‘In love doesn’t quite sum up Picasso’s feelings towards Dora. I think he was obsessed with her, a passionate sexual love. It was not that Dora was so beautiful – she was far more interesting than that. She added a whole new class and layer to his other mistresses’
(J. Richardson, quoted in L. Baring, Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso, New York, 2017, p. 164)
‘After Picasso, God’
(Dora Maar, quoted in L. Baring, Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso, New York, 2017, p. 215)
Painted on 5 June 1941, as the Second World War raged across Europe, and Paris was occupied by German forces, Tête de femme (Dora Maar) is a striking and intimate portrait of Pablo Picasso’s great wartime lover and muse, Dora Maar. The fiercely intellectual, Spanish speaking Surrealist photographer and later painter, Dora served as the model for some of the most powerful and moving portraits of Picasso’s career. Together the couple lived through some of the most turbulent years of the Twentieth Century, their love affair bookended by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and the end of the Second World War. Yet throughout this, their relationship served as a source of deep inspiration and impetus for their art making and poetry; as Anne Baldassari has written, their intense artistic dialogue made them ‘an unrivalled artist couple in the history of the avant-garde, proving one of the most exacting and genuine exchanges in all modern art’ (A. Baldessari, Picasso: Life with Dora Maar: Love and War 1935-1945, Paris, 2006, p. 26). In Picasso’s art, Dora’s image became the site of myriad distortions, exaggerations and reconfigurations, as the artist radically expanded the possibilities of portraiture. Her face became the site for the artist to explore his deepest feelings, conveying his angst and disbelief at the horrific events that unfolded in his native Spain and the wider world, as well as reflecting moments of the intensely felt joy, love and passion he felt for his lover.
As if caught turning her head, Tête de femme (Dora Maar) reflects the intimacy and intensity of Picasso and Dora’s passionate, often turbulent relationship. The day that he painted the present work, the artist also completed two other oil paintings of Dora: La femme à la collerette bleue (Zervos 11, no. 150), which now resides in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and Buste de femme (Zervos 11, no. 194), both of which capture Maar in a blue collared top, her powerful gaze evident in each portrait, framed by voluminous waves of her luxuriant dark hair. The abundance of portraits from this period reflects not only the intensity of their relationship, but also the increasingly secluded life that Picasso was living at this time.
After the Nazi invasion of Paris in 1940, Picasso decided, despite various offers of refuge, to remain in the French capital. Living and working in his cavernous studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins, Picasso immersed himself in his work. Deemed a ‘degenerate’ artist by Hitler and purportedly forbidden to exhibit his work in Paris, Picasso lived a much quieter life, removed from the pre-war artistic and bourgeois society he had been a part of, and often visited in his studio by Nazi soldiers. Unable to travel, Picasso turned to his immediate surroundings as subject matter, resulting in a proliferation of portraits of Dora Maar and the hauntingly powerful series of still-lifes that he painted throughout the war years.
Over the course of their relationship, Picasso became obsessed by Dora Maar’s face, appearance and mannerisms, depicting her in an astounding number of iterations. The pair had first met in Paris at the end of 1935 or the beginning of 1936, depending on different accounts, introduced by their mutual friend, the poet Paul Éluard. This raven-haired beauty proved irresistible to the Spanish artist. Immediately beguiled, he was attracted to her dark intensity, struck by her gaze that was said to be as powerful as his own notorious mirada fuerte. More than her looks however, Dora was independent, politically engaged, intellectual and deeply enigmatic, as well as a successful photographer in her own right; and, to the artist’s delight, she also spoke Spanish, replying to his initial French introduction in his native tongue. ‘In love doesn’t quite sum up Picasso’s feelings towards Dora’, the artist’s biographer John Richardson has recently explained. ‘I think he was obsessed with her, a passionate sexual love. It was not that Dora was so beautiful – she was far more interesting than that. She added a whole new class and layer to his other mistresses’ (J. Richardson, quoted in L. Baring, Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso, New York, 2017, p. 164).
As he did with each new woman in his life, Picasso first absorbed every aspect of Dora’s face, depicting her in a series of intimate sketches and drawings before beginning increasingly to distort and rearrange her striking physiognomic features in his iconic wartime portraits of her. By the time he painted the present work, Picasso was oscillating between more naturalistic impressions of his raven-haired muse and the overtly stylised, contorted and distorted visions of her. Like a snapshot of her head in motion, perhaps turning towards or away from her lover, here, Dora appears both frontally as well as in profile, her highlighted, almost sculpturally rendered jaw line and chin emphasising this sense of motion. This double profile characterises the greatest of his portraits of Dora, a cubist-inspired stylistic trait that has become inseparable from the artist’s means of capturing his sitters of this period. Interestingly, Dora also experimented with double profiles in her photography and photomontages creating works such as Double Portrait with Hat (circa 1936-37, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio), that capture a single face from different angles simultaneously. Indeed, it was Dora’s photography that initially brought the couple together, with Picasso agreeing during their first meeting to pose for Dora in her apartment. In the early years of their relationship, the couple worked together on a series of photographic experiments, with Dora remembering of this period, ‘We enjoyed ourselves like crazy’ (D. Maar, quoted in ibid., p. 168).
Tête de femme (Dora Maar) was first owned by the legendary patron, collector, and later, designer, Marie Cuttoli, and her partner Henri Laugier. One of Picasso’s great friends of the late 1920s and 30s, Cuttoli, who was one of the leading figures in the revival of modern tapestry weaving, collaborated with him on a number of textile commissions. Over the course of her life she amassed a large collection of works by the leading artists of early Modernism including Braque, Miró, Léger, and of course, Picasso.