‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ – Dora Maar, in a telegram to Picasso, 12 August 1936 (quoted in L. Baring, Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and Picasso, p. 166).
‘An artist isn’t as free as he sometimes appears. It’s the same way with the portraits I’ve done of Dora Maar. I couldn’t make a portrait of her laughing. For me she’s the weeping woman. 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’ – Pablo Picasso (quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 122).
‘I paint only what I see. I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, maybe differently from other epochs in my life, but I’ve never painted anything but what I’ve seen and felt. The way a painter paints is like his writing for graphologists. It’s the whole man that is in it…’ – Pablo Picasso (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, p. 66).
‘Portraits should possess not physical, not spiritual, but psychological likeness’ – Pablo Picasso (quoted in M. McCully, A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences, p. 18).
‘I wasn’t Picasso’s mistress, he was just my master.’ – Dora Maar (quoted in M. A. Caws, Dora Maar with & without Picasso, a biography, p. 171).
‘Why do you think I date everything I do? Because it is not sufficient to know an artist’s works – it is also necessary to know when he did them, why, how, under what circumstances.’ – Pablo Picasso (quoted in Brassaï, Picasso and Company, F. Price, trans., New York, 1966, p. 100).
Painted on the 24th of April 1942, Femme dans un fauteuil (Dora Maar) is a powerful depiction of Picasso’s great lover and muse, Dora Maar, the mysterious, raven-haired beauty who inspired some of the greatest portraits of his prolific career during their nine-year relationship. Described by Picasso in 1937 as ‘devilishly seductive in her disguise of tears and marvellous hats,’ Dora was the ultimate Surrealist femme-fatale, an enigmatic muse who captured the artist’s imagination from their very first meeting (Picasso, quoted in L. Baring, Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and Picasso, New York, 2017, p. 196). Renowned for her striking beauty and intense personality, Dora’s features became a vehicle through which he could explore his own emotions at this time, channelling the fear, torment and anguish that plagued him during the tumultuous and violent years of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War into ever more distorted visions of her form. In these dynamic, provocative works, Picasso created an elaborate and compelling myth around the character of Dora, transforming her into an iconic figure whose dramatic persona and powerful beauty has become inextricably intertwined in his conception of these turbulent times.
Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in Paris in 1907, Dora Maar spent a large portion of her childhood in Buenos Aires, where her architect father had been commissioned to design a number of public buildings. Upon the family’s return to Paris, Dora began to study painting and photography at the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, the Ecole de Photographie, and the Académie Julian, dividing her time between the two disciplines until her unique photographic vision began to draw attention within avant-garde circles. Supplementing her more experimental work with advertising and editorial commissions, Dora quickly became a prominent presence within the Parisian intelligentsia. During this period, her photography relished in the surreal, whether highlighting the disquieting peculiarity of everyday life and objects that the artist came across, or creating strange, otherworldly collaged images that blend seemingly innocuous elements into mysterious juxtapositions. By the early 1930s, she had become closely associated with the Surrealists, participating in the group’s provocative demonstrations, convocations and exhibitions in Tenerife and London. Eccentric and outspoken, she became a prominent figure within the movement, posing for portraits by Man Ray and Brassaï, and photographing a number of the Surrealist writers, poets and artists active in Paris, from Yves Tanguy to Léonor Fini, Georges Hugnet to René Crevel. She was also politically active thanks in part to her relationship with the writer and philosopher, Georges Bataille, with whom she was romantically involved before meeting Picasso.
Tinged with a seductive mix of violence and dark eroticism, the first meeting between Dora and Picasso has attained mythical status in the story of the artist’s life. According to one writer, Picasso had come across Dora in the infamous Café les Deux Magots one Autumn evening in 1935, where 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. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves…’ (J.-P. Crespelle, Picasso and His Women, R. Baldick, trans, London, 1969, pp. 145-146). Picasso was immediately beguiled by this elusive, mercurial siren, her dark intensity and powerful gaze, said to rival his own mirada fuerte, sparking a fierce passion in him. As another writer recalls, ‘Dora Maar, radiant, with her ebony hair, her blue-green eyes, her controlled gestures, fascinated him. … 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 M. A. Caws, Dora Maar with & without Picasso, London, 2000, p. 83). They left the café together and in the street he asked for her gloves as a souvenir of their meeting, a memento that he would proudly display in a vitrine in his apartment for years to come.
An expert at creating an impression, Dora was renowned for her chic appearance, painting her nails in different colours according to her mood, wearing dashing hats, elaborate brooches and a bold scarlet lipstick, and adopting the most up-to-date fashions from a host of leading designers. More than her striking looks however, Picasso’s attraction lay in the fact that Dora was an independent, thoroughly intelligent modern woman, an artist in her own right fully engaged in the Parisian avant-garde, who maintained strong beliefs and political convictions and was unafraid to engage in serious debate with the artist. He also delighted in the fact that she spoke Spanish fluently, later confessing ‘I just felt finally, here was somebody I could carry on a conversation with’ (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 236). Against the back drop of impending war, the two began a tumultuous love affair that would carry them through some of the darkest years of European history. Despite these turbulent and tragic times, Dora inspired an astounding period of creativity in the artist, becoming his most important muse and collaborator as the 1930s waned and the 1940s dawned. As Jean-Paul Crespelle proclaimed, ‘…this affair, coinciding with the peak of his artistic achievement, was to light up his life with a bright flame of passion’ (J.-P. Crespelle, op. cit., p. 145).
As with all of Picasso’s paramours, the earliest portraits of Dora evoke a tender, calm, sensual appreciation of her form, captured in an array of delicate drawings that record her likeness in a direct and intimate manner. As their relationship progressed however, Picasso adopted an increasingly angular vocabulary in his depictions of Dora, abstracting and attacking her form, introducing extreme distortions and stylizations, as he sought to convey the psychological depths that lay behind her enigmatic façade. In this way, Dora became the complete antithesis of Marie-Thérèse Walter, whose curvilinear, sensuous body had informed his artistic activities since the late 1920s. The clear differences in their physical appearances were mirrored by a similarly sharp contrast in personality, temperament and countenance – whereas Marie-Thérèse was blonde, athletic, voluptuous and easy-going, Dora was dark, mysterious and inscrutable. Driven by a fierce intellect, Dora engaged Picasso in stimulating conversation, delving into politics, art and history with an impassioned fervour, whereas Marie-Thérèse, with her sunny disposition, passive nature and complete indifference to such subjects, demanded nothing from Picasso. As Françoise Gilot concluded, ‘Marie-Thérèse had no problems. With her, Pablo could throw off his intellectual life and follow his instinct. With Dora, he lived a life of the mind’ (F. Gilot, op. cit., p. 236). Picasso thrived off their dual presence in his life, painting both with a compulsive obsession that sprung from the formal possibilities of their contrasting appearances and characters.
As the storm clouds of conflict gathered on the horizon of Europe, Picasso’s obsessive deconstruction of Dora’s image reached new levels of violent intensity, fragmenting her form into angular networks of intersecting lines and converging planes, and dissecting her face into sharply opposing facets, echoing the internal turmoil and despair that was consuming his muse during this period. Having been actively involved in left-wing politics for a number of years, Dora found the rise of Fascism and the ensuing conflicts of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War horrifying. She followed current events with an intensity and passion that matched Picasso’s own, consuming reports in the daily newspapers about the worrying developments across Europe, and reacting dramatically to all she read. Her expressions of despair, tragedy and angst became inextricably intertwined with Picasso’s own perception of the wars, her face a mirror through which he witnessed the wave of violence as it swept towards France.
It was this aspect of Dora that inspired some of the most moving images of Picasso’s career, most notably the series of ‘Weeping Women’ that emerged in 1937 and which culminated in the iconic La femme qui pleure of 1937 (Tate Gallery London). Crumpled with tears and wracked with anguish and grief, Dora becomes a modern day embodiment of the mater dolorosa, a universal embodiment of despair and suffering. It was this aspect of her character that Picasso would forever associate with Dora, later stating: ‘An artist isn’t as free as he sometimes appears. It’s the same way with the portraits I’ve done of Dora Maar. I couldn’t make a portrait of her laughing. For me she’s the weeping woman. 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’ (Pablo Picasso, quoted in ibid, p. 122).
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Picasso chose to remain in France, refusing offers of sanctuary from friends and supporters in the United States and Mexico and settling into a life of isolation in his studio at 7 rue des Grands-Augustins. His presence in Paris did not go unnoticed by the occupying forces. Labelled a ‘degenerate’ artist during the Nazi campaign against modern art, several of Picasso’s artworks had been confiscated from German museums, while the success of his epic painting Guernica led him to be considered a champion of the intellectual resistance to Fascism. Although he was allowed to continue to work, the occupying forces forbade Picasso from exhibiting publicly, and he remained under close and constant observation by the Gestapo, who visited his studio on a number of occasions. Cast into internal exile Picasso submersed himself in his work, frantically painting day after day, as if a silent protest against the attempt to silence him. ‘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 (Picasso, quoted in H. Janis & S. Janis, Picasso: The Recent Years, 1939 – 1946, New York, 1946, p. 4). Dora became his primary companion and model during these years, her dark features and striking presence dominating endless portraits and canvases, as Picasso responded to life under the oppressive new regime.
Like all who remained in Paris, the deprivations of life in the city hit Picasso hard – food shortages and rationing were rife, he struggled to heat his studio, and the chilly temperatures of long winter nights often left him unable to paint. The bleak reality of life in Paris at this time infused Picasso’s 1941 short farce, Le Désir attrapé par la queue (Desire Caught by the Tail), in which each of the characters appear as obsessed by hunger and the extreme cold. Although Picasso was wealthy enough to be able to afford to purchase goods from the black market, and had friends who assisted him in acquiring materials such as plaster, paper and even the highly sought after bronze with which to create his art, he was largely forced to make do with what was available. Pages of the city’s daily newspapers, for example, were used as a support for painting studies, saving his precious canvases and paper stocks for more developed ideas, such as the present work.
Executed towards the end of April 1942, as the Occupation was about to enter its third year, Femme dans un fauteuil (Dora Maar) captures the hieratic bearing, the intense stillness and statuesque poise Dora was famed for. In keeping with many of Picasso’s portraits of Dora from this period, she is seated on a chair in an extension of the series of femmes au chapeau and femmes assises that had occupied the artist in the years immediately preceding the war. Boldly carving her face into two distinct planes, Picasso exaggerates the sharp angles of her profile, while also adding a phallic, proboscis-like nose more reminiscent of the snout of his beloved Afghan hound, Kasbek, than of Dora herself. Framed by the bold scarlet armature of the chair, her torso appears in a labyrinthine web of intersecting lines, a delicate interplay of curves and angles converging to create a fragmented, sculptural analysis of the volumes of her body. Set within a dark, shadowy background which throws her body into sharp focus, our attention is concentrated solely on Dora, as she gazes directly outwards from the canvas with an intense solemnity. Her clasped hands, meanwhile, create the impression that she is patiently waiting for something to happen, a reflection, perhaps, of Picasso’s own patience as he silently endured life during the Occupation and awaited his freedom.
In a poem from March of 1942, less than a month before Femme dans un fauteuil (Dora Maar) was begun, Dora captures a sense of the seemingly endless game of waiting that underpinned their life at this time. Writing as if from the midst of a portrait session with Picasso, Dora’s melancholy seeps into every line: ‘Tall buildings, facing the sun, the even sky/ are visible from the bedroom at the summit of the landscape./ I don’t move./ That’s how I used to do it before; I weighed everything down./ Oppressed by solitude, the thing was to imagine love/ time passes./ Today, a Sunday at the end of the month/ March 1942 in Paris the songs of pet birds/ are like little flames burning calmly/ in the silence. I despair./ But it’s not actually me/ The tall buildings facing the sun, the even sky,/ I can see them from my bedroom at the summit of the landscape/ I don’t move/ That’s how I’ve always done it. I weighed everything down/ Today this other landscape on this Sunday at the end/ of the month of March 1942 in Paris the silence is so deep that the / songs of the pet birds are like little flames quite/ visible. I despair/ but let’s leave all that’ (Dora Maar, quoted in A. Baldassari, Picasso, Love and War 1935 -1945, Paris, 2006, pp. 234-235).
The pensive, despondent mood of the composition is punctuated by the bright costume and ornate accessories which adorn the sitter’s form, details which remained central to Picasso’s vision of Dora even in the darkest days of the Occupation. Dora delighted in wearing eccentric hats, a passion she had developed during her days as a fashion photographer, and became well known for wearing an elaborate mixture of veils and peculiar headwear, including the fantastical concoctions of Elsa Schiaparelli. The hat was, like the glove, an accessory celebrated by the Surrealists for its erotic connotations. As Paul Éluard explained, ‘Among the objects tangled in the web of life, the female hat is one of those that require the most insight, the most audacity. A head must dare to wear a crown’ (P. Éluard, quoted in B. Léal, “For Charming Dora”: Portraits of Dora Maar,’ in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., New York, 1997, p. 389). They soon became her calling card, an essential element of Dora’s personal iconography that filtered through into Picasso’s conception of her character. In Femme dans un fauteuil (Dora Maar), the deceptive simplicity of the small green top-hat with a single flower that perches atop Dora’s head stands in stark contrast to the playful fish-shaped hat, replete with cutlery and lemon, that Picasso had painted her in a week earlier (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). Balancing the small top-hat on her crown, Picasso uses the accessory to emphasise the precarious equilibrium that seems to hold her entire form together, as the interlocking planes of her face, head and neck sit together in a complex assemblage of carefully counterbalanced weights and volumes.
Through the myriad of distortions and transformations that he subjected her features to, Dora became the chief intermediary through whom Picasso could reflect on current events, finding in this mysterious muse a model who somehow, on some intense and deep level, suited the dark atmosphere of the times. The series of uniquely subjective visions of her form that he produced during their nine-year relationship express both the artist’s own inner emotions, his angst and despair at the terrible events he was living through, whilst simultaneously reflecting the sentiments of a wider population scarred by the traumas of war. By turning her powerful features into a lament against the cruelty of the conflict, Femme dans un fauteuil (Dora Maar) transcends the moment in which it was produced to become a universal, timeless expression of stoicism, defiance and resistance in the face of overwhelming oppression.