From the time of their auspicious meeting in 1935 to the dissolution of their relationship some 10 years later, Surrealist photographer and painter Dora Maar inspired some of the greatest portraits of Pablo Picasso’s career.
One of these, Femme dans un fauteuil (1942), is among the most highly-worked portraits of Dora executed during the Second World War. On 20 June the work will be a highlight of the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London.
Only rarely exhibited since its creation, the painting features Picasso’s iconic distortions, vivid colours and dynamic description of the sitter’s body. In this difficult period, which encompassed the Spanish Civil War and the German occupation of Paris, Dora’s features became a vehicle through which Picasso could explore his own emotions, channelling his fear and anguish into increasingly distorted visions of her form.
Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in Paris in 1907, Dora Maar spent a large portion of her childhood in Buenos Aires. Upon her family’s return to Paris she began to study painting and photography, dividing her time between the two disciplines until her unique photographic vision began to draw attention within avant-garde circles.
Dora quickly became a key presence within the Parisian intelligentsia; by the early 1930s she had become closely associated with the Surrealists. Eccentric and outspoken, she became a prominent figure in the movement, posing for portraits by Man Ray and Brassaï, and photographing a number of the Surrealist writers, poets and artists who were active in Paris.
Dora and Picasso’s meeting has attained mythical status in the story of the artist’s life. According to one writer, Picasso had come across Dora in the café Les Deux Magots in 1935. She was ‘playing a strange game which intrigued him: she kept driving a small pointed pen-knife between her fingers into the wood of the table,’ wrote journalist and art critic J.P. Crespelle. ‘Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves.’ Leaving the café together, Picasso asked for her gloves as a souvenir of their meeting; he would display this memento in his apartment for years to come.
If Picasso’s early portraits of Dora evoke a calm appreciation of her form, he adopted an increasingly angular vocabulary as their relationship progressed. As the storm clouds of conflict gathered on the European horizon, Picasso began in his canvases to deconstruct Dora’s image with new levels of intensity, introducing extreme distortions that echoed the internal turmoil that was consuming both Dora and Picasso during this period.
Femme dans un fauteuil was painted in April 1942, while Picasso was living in occupied Paris. In keeping with many of Picasso’s portraits of Dora from this period, she is seated on a chair — an extension of his Femmes au chapeau and Femmes assises series. Carving her face into two distinct planes, Picasso exaggerates the sharp angles of her profile; her torso is a web of intersecting lines. A dark background throws the sitter into sharp focus, concentrating our attention on Dora as she gazes at us solemnly.
Although the artist had received offers of sanctuary from friends in the United States and Mexico at the outbreak of the conflict, he chose to remain in France, in his studio at 7 rues des Grands-Augustins.
‘Dora Maar inspired Picasso throughout the war years and remained a beacon of hope and compassion’ — Jussi Pylkkänen
Labelled a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazis, Picasso’s presence in Paris did not go unnoticed by the German forces. Although he was allowed to continue to work, he was forbidden from publicly exhibiting any of his art, and remained under close and constant observation by the Gestapo. They visited his studio on a number of occasions, questioning him as to the whereabouts of friends and former colleagues who had gone into hiding.
Like all who remained in Paris, the deprivations of city life hit Picasso hard. He immersed himself in his work, frantically painting day after day. ‘There was nothing else to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly, and look forward to freedom,’ he later explained. Dora became his primary companion and model during these years, her dark features and striking presence dominating endless portraits and canvases.
Femme dans un fauteuil remained in Picasso’s personal collection until his death in 1973; it then passed to Jacqueline Picasso and was eventually sold through the agency of Picasso’s dealer, Galerie Louise Leiris. It was first shown in an exhibition of Jacqueline Picasso’s collection in 1986, at which point it largely disappeared from public view.
‘Dora Maar, without question Picasso’s most recognisable muse, inspired him throughout the war years and remained a beacon of hope and compassion,’ comments Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s Global President. ‘Femme dans un fauteuil is a complex and striking portrait of Dora at her beautiful and noble best, and we are honoured to have the opportunity to offer such a major Picasso work, which has rarely been seen in public.’