delightful image from The 347 Series is
among the most beautiful. To my mind, this is the most undervalued etching in the 347s. As you could see from the ratings in my online Guide to Collecting Picasso’s Prints, I rate only one other 347 as highly, which is significantly more expensive than this one. This etching follows in Picasso's long tradition
depicting the artist and his model. As such, it is in some ways
very reminiscent of the sculptor and model scenes which formed
the plurality of subjects of The Vollard Suite. On the
other hand, this work represents a significant departure from
style of The Vollard Suite, as Picasso took greater liberties
in amusingly distorting the anatomy of both of these figures.
Many of the artists that Picasso depicted later in life are self-referential. Kirk Varnedoe, the late, great Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the MOMA, has noted that Picasso’s self-portraits of the 1950s and 1960s were not so much faithful representations of the artist's likeness as idealizations of an “artistic identity”. In an essay about these self-portraits, Varnedoe wrote, "The one avatar Picasso embraced most consistently in his final decades was the one with the least disguised self-reference: the figure of the artist. Near the breakup with Gilot, he undertook a series of drawings, often lightly satirical, of the artist in his studio, some of which were published in Verve in late 1953; after that, one or another variant of this theme recurred at intervals, especially among his drawings and prints. The focus was not on his own circumstances. Neither live models nor traditional palettes, which are constant attributes of these late studio scenes, had anything to do with his practice, and the artists in question almost never display his figures in more than allusive fashion; they tend to be stock types, typically bearded, which Picasso never was. Here, as in the case of countless male busts or figures, Picassoesque combinations of traits can come and go within a series in a way that suggests we may risk a certain arbitrariness in singling out one or another as an authentic self-examination.
“As he dwelled on the image of the older artist Picasso in his last twenty years also sought to fraternize and contend with a pantheon of painters of the past…. Certain of the generic busts and images of artists took on costumes or features that associated them with particular painters from history…. The practice began in greater earnest…after Picasso’s illness and surgery in 1963, and seems to have centered most tellingly on the disparate figures of Rembrandt and van Gogh.
“As Richardson has pointed out, these two artists may have been special cases for Picasso precisely because they are so strongly identified with self-portraiture. Rembrandt, particularly, had set the standard for charting each rise and fall of his fortunes in a self-image, continuing through the most unflinching confrontations with his flabby features and ebbing vitality in old age. The ageing Picasso apparently felt a strengthening bond with the great Dutchman's secular materialism, which fostered an earthy realism about all the body's functions and its weaknesses; but he also found an affinity in Rembrandt's contrary penchant for lavish costumes and theatrical masquerades" (Kirk Varnedoe, "Picasso's Self-Portraits," Picasso and Portraiture, Representation and Transformation, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1996, pp. 162-3).