The jaggedly angular and disjointed facial schematic in this Buste de femme au chapeau, cast in an austere, grisaille tonality, declares its wartime provenance. In a wicker chair, which has been assembled as if from steel coils and grating, sits Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover and muse. Grimly tight-lipped, defiant, and determined, she is all the more formidable and indestructible in the cut and welded metal Cubism in which Picasso appears to have constructed her upper body and head. Her angry, piercing gaze is that of a primitive, demonic idol, like one of the striated tribal masks that Picasso—as a much younger man, thirty-six years earlier—impressed upon the heads of the two women on the right-hand side in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
The large, striking hat, as Brigitte Léal declared, is Dora’s “most provocative emblem... In its preciousness and fetishistic vocation, the feminine hat was, like the glove, an erotic accessory highly prized by the Surrealists. Thus Paul Eluard [declared], ‘A head must dare to wear a crown.’” Dora’s hats resemble the “great wings of a voracious insect” (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, pp. 387, 389 and 392). During the Second World War, her headwear often took on an especially belligerent aspect, appearing like the propellers of warplanes that could rain death from the skies, as the Germans had used them at Guernica in 1937, and in their Blitzkrieg defeat of France in 1940.
The deepening intimacy of Picasso’s liaison with Dora during the late 1930s coincided with the fascist uprising and ensuing Civil War in Spain. In fact, the entire history of their relationship was tragically and inescapably set against the backdrop of violence and war. Dora’s darkly intense, but inscrutably impassive countenance seemed to reflect the ominous and troubled mood in Europe during the years that preceded the Second World War. Picasso began to subject Dora’s visage in his paintings to unsparing savagery; like some mad surgeon he would take her features under his knife and, in the course of his experiments, contrive some shocking new pictorial identity for her. “After World War II broke out,” John Richardson has written, “Picasso came to portray Dora more and more frequently as a sacrificial victim, a tearful symbol of his own pain and grief at the horrors of tyranny and war” (“Pablo Picasso’s Femme au chapeau de paille,” Christie’s New York, sale catalogue, 4 May 2004, p. 113).
“It seems that Picasso could feel his emotions only through the intermediary of a mirror,” Brigitte Baer has explained. “He discovered his feelings in the mirror of other people’s faces, or at least what he projected there, even into those bodies at rest or convulsed—in short, through the intermediary of painting... He had another mirror, like himself somewhat inclined toward catastrophe: Dora Maar. She reacted intensely to all the news, followed it closely, and belonged to a relatively well-informed intellectual milieu. She was, like Picasso, melancholic and high strung. He had only to watch her reactions to know what his were, although hers were stronger and dramatized...whereas he, a Latin man who owed it to himself to be ‘macho’ in the good sense of the word, could not show his feelings” (Picasso and the War Years, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, pp. 83, 85 and 86).
Living conditions in Paris became ever more harsh and difficult to bear during 1943 as the German Occupation was nearing the end of its third year. “One might describe this period as a long winter,” Baer has written. “This cold drove people into themselves, into a total silence... Curfew, glacial winter, and fear were the only items on the menu” (ibid., p. 85). Parisians had to deal with shortages of every kind, and each new year was sure to become a more trying ordeal than the one before.
While Picasso was permitted to paint, he had been forbidden to exhibit. His studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, which he now made his wartime residence as well, had been subjected to a Gestapo search. Picasso also had to put up with unwelcome visits by German officers and ordinary soldiers who professed to an interest in art, even if Picasso’s painting had been officially condemned as “degenerate” according to aesthetic and ideological dictates of the Third Reich.
All sorts of rumors surfaced and spread about Picasso: he had been sent to concentration camp, he was working with the Resistance, or conversely the Germans were protecting the artist and even extending special treatment to him. Picasso soon discovered that he had perniciously hostile detractors among his fellow Parisians, who took advantage of the back-biting, scapegoat-seeking, and treacherous climate of the Occupation to cast aspersions on him and his art. In June 1942, the artist Vlaminck published an article in a collaborationist journal in which he blamed Picasso “for having led French painting into a deadly impasse, having led it into negation, helpless and finally to its death” (quoted in A. Baldassari, Picasso: Life with Dora Maar, Paris, 2006, p. 246).
By 1943, the German authorities had come to an agreement among themselves that Picasso, the creator of the anti-fascist mural Guernica, could be intimidated to keep him in line, but short of some major transgression on his part, he would not be touched. Doing harm to Picasso, then the world’s most famous living artist, would have handed the Allies a propaganda victory that the Nazi architects of the New Order in Europe could ill afford.
The most gripping wartime Doras date from the first four most desperate years of the war, between 1939 and 1943. In these dislocated faces and body configurations we read the intensity of Picasso’s own deepest fears and his most profound agony under the stress of events in real-time history, about which he, like everyone else, could obtain precious little information, and even less that might be credible. There is in this powerful Buste de femme of 28 May 1943 compelling evidence of Picasso’s strength and resolution to resist, to endure, and to go on. He had risked a great deal by simply staying put in Paris, even if his decision, as he later claimed, had stemmed as much from a sense of inertia as from any assertion of personal courage.