Picasso created not one, but two powerfully iconic images during May-July 1937, while the murderous Civil War was raging in Spain. The first, of course, is the mural Guernica, unveiled at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Picasso intended this all-consuming statement to impress on the public his shock and outrage at the total destruction that the German air force–acting for General Franco’s rebel Nationalist forces–had rained down on the defenseless Basque town of Guernica, and to affirm his support for the elected Republican (Loyalist) government in Madrid. The second image, also a cri de coeur but conceived on a far more intimate scale, is the etching La femme qui pleure, I, offered here in its final definitive state, which just as significantly reveals a profound dimension of private feeling in Picasso’s work during this period, as he evokes his compassion for–and even projects himself into–a woman caught up in the throes of wrenching sorrow.
Both these masterpieces feature in their imagery aspects of one or the other of Picasso’s two mistresses, whose contending, complementary qualities inspired and galvanized his creative efforts. Marie-Thérèse Walter, who had been involved with Picasso since 1927 and in 1935 became the mother of their daughter Maya, appears in multiple guises in Guernica. “Picasso had no hesitation in using Marie-Thérèse’s image as the incarnation of peace and innocence at the mercy of the forces of evil in this supreme indictment of war as well as of totalitarianism,” John Richardson has written. Dora Maar in 1936 became Marie-Thérèse’s rival for the artist’s love and attention; Picasso liked to manage the affections of both women to his advantage. “Dora largely inspired the Weeping Woman paintings,” Richardson has stated. While Picasso may have initially considered including this gripping image in his mural, Richardson has cautioned us to view the Weeping Women as “a separate series that should not be identified too closely with Guernica” (L’Amour Fou: Picasso and Marie-Thérèse, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, pp. 45-46).
Since receiving in January 1937 the commission to paint the Spanish Pavilion mural, Picasso had been pondering various ideas, but the bombing of Guernica on Sunday 26 April, killing more than 1,600 of the town’s 7,000 inhabitants, immediately convinced him of the subject he must paint. Within days he created his first studies, showing the horse and bull. He then drew on 10 May a woman with her head raised to the sky, her mouth agape, looking away in horror from the lifeless infant in her arms. The painting was already well underway when Picasso on 24 May drew his first study of a weeping woman (Zervos, vol., 9, no. 31), with tears dangling on threadlike tracks from darkened eyes, alluding to Dora’s fondness for using mascara, but more archetypally to the precedent of the mater dolorosa–Mary weeping for her crucified son, and by inference, for all humankind–a potent theme in Baroque Spanish religious art. The most powerful of all the Guernica studies are the weeping woman Picasso drew, while nearly all of the mural imagery was in place and awaiting detail treatment, between 28 May and 3 June (Zervos, vol. 9, nos. 35, 39, 40, 41 and 44; all, like Guernica itself, in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid).
The fourth of the seven photographs Dora made of Guernica in progress, taken on 24 May, shows the closest Picasso came to using a weeping woman in the mural–the “Marie-Thérèse” profile of the striding woman at lower right shows two tears on her cheek, which Picasso soon removed. Picasso wanted to describe in his mural the sudden, unprecedented shock of total war to which the residents of Guernica had fallen victim. The weeping woman, he may have thought, would upstage the ensemble effect to which the four women in the mural contribute their agonized expressions, and distract attention from the primal, mythic symbolism of the horse and bull. Tears of grief and lamentation would follow in the aftermath of the tragedy; the weeping Dora, like the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy, would stand for all those who raised their cries in international solidarity at the fascist atrocity perpetrated on Guernica.
Picasso completed Guernica on 4 June 1937, but he was not done with tearful Dora. “Her visage haunted him,” Judi Freeman has written. “He drew her frequently, almost obsessively, for the next several months. She was the metaphor for his private agonies” (Picasso and the Weeping Women, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1994, p. 61). Picasso executed nine drawings and four paintings of the Weeping Woman between 8 and 26 June. He then etched La femme qui pleure, I, taking the plate through seven progressive states, on a single day, 1 July. The image first appears in all its stark drama in the third state. Picasso strengthened the contrasts of light and dark in the fourth and fifth states; he dispensed in the latter, moreover, with the aquatint shading in the bridge of the nose in order to clarify its arching structure, and eliminated some detail in the sixth state. In the final état VII, offered here, he more densely etched the image to maximize dramatic contrast and imbue the head with a powerful graphic presence. Picasso decided to publish editions only from the third and last of the seven states, each of fifteen signed impressions. Few of these impressions remain in private collections today, with many now in museums and institutions across the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Art Institute of Chicago, Musée Picasso, Paris and Musée du Prado, Madrid.
Two elaborately hatched pen and ink drawings followed the completion of the etching (Zervos, vol. IX, nos. 55 and 56, dated 4 and 6 July respectively). Picasso then departed with Dora for his annual seaside summer holiday, as he had done the previous year, at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon in Mougins. He returned to the Weeping Woman during the fall, in works culminating with the famous oil La Femme qui pleure, dated 26 October 1937 (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 73) which Sir Roland Penrose purchased from the artist and later gifted to the Tate, London.
Dora would remain Picasso’s emblematic victim throughout the ordeal of the German Occupation during the Second World War. “For me she’s the weeping woman,” Picasso told Françoise Gilot. “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” (F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 122). Richardson has taken a more objective view of their relationship: “The source of Dora’s tears was not Franco, but the artist’s traumatic manipulation of her. Picasso’s obsession with her had intensified, but to judge by the artist’s portrayals of her, it precluded tenderness. Marie-Thérèse was submissive out of love; Dora out of a Sadean propensity” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2011, p. 46).