Picasso painted this radically deconstructed visage of Dora Maar on 3 March 1940 in Royan, the seaside town on the Atlantic coast where he, Dora, his secretary Jaime Sabartés and his wife, together with his dog Kasbek, had taken refuge since 3 September 1939, during the early months of the Second World War. Picasso had taken the precaution, as war clouds were darkening, of installing Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter Maya there as early as July, in rooms at the villa Gerbier de Jonc. Picasso and Dora stayed in the Hôtel de Tigre; the artist provisionally set up his studio in the Gerbier de Jonc, and in January 1940 rented a larger space in the villa Les Voiliers, overlooking the port, and facing the setting sun.
This, then, is the wartime face of Dora Maar, the public persona Picasso grafted on to the visage of the woman he passionately prized for her dark, beguiling beauty as well as the most intriguing personality of any lover–among the many–he had known thus far. The relationship that she and Picasso shared was intense and exhilarating, both intellectually and emotionally; it was as productive for him as it proved to be fraught with self-sacrifice for her. In his paintings, drawings and prints, Picasso created an elaborate and compelling myth around Dora, transforming her into an iconic image, the sum of the unrelenting deformations to which he had subjected her, as he engraved on her expression a universal cri de coeur in response to the terrible events that beset the middle decades of the last century.
The present Tête de femme is one of four works, each in the same dimensions, Picasso painted on the second and third days of March 1940 (Zervos, vol. 10, nos. 299-301; the present painting is no. 374). One may imagine Dora standing by the French window in his Les Voiliers studio, starkly lit in brilliant mid-day sunshine, her back to the blue sky over the Bay of Biscay. On the very next day, 4 March, Picasso commenced making drawings in a new Royan sketchbook (Zervos, vol. 10, nos. 387-513; Musée Picasso, Paris). These studies led to his masterwork of the early war years, Nu assis aux bras levés, on which he worked in Royan from 6 March to 19 June 1940, completing it soon after German troops entered Paris and the French government called for an armistice (Zervos, vol. 10, no. 302; The Museum of Modern Art, New York).
In response to the disasters of the Spanish Civil War during 1936-1939, Picasso had cast Dora as the Weeping Woman, and thereafter continued to configure Dora's mysterious and inscrutably impassive visage to reflect the ominous and troubled mood in Europe during the years that preceded the Second World War. Marie-Thérèse, Picasso's other, more tenured mistress, had been the female presence in Guernica. Picasso now preferred to spare her, as the mother of their child, from further association with violence, making her instead into a personal symbol of loving domesticity and peace. Dora alone would have to bear the brunt of Picasso's wartime depredations. Like some mad surgeon he would take her features under his knife and, in the course of his experiments, day after day contrive some shocking new pictorial identity for her. "For years I have painted her in tortured forms," Picasso explained to Françoise Gilot, who would replace Dora as Picasso's next lover, “not through sadism, and not with pleasure either, just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was a deep reality, not a superficial one” (quoted in F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 122).
In the Dora paintings of 2-3 March 1940 Picasso pursued an idea that he had earlier revealed to grotesque effect in a painting done on 1 April 1939, Tête de femme aux deux profiles, in which Dora’s nose and one eye dangle like a promontory before rest of her face (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 282). In the present painting, Picasso has given Dora the great snout of his Afghan hound Kasbek. Her mouth and one ear are virtually detached, spindle-like, from the rest of her features. Bearing witness to the spreading insanity of modern warfare, recurring as one Guernica after another, has thrown her cognitive senses, and her state of mind, into complete disarray. On 1 September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the photographer Brassaï encountered Picasso on the boulevard Saint-Germain: "He was a worried, distraught man who did not know what to do,” Brassaï later recalled (Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, pp. 48-49). No one is safe, no one can escape. Everyone is a victim, who–like Dora here–is left to stare his or her fate in the eye.
On the 3rd of September, the day when Great Britain and France, as Poland's allies, declared war on Germany, Picasso–fearful as ever of a sudden air raid, such as that he had depicted in Guernica–warned Sabartés, "Don't you know that there is the danger German planes will fly over Paris tonight. I'm going right home to pack my baggage. Pack yours and stop fooling, I'll come for you tonight" (quoted in L.C. Gasman, Picasso and the War Years, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, p. 61). Around midnight, Picasso and his party sped off in the artist's capacious Hispano Suiza motor car, driven by his longtime chauffeur, Marcel. They drove through the night as fast as Marcel could manage, and arrived in Royan later the next morning.
Picasso got down to work as soon as he was settled in Royan. He was desperate for painting supplies–he could find locally only sketchbooks, drawing media and tubes of gouache, which he put to use as best he could. Picasso brought back some canvas and oil paints from his later trips to Paris, but he still needed to ration them selectively, at times requiring that he paint on paper and later lay down the pictures on canvas when it became available, as is the case with the four works of 2-3 March 1940.
Portraits of Dora pre-dominated, in Royan and throughout the war, an extension of Picasso’s series of femmes au chapeau and femmes assises of the late 1930s. Dora again assumed the role of prophetess; like Cassandra of mythology and in classic drama, she would wear the frantic frustration of a seer who can foretell the future but is cursed by fate that no one will believe her–only Picasso, who makes her the medium through whom he reflects on events past, current and future. He continued to alter and reshape her visage in new, astonishing–if often frightening–ways: she neither protested nor resisted, it was a role she accepted almost masochistically.
Picasso remained in Royan, traveling to Paris when necessary, for nearly a year, until 24 August 1940, when he returned to live and work in his rue des Grands-Augustins studio, this time for good. If he could not safely move his life’s work, even less possible than when the war first broke out, he would stay put and watch over it. Dora, Marie-Thérèse and Maya remained nearby, within walking distance; he would look after them, too. Picasso and company hunkered down for the German Occupation, which in Paris lasted until the day of Liberation, 25 August 1944.
Dora Maar, Picasso in his studio at the villa Les Voiliers, Royan, summer 1940. On the wall behind the artist is Buste de femme, also painted 3 March 1940 (Zervos, vol. 10, no. 301).
[Fig A] Pablo Picasso, Nu assis aux bras levés, Royan, March-June 1940. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
[Fig. B] Pablo Picasso, Tête de femme aux deux profiles, Paris, 9 April 1939. Formerly in the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin A. Bergman, Chicago; sold, Christie’s, New York, 13 May 2014, lot 11.
[Fig. C] Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme, Royan, 2 March 1940. Private collection.
[Fig D] Pablo Picasso, Portrait de femme, (Dora Maar), Paris, 5 August 1942. Formerly in the collection of Viktor and Marianne Langen; sold, Christies, New York, 1 May 2014, lot 29.