"Basically there is only love," Picasso once said (quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p. 458). And he loved no other subject more than women. Throughout the progression of Picasso's ever-evolving and ground-breaking style, women remained the one constant. Wives, mistresses and female models were Picasso's perennial muses and are the focus of thousands of his compositions in every medium. Hélène Parmelin, a close friend of Picasso's, observed, "The women in Picasso's work would make a whole town if they were brought together. A huge town" (in Picasso, Women, Paris, 1967, p. 48).
Indeed, the importance of women in Picasso's oeuvre is undeniable. "If there were only one truth, then one would not be able to paint a hundred pictures of the same subject" (Picasso quoted in Picasso et les femmes, exh. cat., Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, 2002, p. 17). This fascination with women and his seemingly endless capacity for pictorial experimentation is well represented in the present work. Created on 1 May 1944, Buste de femme is the first of nine portraits of a young woman painted over the course of four days (figs. 1-4). Depicted against a bright red background, the sitter bears little resemblance to either of Picasso's war-time muses, Dora Maar or Françoise Gilot. Yet, there is an unmistakable duality to the painting, as represented in the differing hairstyles on either side of the woman's head. One side is coifed and styled, while the other side is unkempt and wild. With the clear tensions his love triangle with Gilot and Dora Maar would have posed, it is not surprising to see such dualism in his paintings at the time.
Picasso had met Gilot, a young artist in her own right, the previous year and began living with her in February of 1944. Having met Dora Maar in 1936, their turbulent love affair was nearing the end at the time the present work was painted. It was April of 1944 when Picasso created a pair of paintings depicting the two women side by side on the same canvas, one clothed and seated, the other naked and standing. Michael Fitzgerald has said of these works, "The implied comparison between these two figures could not present a greater contrast: one seated, the other standing; one fully covered, the other nude; one in shadow, the other illuminated...Positioned as Picasso had frequently portrayed her during the previous seven years, the seated woman is identifiable, despite its stylization, as a portrait of Dora Maar Picasso has shifted the focus of the composition to her counterpart, who now stands as a presence rather than as an amorphous apparition...[Françoise] has materialized in his art, and she dominates the composition" (in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996). Though the present painting does not specifically depict either woman, it is clear that the numerous women in his life were heavy on his mind.
There is also a great sense of optimism on display in Buste de femme. The radiant brush strokes emanating out from the young girls head not only suggest a burst of new love but similarly, an increasing sense of hopefulness as the end of the war draws near. Paris would be liberated from the Germans just a few months later and the war in Berlin would be over in May of the following year. This period of transformation also coincides with great inventiveness Picasso had in a range of new mediums including lithography, sculpture, and ceramics. In fact, it is likely his experiments with ceramics which influenced the rich impasto surface of Buste de femme.
What is most striking about the present painting and what sets it apart from other portraits Picasso painted of his various lovers is its lack of characteristic features. Instead, this anonymous girl becomes a universal portrait of women--his perpetual muse.