By Simon Schama, The New Yorker
Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba” (1654) and Picasso’s “Seated Nude and Another Figure” (1963): Picasso’s riffs on Rembrandt are all about lusty gazing.
In April, 1973, the month that Picasso died, he was asked to choose an image to be used as a poster for a show of recent work at the Palace of the Popes, in Avignon. He picked “The Young Painter,” an oil sketch he’d done a year earlier, at the age of ninety—a vision of his dewy beginnings, not his bitter end. The look is naïve and apparently artless, but the hand that draws it is heavy with memories, not just of a Barcelona boyhood but of the archive of painting. The apple-cheeked youth recalls another young painter at the outset of his career, the twenty-three-year-old Rembrandt, picturing himself and his calling around 1629, in a panel not much bigger than this page. The faces are unmistakably similar: gingerbread-clownish beneath a wide-brimmed hat; snub nose; eyes stylized as ogling black holes, as if drawn by a child. The captured moment, in both images, is solemn; the young men pause before their work, brushes in hand, as if locked in a creative trance. A raking light, the illumination of an idea, strikes their faces. “I don’t paint what I see,” Picasso was given to saying. “I paint what I know.” Rembrandt, his picture tells us, felt the same way: the mind instructing the hand.
It was an unlikely pairing—the cerebral modernist who had made a point of expelling sentiment from painting going wistful over the master whose every brush mark was loaded with emotion. But the fixation was real. The shelves in Picasso’s studio at Mougins, in the South of France, were packed with Rembrandtiana, including all six volumes of Otto Benesch’s edition of the drawings. And though Picasso could not have seen Rembrandt’s little panel first-hand (it was in Boston), he must have plucked that archetypal image of setting forth from one of his books. Radical remaker of art though he was, Picasso always balanced his iconoclastic instincts with a compulsive historicism. In 1936, he had agreed to become absentee director of the Prado, while Madrid was under Fascist siege. Constantly measuring himself for admission to the pantheon, Picasso evidently felt that taking down the masters also meant taking them on, and in his time he had mixed it up with, among others, Grünewald, Poussin, Cranach, Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco. At the end, though, it was Rembrandt of whom, according to his friend and biographer Pierre Cabanne, he spoke “ceaselessly.” The haunted self-portraits of those final years, all stubble and cavernous eye sockets, were surely prompted by the series of pitilessly truthful mirror images that Rembrandt executed in his last decade: a dispassionate scrutiny of time’s ruin recorded in heavy jowls and pouches. Occasionally, as in the self-portrait as St. Paul (in the Rijksmuseum), Rembrandt arched his eyebrows in an expression of quizzical self-recognition, the chastened sinner who might yet imagine redemption. Picasso’s face-making, on the other hand, is showy with self-contempt: so many glaring skulls.
Rembrandt first appeared in Picasso’s visual imagination in the nineteen-thirties, as Janie Cohen points out in her essay “Picasso’s Dialogue with Rembrandt’s Art,” in the volume “Etched on the Memory,” at a time when the Spanish artist was making an ambitious “suite” of a hundred prints for the dealer Ambroise Vollard. Two qualities in Rembrandt’s printmaking had sparked a sense of comradeship across the centuries. First, there was the experimental freedom that Rembrandt allowed himself—sketching ideas on the etching plate and then reworking them, adding other designs, sometimes related and sometimes not—so that the over-all image developed organically. A “trial” etching might have a face, a tree, and a single eye (his eye) on the same plate, and Picasso imagined this multiplicity of visions as an antecedent for his collage play with discontinuous fragments of objects. But Picasso also identified with Rembrandt’s complicated relationship with his models, making them objects, indistinguishably, of aesthetic curiosity and erotic possession.
Picasso’s riffs on Rembrandt are all about lusty looking; in his version of Rembrandt’s “Jupiter and Antiope,” he casts himself as the horned “Faun Unveiling a Sleeping Woman,” one hand lifting a bedsheet, the other reaching for a voluptuous breast. Rembrandt’s original is in fact a bolder and weirder exercise in erotic inspection, the god in faun form leaning over the woman’s gently exposed nakedness with an expression of disconcerting benevolence. His gaze, emphasized by a touch of deep-scored drypoint at the eyes, is concentrated entirely on the darkly cross-hatched groin, whose details Rembrandt (after Titian the greatest soft-porn tease in art) has made tantalizingly invisible. But it’s Rembrandt who takes most pains to wipe any hint of the ornamental from his nude. Antiope’s chubby chin is lifted, her mouth slightly opened as if in a snore, snouty nostrils upturned, an arm wrapped about her head exposing tufts of armpit hair. Picasso, too much the fastidious classicist to linger on armpits, merely summarizes the sleeper’s face, in the manner of his countless nude paintings of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walther.
These two obsessions—experimental printmaking and the gaze of disingenuous desire—came together at one serendipitous moment. In 1934, while Picasso was preparing a plate with multiple profiles of Marie-Thérèse, the etching ground cracked. According to his friend and dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Picasso improvised around the accident precisely the way Rembrandt was thought to have done in his free-form “sketchpad” plates, some of which anthologized different images of his wife, Saskia. “I said to myself: it’s ruined,” Picasso noted. “I’m going to do any old thing on it. I began to scribble. It became Rembrandt.” The doodle did turn into Rembrandt’s face, though in all likelihood it wasn’t quite the pure accident that Picasso made it out to be. Because his plate of the Marie-Thérèses recalls the Saskias, he was probably, at some level, thinking of Rembrandt before he’d even begun. But, once Rembrandt was summoned, he and Picasso became one and the same. Rembrandt’s face on that etching grafts him in the prime of his smiling self-congratulation—complete with curly whiskers and feathered beret—onto the puffier, double-chinned visage of Picasso’s own middle age.