On 30 June 1972 Pablo Picasso created his last self-portrait. He had depicted himself many times before, but never like this. His face looked like a skull with stubble. Its colour was greenish-grey. The mouth was a straight slit. Only the lines under his eyes proved his features were flesh and not raw bone, which seems to protrude from his head at the left of the picture, where it is set against red fire, blood, or a setting sun.
From his youthful self-portraits to his bare-chested appearance, at the age of 75, in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 film The Mystery of Picasso, the artist, so fit and long-lived, enjoyed showing off his muscular body. But in his last images of himself, the shoulders that were still so powerful when he displayed them in Clouzot’s adoring film had shrunk to the dried flatness of a mummy. This was his 91st year. Picasso looked at himself without illusions, underlining the true state of things with heavy black lines.
When friends came to visit he would show them the self-portrait of 30 June. It had pride of place on an easel apart from his routine clutter. He wanted to know how others saw it.
Picasso habitually studied his own works in this meditative way: his studio, and all his homes, were filled with his own artworks, going right back to juvenilia from his teenage years in Spain. He kept a bank vault in Paris, filled with paintings, prints, sculptures, and even poetry. But his self-portrait as a death’s head was something else; he kept goading friends to interpret it, insisting they gaze with him into its big terrifying eyes. This picture of a death foreseen was, for Picasso, “a mirror”, his friend and biographer John Richardson told me.
Less than a year after making it, he died, at home in Mougins in the south ofFrance, on 8 April 1973. He was buried at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, in a striking final homage to Cézanne – whose hesitant, searching paintings of this mountain did so much to inspire Picasso’s cubist revolution in the early years of the 20th century. Read more.