Pablo Picasso painted Femme assise on the last day of March 1953. It is a mark of the quality of the picture that, within two months of its completion, it had been used to illustrate the poster promoting an exhibition of Picasso's recent works which was held at the Galerie Louise Leiris in May to June of that same year, in which Femme assise was also shown. Indeed, the extensive lifetime exhibition history of this picture is itself a tribute to its importance.
The accolades for this painting come as little surprise: Femme assise combines the energy and idiom of a range of periods from Picasso's long career, while also featuring a distinctive, expressionistic edge that marks it out in its own right. The woman's torso appears to have been painted using annotation-like, geometric marks which recall the constructions of Picasso's Cubism from the 1910s; likewise, the framing device adds a reference to those earlier works as well as to the portraits of Renaissance masters whose trompe l'oeil effects added an immediacy to their work by allowing their sitters to spill from the 'frame'. The pose, with the woman clutching the arms of the armchair in which she sits, evokes the memory of his searing portraits of Dora Maar from the late 1930s and early 1940s (fig. 1). The composition of the face and hair, combined with the clear painterly energy that is at work in several areas, reveals this as an early example of Picasso's so-called 'late work', the much-celebrated explosion of creativity that occupied the last two decades of his life.
Picasso's life is often divided into phases relating to the dominant muse at the time. In the case of Femme assise, the above combination of styles and references may be a reflection of the tumultuous period during which this picture was painted, as it was at the very point of crisis when the artist was left by his lover--and the mother of two of his children--Françoise Gilot. It was at the end of March 1953 that Françoise left Picasso in Vallauris, taking the children, and although she would later return intermittently, it was no longer on the same footing.
During this period of turbulence, Picasso created a range of images of women who resembled Françoise, as appears to be the case here. However, the curvaceous, youthful woman who had inspired such pictures as his earlier Femme-fleurs was now increasingly presented from a more expressionistic perspective. In Femme assise, this is observed in the jutting angularity that articulates so much of the picture, replacing the earlier sweeping curves. The geometric brushwork of the torso is complemented by the hatching-like striations that make up the chair and much of the hair; this contrasts with the unkempt, organic, long brushstrokes that comprise the rest of the hair, lending a sense of franticness to the subject that is perhaps heightened by the wide stare of one of the eyes. The face itself has been created using a mesh-like agglomeration of brushstrokes that have an impastoed intensity that hints at the increasing influence of Art Informel, further emphasising the incredible range of painterly touches that are present throughout the entire composition.
All these effects combine to add a sense of tension to Femme assise which is augmented by the deliberately restricted palette, which appears to be a drained distortion of the fertility of some of the earlier depictions of Françoise. The viewer is reminded of portraits of Dora Maar with the hatching, frantic expressions, hands clutching the arms of the chair on which she sits. A photographer, intellectual equal and lover, linked to the Surreal movement who had inspired Picasso's anxiety-fuelled images of distress, Dora is often considered to have been the perfect subject for the artist to channel his anxieties about the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. In Femme assise, an angst similar to that characterizing Picasso's depictions of Dora, often seeming trapped in an armchair, appears to have been revived in a new vessel, and indeed in a new chair. As Picasso had told his friend André Malraux, when discussing his pictures of Dora, using terms that might equally apply to Femme assise: "When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair implies old age or death, right? So, too bad for her" (Picasso to André Malraux, in A. Malraux, Picasso's Mask, New York, 1976, p. 138). In Femme assise, the composition and many of its details appear as post-war echoes of those earlier works. Picasso would sometimes use the visual idiom which was linked to one of the women in his life in depictions of another, creating complex plays of influence as well as laying false trails. Here, Picasso may have depicted this Françoise-like figure through a prism that recalls the earlier, darker muse of Dora--the woman whom Françoise had in fact supplanted in Picasso's life almost a decade earlier.
Françoise's departure from Picasso came as a shock to the artist, who was more accustomed to leaving the women in his life than the reverse. It was the inevitable result of the increasing tensions at their home, which Françoise herself documented in her autobiographical account of her time with the artist, Life with Picasso. For Picasso, this departure of his muse from the post-war period, an artist in her own right with whom he could have discussions about painting and who also had an impressive vitality, was all the more unfortunate as it came shortly after another scandal in his life. Following the death of Stalin, Picasso had provided an illustration of the Soviet leader for the Communist publication Les Lettres Françaises, of which his friend Louis Aragon was the director. The picture was deemed irreverent by many of the people associated with the Communist cause in France, and was widely denounced for not showing the due respect. It was only a couple of weeks after this debacle that Françoise would depart for Paris with her children, Claude and Paloma. Looking at Femme assise, then, and the incredible variety of brushwork that it uses to capture its subject, the viewer gains a rich insight into the mindset of the artist, suggesting his own statement: "I paint the same way some people write their autobiography" (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, "L'Epoque Jacqueline," pp. 17-48, Late Picasso: Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, Prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 28).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Le chandail jaune (Dora Maar), 31 October 1939. Heinz Berggruen collection, Geneva.