Pablo Picasso painted Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) on 12 January 1938, at the height of his relationship with the photographer Dora Maar. This picture is one of the best-known of his series of images of Dora, and crucially one of the best known remaining in private hands, having featured in a number of publications over the years, including David Douglas Duncan’s book Picasso’s Picassos. When published in 1961, that book had revealed to the world the scale of the artist’s collection of his own works. Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) was one of the pictures with which Picasso appears to have been unable to part, and it then passed into the collection of his granddaughter, Marina, from whom it was acquired by the legendary art dealer Jan Krugier.
Looking at Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), it is easy to see why it has been selected for publication on a number of occasions: the picture sings. The electric red lends the work an intensity that is only heightened by the colors of Dora’s face and clothing, the yellows, blues and greens, which are thrust into such bold relief through their contrast with the near-monochrome background. Meanwhile, the almost lavender-infused skin becomes like cool marble in contrast to these vivid colors. Picasso has filled the composition with jagged lines, peaks and striations, not least through the hatching of the hairnet of the title, bringing the sense of edginess and volatility that is often associated with his depictions of Dora. At the same time, the statuesque poise and the curves and swirls on her cheek bring out a sense of tenderness that is heightened by the skin tones, which themselves recall some of Picasso’s earliest, less-stylised images of his lover.
The relationship between Picasso and Dora is one of the most discussed of his lifetime and career and has spawned a number of books, as well as films. Indeed, she has been played by actresses including Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow in movies either directly probing that period or looking into other aspects of the artist’s life. Following a comment by Dora Maar herself, it has often been stated that Picasso changed his artistic style, as well as his life, friends and even dog, when he changed his mistress; indeed, this was arguably the premise of William Rubin’s landmark exhibition, Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Grand Palais, Paris in 1996-1997. This facet of Picasso’s work this can be seen in Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), which featured in the show: it is a far cry from the sinuous, flowing lyricism that had been inspired half a decade earlier by Marie-Thérèse Walter, and similarly has little in common in atmospheric terms with the fecund forms that would mark the reign of Françoise Gilot as his muse. Instead, it is dominated by pulsing color and jagged forms.
Certainly, Dora inspired in Picasso a period of incredible productivity. Her photographs of his studio and home often show groups of pictures of the Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) and other such motifs in which her features are clearly visible. Indeed, one famous image includes Buste de femme (Femme à la résille); many of the other pictures illustrated there are now in prominent museum collections throughout the world. During the period of their relationship, Picasso’s images of Dora would serve as an emotional barometer, showing the roller coaster of his feelings as the world was torn increasingly to pieces by war, and his own world was torn to pieces as he was pulled in various directions by his families and lovers.
Picasso and Dora first met properly either in late 1935 or early 1936, with various accounts differing as to the precise timing. There even appears to have been an earlier encounter that the artist did not recall on the set of Jean Renoir’s Le crime de Monsieur Lange, where Dora was working as set photographer. Certainly, the pair had been near orbit for some time, as both were to varying degrees associates of Surrealism; they had shown work in the same exhibitions and had friends in common. The first direct encounter between Picasso and Dora has become the stuff of legend, itself steeped in Surrealism. Françoise Gilot, who would come to usurp Dora’s place in Picasso’s affections towards the end of the Second World War, recounted: “Pablo told me that one of the first times he saw Dora she was sitting at the Deux Magots. She was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéed on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her outstretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself. From time to time she missed by a tiny fraction of an inch and before she stopped playing with her knife, her hand was covered with blood. Pablo told me that was what made up his mind to interest himself in her. He was fascinated. He asked her to give him the gloves and he used to keep them in a vitrine at the Rue des Grands-Augustins, along with other mementos” (F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 85-86).
This story cuts to the heart of the life and times of Dora, and of her relationship with Picasso. Unlike Marie-Thérèse, who had been a young, sporty, wholesome ingénue when she had first encountered the artist, Dora was a successful and independent woman in her own right. Her photography managed to straddle the realms of Surrealism and advertising. It had led both to a career and to her becoming prominent among the avant-garde artists and writers of the day as well as becoming the lover of Georges Bataille. She had become increasingly involved with the Surrealist movement with which Picasso himself was involved. She had photographed Surrealists such as Yves Tanguy and René Crevel and had herself modelled for Man Ray. She had become involved with various aspects of the Surrealist movement led by André Breton, not least the political aspects that were becoming increasingly important against the backdrop of the geo-political fragility of the 1930s. It was through Dora that Breton met her friend—and his future wife—Jacqueline Lamba, Dora was introduced to Picasso the first (unremembered) time by Paul Eluard. She approached him as an established artist, as well as a woman with a past. It is, in a sense, some of this additional weight that Dora brought to Picasso’s works, including Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), with its vibrant reds and its jutting forms.
The closeness that so swiftly developed between Picasso and Dora grew on strong foundations. Dora spoke Spanish. She had been born Henriette Theodora Markovitch, the daughter of an architect who had moved from Paris to Buenos Aires when she was young; she had grown up there, learning to speak the language fluently. She was therefore able to appreciate the subtleties of Picasso’s comments, including his jokes. His ability to converse in Spanish with Dora was doubtless to become all the more pertinent against the backdrop of the Civil War that was to tear his native country apart. As well as language, Picasso and Dora had a number of friends in common. And both were artists, both fascinated with the gaze and with their subjects. Her works such as 29 rue d’Astorg, showing a seated, robed chimera against an arched backdrop, and her portrait of Nusch Eluard with a superimposed spider’s web, revealed the creativity which acted as such a spur to Picasso. There was a dialogue here that was lacking with either Marie-Thérèse or Olga.
Dora’s inventive interventions with photography, be it in collages or in the incised details that she sometimes added, for instance around Picasso’s own features in one portrait, found a counterpoint in the transformations that the artist himself meted upon his subjects in his paintings, including Buste de femme (Femme à la résille). Picasso’s innovations during this time were all the more marked as an earthy earnestness had dominated Picasso’s paintings during the 1920s, when he had lived with his wife Olga Khokhlova, while the arrival of Marie-Thérèse had heralded an explosion of color and lyricism which still reverberates through the vivid red of Femme à la résille yet which is alien in terms of atmosphere. In the depictions of Dora such as Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) Picasso’s work became more intensely stylised. This was doubtless in part as a reaction to Dora herself, to her character and her photography. When it comes to stylisation, the bold palette, with the face including reds, yellows and greens, may also reflect the continuing rivalry and influence with another great artist of the day, Henri Matisse, whose own Femme au chapeau of 1905, one of his first Fauve masterpieces, appears to prefigure the vibrant colours of Buste de femme (Femme à la résille). It also revealed Picasso responding to the art of the insane, with which he was becoming increasingly interested, partly through his contact with the Surrealists and Dora. Elizabeth Cowling has even speculated that there was a provocative and topical dimension to this: Picasso was becoming more experimental in works such as Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) in inverse proportion to the conservatism being increasingly strictly enforced in Germany under Nazi rule at the time (see E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 615). Culminating in the Entartete Kunst exhibition the previous year, that shift in Germany had also seen works by foreign artists confiscated from public collections, including those of Picasso himself.
Dating from early in 1938, Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) dates from just after what can be seen as the most intensive of Picasso’s collaborations with Dora, when he had painted his masterpiece Guernica in the studio at rue des Grands-Augustins which she had earlier found for him. A monumental epitaph to the eponymous Basque town which had been so brutally bombarded during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica had evolved continually over the period of its creation, and Dora had chronicled those transmutations in a famous series of photographs. Her involvement with Picasso and with Guernica was in fact so intense that she had even helped apply some of the brushwork. That link to the picture is apt: Guernica is sometimes seen as a product of Dora’s own character, with her own volatility evocatively concentrated into the image of turmoil and tragedy. In this light, Guernica can be seen as an extension of the series of images of weeping women which was so clearly indebted to Dora, culminating in the iconic Femme qui pleure of October 1937, formerly in the collection of Picasso’s friend Roland Penrose and now in Tate, London. As Picasso told André Malraux in 1945, “Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman... And it’s important, because women are suffering machines... When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair implies old age or death, right? So, too bad for her” (P. Picasso, quoted in A. Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, New York, 1976, p. 138).
Dora’s status as a “suffering machine” made her all the more perfect as a muse during the turmoil of first the Spanish Civil War, when Guernica, Femme qui pleure and Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) were painted, and then the Second World War. During the latter conflict, Picasso would sometimes brutally transmogrify Dora’s features, adding the phallic, proboscis-like nose of his Afghan hound to her face, creating unsettling images that once again hinted at the wider chaos of conflict in the world through the means of visions of his own domestic situation. As Picasso would recall at the end of the Second World War, “I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war’s influence. Myself, I do not know” (P. Picasso, in S.A. Nash, ed., Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, p. 13).
The idea of Picasso’s anxieties at the wider state of the world showing through like X-Ray images in his pictures can be perceived in the blood red backdrop of Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), which recalls the paintings of both Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko in its intensity. It hints at an awareness of the continuing carnage in Spain. It is not a color selected for comfort. However, the rest of the composition benefits from the absence of the torment so visible in the mutations of the Second World War or the earlier images of the Femme qui pleure of 1936-1937. Instead, there is a sense of beauty and lyricism and even humour within the framework of those angular forms. This is seen in the arabesque on Dora’s cheek, the red star-like eyes and the harlequinade of the hat that crests the composition. This last aspect recalls Dora herself: while many of the tales and photographs of the period give the impression of a dark and tormented soul, a notion only exacerbated by her breakdowns at the end of her relationship with Picasso, she in fact cut a colorful dash, with eccentric manicures, make-up and millinery to boot. Indeed, her entertaining penchant for unusual headwear would come to be immortalised in Picasso’s portraits of her. Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), then, is the celebration of a muse. Dora appears less anguished and more settled, even if the colors do bring an effervescent energy to the composition. This was doubtless a reflection of Picasso’s own state of mind during this period, as he tried to find a balance in his relationship with Dora while still seeing Marie-Thérèse and Maya.
Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) can be seen in the context of his continued fascination with Marie-Thérèse, the mother of his young daughter. Marie-Thérèse and Maya had recently moved to Tremplay-sur-Mauldre, away from prying eyes, and Picasso would visit them, enjoying a domestic bliss that was a far cry from his more bourgeois existence with his wife, Olga. By 1938, Olga had taken possession of the Château de Boisgeloup, depriving Picasso of a much-valued retreat. Now, much of his life was divided between Paris and Tremblay. Looking at the pictures painted in the first weeks of 1938, the complex, multi-faceted nature of his domestic life is clear: he was shifting frequently between Marie-Thérèse, Maya and Dora as his subjects, as well as a wounded faun which was clearly a tangential self-portrait.
Picasso claimed that this overlapping lifestyle suited him at the time, that he wanted, “Marie-Thérèse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent. I decided I had no interest in making a decision. I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they’d have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories” (P. Picasso, quoted in A. Stanissopoulos Huffington, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, London,1988, p. 234). While the complexities of his domestic arrangements may have led to some stress, especially between the women, Picasso’s pictures from early 1938 reveal a relative tranquility, especially compared to the violent transformations to which Dora’s features were subjected in the works prior to and after this time. Picasso was able to flit effortlessly from depictions of one mistress to the other via self-portraiture and images of his daughter. This may indicate the truth of Picasso’s statement about having the best of both worlds at the time.
In fact, many images of Dora such as Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) appear to take up a direct dialogue with those of Marie-Thérèse; even the compositions tally, with the two women sometimes shown on similar arm chairs, as demonstrated by his 1937 picture of Marie-Thérèse, now in the Musée Picasso, Paris, which is practically a pendant for the similar works showing Dora including the portrait of her in the same museum. Similarly, headwear also became a common factor in both, with the berets worn by Marie-Thérèse picking up on the visual punctuation of the hats favoured by Dora such as the one in Buste de femme (Femme à la résille).
During this time, Picasso painted a series of works in which the features of his two lovers are conflated or fused to some degree. This is clear in his Buste de femme now in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., painted only three days after Buste de femme (Femme à la résille). There is a great similarity between the vivid yellow of the background and the red of Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), and also between their respective compositions, with the Hirshhorn picture crowned with a beret. Commentators sometimes identify the subject in Buste de femme as Dora, sometimes as Marie-Thérèse, a reflection of the extent to which their features have been deliberately melded by Picasso. If this is, in fact, Marie-Thérèse, as the palette and mouth appear to indicate, the faces nonetheless deliberately resemble each other, revealing the artist playfully allowing his lovers to overlap in his art. Picasso would continue to explore these games of contrast and transformation even a year later, when he created two highly-similar portraits of Dora and Marie-Thérèse in the same pose as each other mere days apart in January 1939; those pictures were illustrated on facing pages in Rubin’s 1996 exhibition catalogue to stunning effect (W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, New York, 1996, pp. 380-381).
While there was a dialogue between Picasso’s pictures of Marie-Thérèse and Dora, it is only really present in Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) itself in the tenderness with which he has depicted his subject. This manages to defuse the potential tensions introduced by the hot red of the background and the eyes and the zig-zagging lightening bolt lines that punctuate so much of the composition, be it in the hairnet, in the striations of the ceiling or in the brocade-like decoration on her chest. Instead, a statuesque quality pervades the work, heightened by the bruised marble tones of the skin which are made all the cooler by their contrast with the background. At the same time, there is a vivid sense of humour present—a humour reflecting the characters of both the artist and Dora herself. This ensures that Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) serves as an intimate and insightful record of their relationship when it was at its height, and perhaps helps to explain why it remained in Picasso’s own collection.