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1970-1972 The wise child

The cavaliers and children of Picasso’s late paintings seem to have stepped out of the pages of old romances and fairy tales. He works with unprecedented freedom, simulating the decorative patterning of textiles and artlessness of children’s drawings. But the complex interlocking of forms reveals the experience of eight decades of making art.

“When visiting an exhibition of children’s drawings, some years later, he remarked: ‘When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them’.”

[Roland Penrose. Picasso: His Life and Work, 1958]

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Musketeer with Sword was included in the last exhibition authorised by Picasso, held at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. As its curator, the artist selected the 200 works displayed, which he limited to his production between 1970 and 1972. Picasso died in April 1973 and the exhibition opened the following month, revealing an artist moving in a space of freedom – compositional, chromatic and thematic – possibly unparalleled at any other moment in his career. It was this very freedom in his final output which disconcerted some of Picasso’s critics. 

Musketeer with Sword dates from 28 January 1972, a month in which the artist painted various musketeers brandishing swords, using different pictorial calligraphies. All these musketeers seem to have a certain biographical element that connects them, expressed through the eyes, a physical feature which Picasso generally emphasised, even in his most Baroque works such as this one. Here they are the unmistakable punctum, painted with the largest amount of black in the composition, the rest of which is expressed through a combination of brightly coloured long and short brushstrokes and dots. Picasso’s figures of this type have habitually been associated with Rembrandt – a reference point for the artist in his final years – whom Picasso admired for his astonishingly unflinching gaze on death. According to Jacqueline, Picasso ‘started to study Rembrandt during his illness’, but the issue is not in fact so simple, as some resonances fuse with others given that the influences on Picasso’s work are always multi-directional.

In reality this portrait combines different iconographies, from the Spanish Golden Age to 19th-century bullfighters who overlap with the musketeers, so that paint brushes are replaced with daggers or swords, as in this canvas. A plausible interpretative key to works such as this one lies in Picasso’s own texts, in which he hyperbolically evokes images of that swaggering 17th-century Spain of minor nobles and courtesans, a literary and sometimes surrealist equivalent of the figures in his aquatints for La Celestina. Rafael Alberti perceptively observed that the oils shown in Avignon ‘are figures from the Museo del Prado, from the ghostly Toledo of his early youth.’ It is not by chance that in his role as curator, Picasso essentially chose portraits – portraits of those extravagant figures wearing cavaliers’ hats and doublets with swords and pipes who had inhabited his personal cosmos since his youth. They would become the protagonists of his final grotesque parade in the papal palace in which literature, the history of art and autobiography came together in equal measures.

Text: Eduard Vallès “Musketeer with Sword”. In Catalogue Pablo Picasso. New Collection 2017-2020, pp. 426-427

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From 1965 onwards, the Musketeers was one of the most important series of Picasso’s final years. At this point, Picasso was particularly interested in the work of Rembrandt, the poetry of Shakespeare and French adventure fiction. But as the poet Rafael Alberti rightly said of his friend, the swordsmen and their accomplices were primarily Spanish characters. They revealed Picasso’s interest in the Spanish Golden Age, and the respect he felt for the Spanish masters Diego Velazquez and El Greco, whom he discovered during his youth in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The Golden Age is the subject of this room. It was the highpoint of Spanish classical culture. It essentially lasted from the 16th-century Renaissance to the 17th-century Baroque period, and it coincided with the political rise and subsequent fall of the Spanish Hapsburg monarchy.

Rather like a posthumous artistic manifesto, the many paintings he produced in his nineties comprise a group of strange and slightly grotesque swordsmen and Goya-style bullfighters. The master has dressed them in wrinkled, but highly expressive, clothing, in exuberant and surprising colours. The garments are drawn with the clean speed of a wise master and the furious intuition of an expert brush. With his usual elegance and skill, the artist ironically combined the cheekily vulgar and the ridiculously comic. They provoke laughter, amazement - and maybe even repulsion, pity or grief.

Musketeer with a Sword was part of the legendary exhibition held in the chapel of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, in 1973. The surprising collection of more than 200 paintings produced in artist’s final years publicly displayed the last fascinating creative chapter of a free artist who never conformed and who, to the very last, believed in the mystery and challenge of innovation. The man who painted this picture was over ninety years old and, at last, after a lifetime devoted to art, he showed he was able to paint with the enviable and unexpected ease of a child.

 (PICASSO) “Those who worry about how posterity will judge them cannot be free. Posterity is a hypothesis. Artists do not work with hypothesis. They work with the here and now”.

For some time after the Avignon exhibition, which included some of the paintings on show in this room, Picasso’s late work was the subject of adverse criticism. However, many artists today praise these paintings for the way they challenge the viewer, arguing that they are referents, thanks to their seductive crudeness and blatantly courageous forms. Picasso himself, who