Pablo Picasso Sylvette 1 May 1954

Pablo Picasso
Sylvette 1 May 1954
Photo: © The Albertina, Vienna
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2010

In his late paintings of the last decade of his life, Picasso tends to be preoccupied with two subjects: women and musketeers or soldiers. The iconography of these two subjects reflects Picasso’s love of women and his fear of empires, racism and war. The women, especially mothers, represent peace; the musketeers represent war.

Picasso has been depicted as a womaniser and he certainly loved women. What is less well documented, however, is Picasso’s active support of women’s causes. He often generously donated work to women’s organisations and his dove of peace was enthusiastically taken up as an emblem by these groups. His late paintings of women, while deeply erotic, are firmly rooted in his celebration of maternity. These works focus on fertility and conception, and illustrate that life begins with sexual desire. As art works they emerge from and reflect what the English artist, critic and friend Roland Penrose referred to as Picasso’s ‘universal life force’.

Musketeers are soldiers and for Picasso, a committed pacifist, emblematic of barbarity. His musketeers are examples of Europeans at the time of the establishment and expansion of the great Empires after representations by Rembrandt and Hals in Holland, van Dyck in England, and Velázquez and El Greco in Spain. Picasso’s political understanding made him aware that these sixteenth to eighteenth-century portraits are pictures of men whose fortunes were based on war and exploitation. His mosqueteros are also caricatures and brutal self-portraits, that reflect Rembrandt’s idea that life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.