Trois femmes nues et buste d'homme, 1969, presents a scene of voyeuristic contemplation, which Pablo Picasso orchestrated with a formidable wealth of graphic styles. A man, his arms crossed over his torso, gazes intensely at a naked, seated woman, who responds to his regard with stoic complacency. In between them, another female presence is visible, thrust out from the obscurity of the background: she appears as a lesser reflection of the seated woman. On the far right, another figure, with her arms raised above her head, is rendered with the multiplied profiles and fluid body of Picasso's late paintings. Picasso's pencil has conjured the scene with resourceful variety: the bodies of the male and female figures in the foreground are defined through continuous, voluptuous lines, but Picasso's graphic language changes as it describes the two other female figures: one cut out from the dark background, the other assembled from a series of different profiles, eyes, hatchings and contours.
Precisely dated 18.1.69 II, Trois femmes nues et buste d'homme was the culmination of a series of eight drawings Picasso executed over a period of two consecutive days (Zervos, vol. 31, no. 10-15; 17-18), which included various depictions of encounters between bearded, musketeer-like men and naked women, at times under the watchful eye of an old procuress. The series seems to relate to the Tragicomedia de Calisto y Malibea (La Celestina), published in 1499 by Fernando de Rojas. The novel had fascinated Picasso since the very beginning of his career, when, in 1904, he painted La Celestina, now held in the Musée National Picasso in Paris. Just a few months before executing Trois femmes nues et buste d'homme, Picasso had returned to the novel once again, illustrating de Rojas work in a series of prints.
Rather than literally portraying an episode of de Rojas novel, however, Trois femmes nues et buste d'homme only evokes the central idea of the novel: a gallant encounter secretly set in a brothel, under the watchful eyes of a close-knit group of people. The figures have developed freely through Picasso's pencil: although perhaps inspired by La Celestina, they are ultimately united into a new narrative, which is all the more enticing as it remains mysteriously ambiguous. The drawing, which presents a series of intriguing pentimenti, is an eclectic testimony to Picasso's draughtsmanship, propelled by instinct but controlled by an infallible graphic talent. Of the series, Trois femmes nues et buste d'homme is the only one that cannot be explained through a simple narrative: different contexts seem to have been superimposed, creating a hybrid yet highly suggestive image in a process that was at the core of Picasso's fluid, whimsical approach to drawing. Describing his late drawings, Picasso noted: "Of course, one never knows whats going to come out, but as soon as the drawing gets underway, a story or an idea is born. And thats it. Then the story grows, like theatre or life and the drawing is turned into other drawings, a real novel. Its great fun, believe me. At least, I enjoy myself no end inventing these stories, and I spend hour after hour while I draw, observing my creatures and thinking about the mad things theyre up to. Basically, its my way of writing fiction" (P. Picasso, quoted in R. Otero, Forever Picasso: An Intimate Look at His Last Years, trans. E. Kerrigan, New York, 1974, p. 170).