Picasso remembered that as a child of seven he was fond of borrowing his Aunt Eloisa's scissors and cutting out little dolls, animals and flowers from paper to amuse his sister Lola and cousins Concha and Maria. In later years he made paper dolls for his own children. In the late 1940s and 1950s Picasso was a frequent visitor to Henri Matisse's studio and was fascinated with his friend's paper cut-outs. In 1954, the year of Matisse's death, Picasso made cut-outs from photographic paper in collaboration with André Villiers, which seem to have inspired him to create a new series of planar, instead of modeled, sculptures.
Picasso commenced his first group of sheet-metal sculptures later that year with a sequence of heads titled Sylvette (Spies, nos. 488-491), which portray a young woman he had been painting and drawing. He provided cardboard maquettes to workmen in a nearby Vallauris factory who turned the designs into metal sculptures, which the artist then embellished with drawing and color. In 1957 he created a second group of heads (Spies, nos. 494-496), which were set on raised circular shafts that gave them a totemic appearance. In November 1960, Picasso returned to the Vallauris factory, which had been taken over by Lionel Prejger and his business partners to make metal tubing. They agreed to collaborate on a large series of bent and folded metal sculptures, and in the course of the years 1961-1962 Picasso produced about 120 works, including Femme au bras levé, most of which were carried out under Prejger's supervision.
Prejger said that Picasso told him, "I am fulfilling an ambition I have had for a long time, to give permanent shape to all these bits of paper that were lying around" (in M. McCully, Picasso Anthology, Princeton, 1981, p. 259). Prejger visited Picasso almost daily to pick up the paper cut-outs that were to serve as models for his workmen. "Picasso seldom makes a drawing, but simply takes the paper in one hand and the scissors in the other, and begins to cut. Then the most important task, the folding begins: the folding is what produces the play of light in the finished sculpture" (ibid., p. 261). Prejger then returned to his workshop with the paper model, from which his assistants produced an accurate copy in sheet metal in the desired thickness, which depended on the size of the sculpture. Prejger recalled how "Picasso will not accept any imperfection in the work, and it makes him furious at times that he cannot himself work at the forge or with a cutting torch" (ibid.). Because the metal sculptures could not be corrected, Prejger was forced to throw away the results that Picasso had rejected and start over. Most, such as the present sculpture, were painted a pure matt white.
Roland Penrose has observed that "The result combines the two-dimensional significance of drawing, the three dimensional planes of the bent sheets, and the transparent space between the flat surfaces. With a delightful economy of means the simple sweeping curves of their outlines and the subtle play of light and shade on their surfaces combine to give them a sense of both movement and solidity. Whether they are birds, animals or human figures they all possess the tensions and movement existing in life" (in The Sculpture of Picasso, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1967, p. 32).
During this period there was constant and significant interaction between Picasso's painting and sculpture--the figures in his paintings often resemble cut out and folded forms, and in fact some of the sculptures actually served as models for them. Spies has asserted that "These sheet metal sculptures are among the most magnificent in Picasso's late oeuvre. The sharp contouring, cutting space like a knife, creates rich silhouettes. The relief effect produced by the superimposition of planes and their cast shadows goes back to the explorations of Synthetic Cubism; the numerous designs for sculpture that had previously remained on paper now became usable" (op. cit., 2000, p. 296).