Picasso’s Femme assise achieves the grandeur and poise of a painting, preserving nonetheless the delicacy and inventiveness of draughtsmanship. The size of a painted portrait, the drawing depicts a self-assured woman, of elegant and mysterious demeanour. Over a scaffolding of thin lines, Picasso built the portrait through a series of washes. This monochromatic execution of the work gave Picasso the chance to prove his graphic talent even more assertively. He was able, for instance, to evoke space with an incredible economy of means. The corner, in which the figure appears to be seated, is created by two simple intuitive lines, separating the floor from the walls and—more impressively—by a subtle use of washes: Picasso suggested the depth below the chair by using a denser wash suggesting shade; he then only applied a wash on the left of the figure, suggesting the slant of the wall, introducing perspective into the drawing with a simple sweep of the brush. Different modulations of washes are also used to compose the figure’s dress: geometrically composed, this graphic effect lends to the figure sophistication and a certain awe-inspiring quality.
The dark hair and the long and manicured nails of the figure depicted in Femme assise identify her as Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer who had entered Picasso’s life just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and who shared the artist’s life throughout the Second World War. Under the aegis of Surrealism, their first encounter assumed a legendary aura. Related to her by Picasso himself, Françoise Gilot—who would succeed Dora after the war—narrated as follows the moment when, in 1936, Picasso first saw Dora at the Parisian café Les Deux Magots:
“Pablo told me that one of the first times he saw Dora she was sitting at the Deux Magots. She was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéed on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her outstretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself. From time to time she missed by a tiny fraction of an inch and before she stopped playing with the knife, her hand was covered with blood” (F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 85-86).
The bold, ferocious tones of that first apparition caught Picasso’s attention. Gilot continues: “Pablo told me that was what made up his mind to interest himself in her” (ibid., p. 86). The eminent German Picasso collector Heinz Berggruen—who owned Femme assise—once said “I hope Dora Maar will pardon me for saying that she is inconceivable without Picasso” (quoted in T. Förster, “Dora Maar, 1907-1997” in Picasso et les femmes, exh. cat., Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, 2002, p. 207). Yet, the reason why Picasso was drawn to Dora was precisely because she had a strong individual character. Eccentric and strong-willed, Dora Maar was at the time of her encounter with Picasso an artist in her own right, respected and praised by the Surrealists for the unconventional, at times disturbing nature of her photographs and collages. Before meeting Picasso, Dora Maar had been close to the writer and intellectual George Bataille, who certainly had stimulated her intellectually and fostered her interest in politics. At the time of their encounter, Picasso was still involved with with Marie-Thérèse, who, the previous year, had given birth to their daughter, Maya. Compared with the sweet naivety of the young Marie-Thérèse, Dora must have appeared as an enticing, challenging creature, whom, intellectually, Picasso could treat as his equal. For years, the artist would continue to see them both. The difference between the two women became apparent in the way Picasso portrayed them. In his works, Marie-Thérèse inspired gentle curves and harmonious colour, but Dora Maar brought with her jarred lines, somber colors and fragmented facial features.
Executed on 5 March 1942, Femme assise expresses something of Dora’s commonly accepted personality. She sits in a chair like a queen on a throne. Her hands, self-assuredly placed on the chair’s arms, convey a welcoming, yet resolute authority. At the same time, however, the complex geometry of her dress immobilizes her like a cage: she obediently poses for the artist, subordinating her image to his art. Her image is thus transformed. The thin lines of the chair appear like the threads of a skilfully built spider web, while her black, faceted dress almost evoke the sectioned carapace of an insect. The parallel with the insect world was not extraneous to Picasso. Indeed, Gilot related that the artist did perceive Dora as possessing some qualities that reminded him of the world of insects. “He said he had always considered Dora had such a Kafkaesque personality, that whenever he noted a spot or a stain on the wall or her apartment, he would work at it with his pen until it became a small but very lifelike insect” (F. Gilot and C. Lake, op. cit., 1964, p. 92).
If the metaphor is accepted, then one could ask whether, in Femme assise, Dora is the spider waiting for its prey, or, instead, the prey caught into the artist’s web. By 1942, the year in which the work was executed, the relationship between Picasso and Dora had started to become strained. The drawing was executed on the 5th of March. On the 11th, Picasso wrote a poem, which began with the words “gantée de fleurs” (gloved by flowers), an image which seems to evoked the gloves with “pink flowers appliquéed on them” Dora had been wearing on the day Picasso had seen her with, years earlier, at the Deux Magots. The poem—which reads like a piece of surrealist automatic writing—nevertheless continues in rather violent terms, including images such as “bee stings” and adjectives such as “burnt,” “paralyzed” and “distraught” (cf. Online Picasso Project, Writings, 11.3.42). Meanwhile, in her own poems, Dora depicts a lonely, melancholic picture. In March, the same month Femme assise was executed, she voiced a sense of sadness in her verses “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 weighted 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” (quoted in A. Baldassari, Picasso: Love and War, 1935-1945, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2006, p. 235).
The question of whether the tension between Picasso and Dora can be perceived in the artist’s work ultimately remains a matter of speculation. War, on the other hand, was in 1942 a real presence. In 1940, Picasso and Dora had abandoned southern France, controlled by the Vichy government, to return to Paris, at the time under Nazi occupation. Picasso moved his studio to the Grands-Augustins, where he continued to work discretely throughout the war. The couple continued to meet up with artists and intellectuals in the cafés of Paris, but many had by then left. André Breton and several Surrealists had sought refuge in New York. In 1942, Paul Eluard, one of Picasso’s closest friends, had joined the Resistance, disappearing underground. That same year, the deportation of the Jews of France began. In 1944, Picasso would lose his dear friend, the poet Max Jacob, who was deported to the Drancy concentration camp, where he died of pneumonia. The Surrealist Robert Desnos was also deported, dying at Terezina shortly after the liberation of the camp in 1945. Against the backdrop of the war, the black cloak of Femme assise acquires mourning undertones. Dora Maar had, after all, been at the origin of Picasso’s inspiration for Weeping Woman. In striking opposition to that dramatic work, in Femme assise the figure is endowed with a stoic bearing. Her withdrawn, rigid posture signals a lack of life that references perhaps the difficult times the artist and his muse were traversing in 1942. Femme assise seems to capture what the photographer Brassaï had once noticed of Dora during the war: her “grave, tense countenance” and her “look that was so fixed and attentive it was sometimes disquieting” (quoted in M.A. Caws, Dora Maar With or Without Picasso: A Biography, London, 2000, p. 162). Commenting on his work, Picasso had once said: “When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair implies old age or death, right? So, too bad for her. Or else the armchair is there to protect her” (quoted in A. Stassinopoulos Huffington, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, London, 1988, p. 264).