Tête de femme (Dora Maar) , Painted 25 May 1941
oil on canvas
16 1/8 x 13 1/8 in. (41 x 33.5 cms)
The raven-haired and dark-eyed woman in this haunting and powerful portrait is immediately recognizable as Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover since 1936. In the fall of the previous year, at the Café Deux Magots, she made her famously unforgettable debut impression on Picasso by quickly poking a knife into the table between the spread fingers of her hand, nicking the flesh and drawing blood. The deepening intimacy of their liaison coincided with the Fascist uprising and ensuing Civil War in Spain; in fact, the entire history of their relationship, which lasted until 1944, was tragically and inescapably set against the backdrop of violence and war. Picasso’s earliest portraits of Dora, while he was becoming familiar with her features, were naturalistic and flattering—Picasso’s women always looked their best in his paintings within a grace period that extended only a short time after they entered his life. Some paintings reflected tender moments of happiness and repose, as when in the summer of 1937, following the completion of Guernica, Dora and Picasso vacationed with friends in the seaside town of Mougins.
Brigitte Léal has described Dora as having the “face of an Oriental idol, with its marked iconic character, impenetrable, hard, and unsmiling, and whose haughty beauty is enhanced by makeup and sophisticated finery” (in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 387). Her mysteriously intense but inscrutably impassive visage seemed to reflect the ominous and troubled mood in Europe during the increasingly violent years that preceded the Second World War. Picasso likewise began to subject Dora’s visage in his paintings to unsparing brutality; like some mad surgeon he would take her features under his knife and in the course of his experiments contrive some shocking new pictorial identity for her. Shortly after they arrived back in Paris from their Mougins holiday, he cast her most memorably as the distraught ‘Weeping Woman’ who lamented the slaughter of innocents in the Spanish Civil War. John Richardson has pointed out that “After World War II broke out, Picasso came to portray Dora more and more frequently as a sacrificial victim, a tearful symbol of his own pain and grief at the horrors of tyranny and war” (in “Pablo Picasso’s Femme au chapeau de paille,” Christie’s, New York, sale catalogue, 4 May 2004, p. 113).
The war, not yet two years old, had gone badly for the Allies, and there was no good news to be had anywhere for the peoples of Nazi-occupied Europe. In early April 1941 German armies invaded Yugoslavia, the country where Dora was born, and after fighting that lasted only twelve days, the government in Belgrade capitulated. Greece soon followed. A German army commanded by Field Marshall Rommel had entered North Africa and was already besieging the large British garrison defending Tobruk. After less than a year of Occupation, the citizens of Paris had a troubling idea of what they were in for; there were restrictions and shortages of all kinds. In April 1941 German officials had instituted a law that limited certain economic activities by Jews, and forbid them to possess telephones. In May French police arrested more than 3,000 foreign-born Jews living around Paris; within a year internment camps in the occupied zone held more than 30,000 Jews. Rumors were a constant source of concern. Matisse, then in Nice, received a letter dated 13 May from his son Pierre in New York, in which the latter mentioned having seen a newspaper article that reported Picasso in a concentration camp, awaiting extradition by Franco back to fascist Spain. Picasso was worried about Dora; there was a rumor circulating that she was part-Jewish, and might eventually be picked up by the police.
It was perhaps for these reasons that Picasso painted during the early months of 1941. Or perhaps he was still preoccupied with the implications and meanings of a farcical play he written on 14-17 January, Le Désir attrapé par la queue (Desire Caught by the Tail). Characters he called Big Foot (the artist’s alter-ego), Onion, Tart, Fat and Thin Anguish obsess with the lack of heat, the shortage of food, and the desire to find love. Kathleen Brunner has written, “What is really at issue here is the disruption, in a fallen, material world, of desire, the force of eros, that which brings the sexes together… Picasso stages a confrontation between classical art and the ‘philosophy of existence’ that precedes a dramatic ‘fall’ from the idealistic Big Foot’s studio to the sewer that is Anxiety Villa. The absurdity is predicated on a world in which form and the classical view of art have collapsed. For Picasso the fall leads, not to collapse, but to a new focus on man” (in Picasso Rewriting Picasso, London, 2004, p. 98).
It was not until 10 May that Picasso painted a major composition, in fact one of the finest of his wartime still-lifes, Nature morte à la saucisse (Zervos, vol. 11, no. 112; fig 4), which seems to recall the concerns of his recent play. A series of drawings then followed, depicting the reclining nude he eventually incorporated into the painting L’Aubade, which he completed nearly a year later, on 4 May 1942 (Z., vol. 12, no. 169; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Then on 25 May 1941 he painted the present portrait of Dora, which inaugurated his first extended treatment on any subject since mid-1940.
After the thinly brushed surfaces and the grisaille tonality of the 10 May still-life, Picasso appears to have been eager to work in a more painterly manner, and in this head of Dora he used a loaded brush to produce a thickly impastoed, Van Gogh-like surface. The chief effect that he aimed to create here is that of a figure silhouetted against a light background, as if she were standing before a window with daylight—or the light of a strong lamp—radiating from behind. To achieve this contrast, Picasso rendered most of the tones in Dora’s hair, hat and dress with cobalt blue, green and black, set off against a stark white background, which Picasso has darkened at the sides with strokes of grayish yellow. The tones he chose for Dora’s face are aptly warmer, and he has highlighted her features in strokes of brilliant yellow. Streaks of red emanate from her lower eyelids, as if her mascara were running, or if she were crying streaming tears of blood.
Here Dora has again become the mirror Picasso uses to reflect on the events of the day, as he continued to alter and reshape her visage to express his anxious feelings. He made her nose even more prominent than before, with huge flaring nostrils; commentators have likened this elephantine proboscis to the long snout of Picasso’s Afghan hound Kazbek, or those of the sheep’s skulls seen in the still-life paintings done in the fall of 1939. Picasso has painted the upper part of Dora’s head as a frontal view, while at the same time he had twisted the lower part of her face, with the mouth and jaw, to the left side, creating a composite image of frontal and three-quarter views. She actually possesses two right eyes, one of which was turned to the left as the artist rotated the lower part of her face.
Dora’s hat by now had become a regular feature in Picasso’s depictions of her, functioning as a symbolic extension of her inner angst. Brigitte Léal has called the hat Dora’s “most provocative emblem… In its preciousness and fetishistic vocation, the feminine hat was, like the glove, an erotic accessory highly prized by the Surrealists. Thus Paul Eluard [declared] ‘A head must dare to wear a crown.’ A crown of daffodils, an urchin’s beret, or a cool straw hat for Marie-Thérèse, painted like a Manet; nets, veils and the great wings of a voracious insect for Dora: even their respective ornaments point to the glaring differences in the temperament between the two women” (in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, pp. 387, 389 and 392). Dora’s hats acquired an especially belligerent aspect during the early months of the war: they sometimes resemble the silhouettes of warships seen on the horizon, or as seen here, a warplane’s propeller, or the tail fins of a plunging high-explosive bomb.
On the same day that Picasso painted the present head of Dora, he made a second portrait of her, in the more thinly brushed and more grisaille the manner of the 10 May still-life, this time without a hat (fig. 5). He twisted the upper and lower parts of her head so far around that they face in nearly opposite directions. Coming on the heels of the fallow period early in the year, the production of two such fine paintings in one day appears to have signaled Picasso’s renewed interest in working on canvas. Eleven more portraits of Dora followed by 19 June, and about the same number by mid-summer. Most of these display the twisted face seen in the present painting, while Picasso painted some in a more naturalistic vein. In many Dora wears a hat, configured as seen here, elsewhere she is bareheaded. The culminating picture is this group is undated, but was probably done later that summer, Femme dans un fauteuil (Dora) (Z., vol. 11, p. 374; fig. 6). Mme Léal has written:
“Their terribilità no doubt explains why the innumerable, very different portraits that Picasso did of her remain among the finest achievements of his art, at a time when he was engaged in a sort of third path, verging on Surrealist representation while rejecting strict representation, and, naturally, abstraction. Today, more than ever, the fascination that the image of this admirable, but suffering and alienated face exerts on us incontestably ensues from its coinciding with our modern consciousness of the body in its threefold dimension of precariousness, ambiguity and monstrosity. There is no doubt in signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of terrible and tragic beauty, the fruit of our contemporary history.”