Deux vieux lisant une lettre, 1962
Earlier today, while shelving some recent auction catalogues, I started leafing through one of them to the dog-eared pages which marked the Picassos, when a wonderful drawing hit me again. Now don’t call me a grumpy old man, but I find it surprising when every now and then a great work falls through the cracks and the art market doesn’t notice. Take these two old men. Sure, this is not a drawing of a woman, much less a naked woman, and it doesn’t have a drop of color. It’s not large (but at 35 cm, not that small either) and it’s not an oil, just a lowly pencil and paper. But the above picture has so much heart, it’s so well drawn, and so amusing that I can’t believe it was bought in.
True, there’s nothing sexy about these two old men. But one of Picasso’s most endearing qualities is that along with the mythical and heroic, he portrayed many mundane subjects and there, by the masterful stroke of his pencil, transformed them into the mythical and heroic (see “The Water IS the Wine”).
Take a look at the wizened old man on the left with his funny hat. I like the way his beard blends into his cloak, as if the whole figure were carved from wood, or of melted wax. It’s interesting how the viewer’s eye even reads it as a beard, mostly I think because it must be a beard that’s hiding the mouth. The aging clown is also priceless, and the singe line that depicts both eyebrows, forehead and hair is a tour de force. I also like the shorthand by which Picasso depicts the object (a candelabra?) in the background. And did you notice the figure in the doorway (or is it a painting?) carrying a tray of tea, an allusion to the servant in the background of Picasso’s 1955 series, “Les Femmes d’Alger”:
You can have your slapdash 5 and 10 million dollar late Picasso oils, which are now all the rage (I, too, love the great ones, but there were many silly products which nonetheless command staggering prices)–I’d sooner take this late Picasso drawing at around 2% of their cost. OK, so it’s not the kind of artwork that will “hold the wall”, i.e., it can’t be readily resolved from across a large room, but that’s factored into the price. And don’t tell me it didn’t sell because it wasn’t signed!