"A beautiful face even that of one’s lover is nothing but a game of patience the symptom of the pre-imagining of a jumble of many-coloured tangled threads of a system to establish no matter how on some future plane..."
(Picasso, 5th January 1940, quoted in A. Baldassari, Picasso: Life with Dora Maar: Love and War 1935-1945, Paris, 2006, p. 164)
"They’re all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar...Do you think I care? Does Madame Cézanne care? Does Saskia Rembrandt care?"
(Dora Maar quoted in J. Lord, Picasso and Dora: A Memoir, New York, 1993, p. 123)
Painted on 20 May 1938, Buste de femme is a dazzling and jewel-like portrait by Picasso of his lover and muse, Dora Maar. Renowned for her striking beauty and intense personality, Dora Maar’s presence in the artist’s life from the time that they met in 1935, until their relationship ended around 1945, inspired some of the greatest portraits of Picasso’s prolific career. Her face became the site of myriad distortions, exaggerations and abstractions as he returned again and again to the motif of the seated woman, capturing different psychological nuances and expressions. Dating from the height of their relationship, Buste de femme is one of the finest in a series of highly coloured bust length portraits, which feature Dora wearing an array of flamboyant hats, that Picasso began in the summer of 1937 and continued throughout 1938. With her dark hair tucked behind her ear, the regal figure of Dora, adorned in an ornate red hat and an outfit composed of richly colored arabesques, erupts from a luminous white background. Color bursts from every corner of Dora’s image: the portrait is electrified as dazzling streaks of pink, flaming orange and yellow, and cooler tones of turquoise, blue and white interlock and coalesce within the composition. Composed of an elaborate labyrinthine web of boldly colored facets and lines, the head of Dora sparkles with a radiant energy, a joyous affirmation and celebration of life and love created at a time when the prospect of war moved ever closer.
Together, Picasso and Dora lived through one of the most turbulent and tragic decades of the 20th Century, witnessing the rise of Fascism, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, and the bleak realities of living in Occupied Paris. Despite this time of terrible turbulence, Dora inspired an astounding period of creativity in the artist, serving as his muse as well as his artistic collaborator. The photographs taken by Dora Maar of Picasso’s studio on the rue des Grands Augustins illustrate this period of great productivity, showing rows and rows of canvases stacked up in the artist’s studio. One of the most famous of these from 1939 shows a multitude of paintings of female heads, most of which feature the dark featured visage of Dora, lined up against a wall of the studio. Many of these paintings now reside in prominent museum collections across the world, and in the centre, the flamboyant hat and faceted forms of Buste de femme are visible. This portrait remained in Picasso’s personal collection for many years and was one of the paintings included in David Douglas Duncan’s Picasso’s Picassos, a revelatory book published in 1961, that revealed to the public many never before seen works that had been kept privately in the artist’s own collection.
Picasso and Dora are said to have met for the first time at the end of 1935 or the beginning of 1936, depending on different accounts, but they already shared a number of mutual friends and had both been moving the same Surrealist circles prior to this first proper encounter. Born in Paris in 1907, Henriette Theodora Markovitch, as she was known before she shortened her name to Dora Maar, grew up in Argentina before returning to Paris aged 19, where she studied painting and photography. A prominent yet enigmatic presence within the Parisian intelligentsia, in the early 1930s she became involved with the Surrealist group, exhibiting her photography with them in the International Surrealist Exhibition in Tenerife in 1935, and in London the following year. Eccentric and independent, she had posed for Man Ray and Brassaï, both of whom were fascinated by her, and she had photographed a number of the Surrealist artists, writers and poets, including Yves Tanguy, Georges Hugnet and René Crevel. She was also politically active thanks in part to her relationship with writer and philosopher, Georges Bataille, with whom she was romantically involved before Picasso.
It was their mutual friend, the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard who is said to have introduced the two artists. This first meeting has now become legendary: dramatic, steeped in dark eroticism and tinged with a seductive violence, it reads like a Surrealist fantasy. One writer recalled: "the young woman’s serious face, lit up by pale blue eyes which looked all the paler because of her thick eyebrows; a sensitive uneasy face, with light and shade passing alternately over it. She kept driving a small penknife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves... Picasso would ask Dora to give him the gloves and would lock them up in the showcase he kept for his mementos" (J-P. Crespelle, quoted in M.A. Caws, Dora Maar with and without Picasso, London, 2000, p. 81).
This raven-haired beauty proved irresistible to the Spanish artist. Immediately beguiled by her seductive sado-masochistic ritual, he was attracted to her dark intensity, struck by her gaze that was said to be as powerful as his own, notorious mirada fuerte. "[Picasso] felt a sudden and violent attraction to a young and beautiful photographer," another writer recalled, "Dora Maar, radiant, with her ebony hair, her blue-green eyes, her controlled gestures, fascinated him. She still lived with her parents, but behind her haughty and enigmatic attitude you could see a spontaneity restrained, a fiery temperament ready to be carried away, mad impulses ready to be unleashed. She withstood without batting an eye Picasso’s stare, and he was the one to flee" (J C. Gâteau, quoted in ibid., p. 83).
More than her looks however, Dora was independent, elusive and deeply enigmatic; and, to the artist’s delight, she also spoke Spanish, replying to his initial French introduction in his native tongue. Unlike Marie-Thérèse, Dora Maar was older and more worldly, an accomplished artist in her own right who held her own opinions and maintained strong beliefs and political convictions. "I just felt finally, here was somebody I could carry on a conversation with", Picasso later reminisced (Picasso quoted in F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 236).
Against the backdrop of the impending war the two began a passionate and tumultuous affair. At the beginning of 1937, Dora found Picasso a large new studio on the rue des Grands Augustins, located around the corner from her apartment on the rue de Savoie. She was not however free to visit Picasso at her whim; instead she had to wait until the artist called to request her presence. "She never knew whether she would be having lunch or dinner with him...she had to hold herself in a state of permanent availability so that if he phoned or dropped by, he would find her there," Françoise Gilot explained (ibid., p. 36). Regardless of this cruel psychological power that Picasso exercised over her, Dora became a crucial part of the artist’s life both romantically and intellectually. Gilot, the woman who would replace Dora as Picasso’s mistress at the end of the Second World War, stated that out of all of the artist’s lovers, Dora was "an artist who understood him to a far greater degree than the others" (ibid., p. 340).
Painted in 1938, Buste de femme dates from the height of the couple’s intense and stimulating relationship and can be seen to embody the artist’s fascination with and admiration for Dora: a paean to her mysterious and beguiling persona. A profusion of radiant colors and elaborate, faceted forms, the figure of Dora shines with a youthful radiance. Crowned with a flamboyant hat, she appears majestic, stately and self-assured as she stares with an intent and direct gaze. Picasso transforms her image into a magnificent, dazzling spectacle; a pictorial celebration of the artist’s lover and muse.
Buste de femme demonstrates Picasso’s supreme mastery at reimagining the human face and conveying this in his own radical and unique pictorial language. As with his previous lovers, Picasso had first absorbed the image of Dora, depicting her in a series of intimate sketches and drawings, and it was not until the end of 1936 that her face began to be distorted in the artist’s work. In the throes of their intense relationship, Picasso depicted her with an obsessive passion. "She was anything you wanted," he recalled to James Lord, "a dog, a mouse, a bird, an idea, a thunderstorm. That’s a great advantage when falling in love" (Picasso, quoted in M.A. Caws, op. cit., 2000, p. 90).
Gradually this stylization and deformation intensified, as her face became the source for some of the most moving images of Picasso’s career, perhaps most notably the "Weeping Woman" series that culminated in October 1937 with the masterful La femme qui pleure (Tate Gallery, London). Crumpled with tears and wracked with anguish and grief, the face of his lover became in these paintings the mirror of the artist’s own emotions and inner torments, as well as a universal expression of the angst caused by the Spanish Civil War and the increasing inevitability of all-out war. Following the outbreak of the Second World War and the ensuing trauma and tragedy that followed, Picasso’s depictions of Dora became increasingly violent, a powerful record of the emotional upheavals and turbulence of these dark, wartime years. "For me [Dora is] the weeping woman," Picasso explained. "For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one" (Picasso, quoted in W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 395).
Picasso continued to obsessively distort, deform and deconstruct Dora’s image in his paintings of her. In Buste de femme, her face is no longer whole and volumetric but is divided into an angular, complex network of fragments and facets of color, line and pattern. Though depicting her in profile, Picasso has included both eyes in his portrayal of her, a distinctive device that was a dominant feature of his portraits of 1937 and 1938. With these works, the artist formed a new conception of portraiture, shunning the depiction of volume for a flattened and stylized composite of line and color. Pulsing with a bold intensity, this painting can be seen to reflect Dora Maar’s intense temperament: the deconstructed face perhaps reflecting her complex and enigmatic persona.
At the time that he painted Buste de femme, Picasso was also romantically involved with his young, golden-haired muse and mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who had, in October 1935, given birth to a daughter named Maya. He kept Marie-Thérèse and his baby daughter secret, safely ensconced in a picturesque farmhouse at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, near Versailles; a serene domestic idyll far removed from the reality of impending war, while in Paris he conducted a more public affair with his new muse Dora. Though united in their shared devotion to Picasso, these two women were polar opposite in terms of appearance and temperament and their simultaneous presence in the artist’s life provided him with a powerful artistic stimulus.
Picasso thrived off their dual presence in his life, orchestrating and presiding over the roles they were to play for him, and intensifying the rivalry that existed between the two women. Picasso recalled an occasion in 1937 when his two mistresses met at his studio in Paris. Angry at finding Dora there, Marie-Thérèse asked Picasso to choose between them, “Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?”, the artist recalled her saying. "It was a hard decision to make. I liked them both, for different reasons: Marie-Thérèse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent. I decided I had no interest in making a decision. I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they’d have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories" (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot and C. Lake, op. cit., pp. 210-211).
Over the following years, Picasso painted both of these women compulsively, clearly reveling in the endless inspiration that their contrasting looks and characters provided. Blue-eyed, blonde haired and voluptuous, Marie-Thérèse was the embodiment of femininity: gentle, passive and kind, her image rendered with luxuriant line and soft, harmonious colors. Intense, anxious and highly intelligent, Dora Maar was the antithesis: raven-haired and dark featured, she sported the latest Parisian fashions, and is often pictured wearing scarlet lipstick and nail varnish, her image rendered with jagged, angular lines and intense, vivid colors.
Nowhere are their divergent psychologies and physiognomies perhaps more apparent than in the corresponding portraits that Picasso repeatedly painted of both of these women. He most frequently depicted them in bust-length portraits or seated in chairs, and paintings such as Buste de femme invite direct comparison between his two mistresses. Throughout 1938, the year that he painted Buste de femme, Picasso alternated back and forth in his depictions of the two women. Just over a month after he painted the present work, he portrayed Marie-Thérèse in the same pose in a work entitled Buste de femme au chapeau de paille sur fond fleuri (Marie-Thérèse) (Museum Sammlung Rosengart, Lucerne). Instead of the fragmented, multi-colored brushstrokes that constitute Dora’s face in Buste de femme, he has painted the face of Marie-Thérèse in a soft pastel green as she is posed against a pink, floral-patterned background.
One of the most notable features of Buste de femme is the bright red hat that is positioned, crown-like, upon her statuesque head. Described by Picasso in a poem of 1937 as "devilishly enticing in her disguise of tears and her marvellous hat" (Online Picasso Project, Writings, 18th February 1937), Dora was well known for her extravagant and eccentric head wear, often sporting an almost surreal array of veils and hats and wearing the latest Parisian fashions. For the Surrealists, the female hat was a fetishistic object, which, like gloves, was a highly alluring and erotic symbol. "Among the objects tangled in the web of life," Paul Éluard wrote in 1937, "the female hat is one of those that requires the most insight, the most audacity. A head must dare wear a crown" (P. Éluard, quoted in W. Rubin, ed., exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 389). Over the course of 1937 and 1938, the motif of the hat became more and more prominent in Picasso’s brightly colored depictions of both Dora and Marie-Thérèse as these female accessories became increasingly extravagant and elaborate. These adornments once again illustrate the marked differences between the two women. In contrast to the headwear that Marie-Thérèse is pictured in–berets, straw hats and flower crowns–Dora Maar’s costume embellishments tend to be more fashionable, ornate and ostentatious. Yet, at the time he painted Buste de femme, Picasso was increasingly interchanging these symbolic attributes, playing with the identities of his two adoring lovers as they both vied for his undivided attention.