With their fantastically original distortions and their disquieting sense of gothic, almost monstrous, vitality, Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar are a masterful record both of the tempestuous relationship with his mistress and of the anxiety that pervaded wartime France. Perhaps more importantly, they represent a critical step in Picasso's ceaseless exploration of the artistic possibilities of the human figure and as such, are an essential chapter in the history of twentieth century portraiture. As Brigitte Léal wrote in the catalogue to the 1996 exhibition of Picasso's portraits at The Museum of Modern Art:
Their terriblità no doubt explains why the innumerable, very different portraits that Picasso did of [Dora] remain among the finest achievements of his art, at a time when he was engaged in a sort of third path, verging on Surrealist representation while rejecting strict representation and, naturally, abstraction. Today more than ever, the fascination that the image of this admirable, but suffering and alienated, face exerts on us incontestably ensues from its coinciding with our modern consciousness of the body in its threefold dimension of precariousness, ambiguity and monstrosity. There is no doubt that by signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of terrible and tragic beauty, the fruit of our contemporary history. (B. Léal, "'For our Charming Dora': Portraits of Dora Maar", exh. cat., Picasso and Portraiture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 385)
Dora Maar was born in Tour in 1909, daughter of a Yugoslavian architect; she spent most of her youth in Argentina before returning to France in the late 1920s. As a young photographer in the early 1930s, she shared a studio with Brassaï and lived with Georges Bataille and the cinematographer Louis Chavance. She was an intimate of the Surrealist movement and it was through Paul Eluard that she first met Picasso in 1936. A woman of extraordinary intelligence and striking beauty (fig. 1), Dora was a continual source of inspiration to Picasso throughout their relationship. As Françoise Gilot, one of Picasso's later lovers, reported, Dora Maar "had a beautiful oval face but a heavy jaw, which is a characteristic trait of almost all the portraits Picasso made of her. Her hair was black and pulled back in a severe, starkly dramatic coiffure. I noticed her intense bronze-green eyes, and her slender hands with their long, tapering fingers" (F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, London, 1965, p. 14). And Roland Penrose has commented, "Since Picasso began to draw portraits of Dora Maar when he was staying at Mougins in 1936, her face became more and more of an obsession" (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, pp. 303-304).
Remembering the German bombardment of Paris during the First World War, Picasso fled the capital with Dora two days after the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, settling in Royan, a town near the mouth of the Gironde where it flows into the Bay of Biscay. When it became clear that the Germans were not ready to advance westwards (they did not invade France until June 1940), Picasso made periodic trips back to Paris, and in January 1940 rented an apartment in Royan for use as a studio, which he kept until the fall of 1941. Because of the uncertainty of the times and his frequent movements, Picasso painted a number of pictures in quick-drying, water-based gouache that are as fully rendered and finished as his oil paintings. Buste de femme, a portrait of Dora Maar, is indeed the masterwork of this series.
Images of Dora Maar dominate Picasso's oeuvre during the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, a period that many enthusiasts of the artist's work hold up as rivaling the achievement of the cubist years. As one of the rare creative women in Picasso's life--Dora was an accomplished photographer and painter--her impact on Picasso's art was profound and far-reaching. Whereas the golden presence of Marie-Thérèse inspired joy and a sense of well-being, the dark-haired Dora was a more fitting muse for the exorcistic rituals that Picasso required in his art as he dealt with the devastation of Spain during the civil war and the unbridled violence of the world war that soon followed. Dora is the famous "weeping woman", and the model for many of the studies that Picasso made for Guernica.
Buste de femme does not refer overtly to the violence of the era, but its obsessive linearity nevertheless conjures up a powerful sense of displacement and unease. With the future so much in doubt, the artist would like to recall more pleasant times in the form of a beautiful woman who is finely dressed and wears a stylish hat. Yet this vision dissolves as he paints it; Dora's large eyelashes are like tears or like mascara that has run from weeping. The right half a profile image consisting of a frantic, suspecting eye and an elongated nose with flaring nostrils comparable to the snout of a dog. (Indeed, critics have suggested that Picasso explicitly based his rendering of Dora's nose upon the snout of his Afghan hound Kasbec, whom he also depicted in a roughly contemporaneous drawing). Beneath the rich glowing colors, flat decorative forms and arching arabesques, Picasso hints at a fragile temporality, and outlines a host of personal anxieties as he watches the world around him descending into war.
As Penrose has written:
For Picasso, the subject has become the victim of his will to destroy appearances. Vision rather than subject-matter becomes supreme. The Cubists had all destroyed the form of objects such as guitars, bottles and even the human body when reorganizing their shapes in still-lifes or figure compositions, but none had had the same courage as Picasso to demolish the human head. (ibid., p. 304)
(fig. 1) Man Ray, Portrait of Dora Maar, 1936.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Kasbec, 1940.