Tête d'Histrion
Tête d'Histrion (Bloch 1849)

1965 (May 23)

Linocut printed in black
State proof
Stamped in ink on verso: "lmprimerie Arnéra Archives/Non Signé"
Printed by Hidalgo Arnéra, 1965
Image: 21 1/4 x 17 1/4  inches
Sheet: 29 x 23 1/2 inches
Framed: 28 15/16 x 33 5/16 inches
(Bloch 1849) (Baer 1360)

A late two-colour linocut printed in black directly onto white paper, this large portrait of an actor is a unique monoprint. It was produced on the occasion of the artist’s exhibition Picasso et le theatre during June to September 1965 at the Musée des Augustins de Toulouse and created in Picasso’s home in Mougins, the village above Cannes. After moving here in 1961 he entered a period of intense preoccupation with the theme of the artist and his model that lasted for the next few years. In the Vollard Suite of the 1930s Picasso had treated the theme obsessively; now he returned to it with a series of paintings of the artist as a prototype which, as the art historian Marie-Laure Bernadec writes, are ‘so powerfully individualized as to be caricatures … He spoke with gentle mockery of this Dopplegänger of his’ (Marie-Laure Bernadac, ‘Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model’ in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, Tate Gallery, London 1988, p.76). And Bernadec reports the writer Michel Leiris analysing one of the deeper themes of Picasso’s imagery of the artist and his model as ‘that of mockery of his own profession, the acting-out of painting. Through all these manifold scenes Picasso is asking himself the question, “What is a painter? A man who works with brushes, a dauber, an unrecognized genius, or a demiurge, a creator who mistakes himself for God?”’ (Ibid.)

After the artist and his model, the iconography of the theatre was to pervade Picasso’s graphic works obsessively in his last years, a subject that Tête d’Histrion therefore anticipates with great clarity, virtually heralding the event with its poster-scale. Indeed, the medium of linogravure is perfectly suited to a theatrical announcement, as Picasso had discovered when he first began working with it during the previous decade. His introduction to linocut had occurred in 1951, when he was invited to create a poster to advertise the annual art exhibition of Vallauris – the small Côte d’Azur town that he had recently made his base. Hidalgo Arnéra (1922-2007), whose local workshop specialized in printing newspapers and posters, suggested that he use linocut, which is relatively easy to cut and print and can easily accommodate text, making it ideal for poster design. Following Arnéra’s advice, Picasso went on to create a series of linocut posters in the early and mid 1950s, advertising local art exhibitions and bullfights, before he embarked on one of the most productive and innovative periods of his late career in this new medium. In collaboration with Arnéra Picasso simplified the traditional lengthy multi-block procedure in 1959 by carving the successive stages of his image into a single block in a carefully planned order, permitting him to print progressively in different colors from the same block. Known as the reduction technique, this resulted in the bright, flat colors and bold patterning of linocut that now became part of Picasso’s visual repertoire in print. The simple planes of colour that result from linocut render it the perfect medium for Picasso’s diagrammatic style of describing features, using his own personal blend of Cubist and Expressionist distortion mixed with the classical naturalism he had perfected over the years. He now explored these in all their possible variations of combinations.

Although as Brigitte Baer comments, in his late work Picasso is quoting constantly, in his biography of Picasso, Pierre Daix states that ‘From 1963 on … Picasso accepted his status as part of that heritage [of art], a status attained during his lifetime with all that such a position and such acceptance implies … Picasso no longer had any accounts to render except to painting itself.’ (Pierre Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, Paris 1987, translated by Olivia Emmet, Thames & Hudson, London 1994, p.349.) Put another way, Picasso ‘no longer invited Velázquez or Manet to visit his territory but proceeded to a straightforward examination of Picasso by and as Picasso’ (ibid, p.350). Thus in his portrait of an actor – an actor who is the painter himself – he combines his own features with forms that recall one of his more challenging and extraordinary paintings an earlier period – his Seated Bather of 1930 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Rendered with flat linearity, the actor’s broad face and wrinkled brow recall the artist’s own. At the same time, the white form that defines the right side of his face and neck and his nose and chin bears an uncanny resemblance to the rounded structure of the Bather’s head and angular body, suggesting that the artist and his model – or his painting – have fused into a single being. Performing the painter at this late stage in his life, Picasso carried with him all his earlier achievements embedded within this role. Although the ‘actor’ portrayed here has mere stubble in the place of the beard that similarly symbolised Picasso’s artistic heritage – from his father Don José, backwards in time to such figures as Rembrandt – his highlighted left ear recalls another iconic artist with whom Picasso had been preoccupied with in recent times – the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90). According to the artist’s biographer John Richardson, Picasso ‘had been thrilled to obtain the original newspaper cutting of the self-amputation of Van Gogh’s ear … [keeping] this yellowed fragment folded away in his wallet’ (John Richardson, Picasso: Mosqueteros, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2009, p.25). Picasso may well have been considering the role of the tortured artist when he created this portrait of an actor, especially in carving his eyes, which appear to be what John Richardson calls Picasso’s ‘own huge mirada fuerte eyes – eyes that seem to outstare death like a torero’s’ (ibid).

Tête d’Histrion was completed in a single state on May 23, 1965. That year it was published by the Musée des Augustins de Toulouse in a large edition of 220 plus a further 35-40 artist’s proofs. These were printed by Arnéra on Arches wove paper in two colours: first a uniform background of chocolate brown, followed by the image in black. This impression – not mentioned by Brigitte Baer in her catalogue raisonné – was printed in black alone.