On 17th January 1937, an army of General Franco’s Nationalist soldiers began their assault on the Republican-held city of Málaga on the southern coast of Spain. As the New Year dawned, the Spanish Civil War was growing ever more intense. The rebel Nationalist forces were being increasingly aided by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, enabling them to carry out growing offensives against the left-leaning Republicans, supporters of the democratically elected Popular Front government. Thousands of Nationalist troops, including fascist Italian and Moorish soldiers, relentlessly attacked the city, and by the beginning of February, Málaga had fallen.
Two days after the initial attack, Pablo Picasso, who was born and raised in the city, began the first directly polemical and propagandist painting of his career: the small yet searingly powerful Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne) (“Figure of a woman inspired by the war in Spain”). Painted in Paris on 19th January 1937, it is a stinging and irrevocable indictment of the fascist Nationalists, and a defiant, brazen show of support for the Spanish Republicans. Rich with symbolism, layered with meaning and combining image and text, this painting is particularly rare within Picasso’s oeuvre, and is, along with Guernica and Sueño y Mentira de Franco (“Dream and Lie of Franco”), one of the most important works that the artist made in reaction to the Spanish Civil War. A testament to the importance of this painting is the fact that he presented it as a gift to his wartime lover, muse and companion, Dora Maar. The work remained in her collection for the rest of her life, sold a year after her death in 1998.
Against a garish yellow background, the protagonist of this powerful painting is a strange, hybridic figure pictured craning out of a balcony. Adorned with an aristocratic and ostentatious feather-plumed hat decorated with what appear to be Christian crosses, and brandishing, in her claw-like hand, a Spanish flag, the identity of this frenzied, fearsome woman becomes clear from the inscription emblazoned on the upper left of the composition. In stark black lettering, Picasso has written: “Retrato de la marquesa de culo Cristiano echandoles un duro a los soldados moros defensores de la virgen” (“Portrait of the Marchioness of Christian ass throwing a coin to the Moorish soldiers, defenders of the Virgin”).
With this inscription, together with the grotesquely caricatured figure, Picasso is directly attacking the supporters of Franco’s fascist army. The Nationalists—a group comprising various right wing, conservative factions including monarchists, Carlists and the fascist group Falange—were largely supported by Spain’s wealthy, conservative classes and the clergy. With Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne), Picasso denounces these Nationalist supporters, portraying a grotesquely and exaggeratedly caricatured member of the Catholic aristocracy, a marquesa or Marchioness. Here, he pictures this figure throwing money, “un duro”, to the Moorish troops, men who were commandeered by Franco to fight for his rebel forces. Known for their barbaric violence, the Muslim Moors, in their support of the Nationalists, were, as Picasso alludes in his inscription, claiming false allegiance to the Catholic Church. Prefiguring what has become known as his magnum opus, Guernica, this painting makes a powerful and particularly violent political statement, capturing the times in a searing, fearsome parody of an aspect of the Spanish conflict.
Up until this point, Picasso’s art showed few signs of his reaction to the horrors unfolding in his native home. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, he was immersed in a blissful summer sojourn in the south of France, accompanied for a time by his new enigmatic lover and muse, Dora Maar.
Recollections of Picasso’s political engagement differ from this time: his early dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler unequivocally stated that Picasso was the most “apolitical man” he knew, and his close friend Jaime Sabartés recorded that Picasso had heard of certain events but remained largely distanced from them. By contrast, Roland Penrose recalled that during the summer the artist was deeply anxious about the events in Spain, while Christian Zervos described how Picasso was for a time undecided as to whether to become involved with the worsening situation there. “For a long time”, Zervos wrote, “Picasso wondered if he should pay attention to events in Spain, if he ought to throw himself into them with all his passion, become intimately caught up in them, or whether he should ignore them as long as their ups and downs allowed him to. For a long time he reacted against his feelings, even against his own heart, to preserve what is unique in man and avoid the trap of the passions” (C. Zervos, quoted in J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso 1927-1939: From the Minotaur to Guernica, Barcelona, 2011, p. 301).
What was it that induced such a change of position in Picasso, galvanising him into painting, just a few months later, such a stark and unequivocal political statement as Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne)? Picasso was at this time surrounded by the left-leaning intelligentsia of Paris. His lover Dora Maar was closely connected to left-wing radical groups, and his circle of friends through the 1930s, Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, Georges Bataille and Christian Zervos, were politically active, and would have undoubtedly influenced and possibly activated Picasso’s political beliefs. Through the autumn, as the violence in Spain was worsening, he was appointed the honorary director of the country’s national collection of art, the Museo del Prado. While he never travelled to Spain following this appointment, this title undoubtedly engaged the artist in the besieged Spanish Republicans’ plight, particularly when the Nationalists began bombing Madrid. On a more personal level, Picasso’s own family were residing in war torn Spain, their safety no doubt of paramount importance in his mind.
At the beginning of 1937, the escalating violence in Spain finally spurred Picasso into action, unleashing his creative force for a distinctly political purpose. At the start of January, Picasso, Zervos and Éluard met the writer and the Republican cultural attaché in Paris, José Bergamin and conceived of a review, to be called Le poids du Sang (“The Weight of Blood”), which would support the Spanish Republicans. Éluard recalled many years later how Bergamin had shocked them with his recounts of the atrocities occurring in Spain. At around the same time, Picasso was visited in his studio by a delegation sent by the exiled Spanish Republican government, including Bergamin, the architect Josep Lluis Sert, poet Juan Larrea, and his friend, Louis Aragon. This group came with a particular request: to ask the artist to create a mural-sized work for the Republican pavilion for Paris’s Exposition Unvierselle to be held later that summer. Though initially sceptical—he had never worked on commissions before, nor was he an explicitly political artist—he accepted. It was around the time of both of these fortuitous events that Picasso began the first propagandist project of his career: Sueño y Mentira de Franco, executed on 8th January 1937.
Subtitled “The abhorrent fact of violation of which the Spanish people are the victim”, these post-card sized etchings depict a caricature of Franco, presenting him as a repellent, grotesque and pompous polyp-like figure in a nightmarish, Goyaesque parody of the Civil War. The original purpose of these etchings was purely propagandist; the artist intended to sell them as prints to raise money for a Republic defence fund. Eventually they were sold together with a powerful Surrealist poem that Picasso wrote for the occasion. Divided into nine sections, this set of etchings, together with a second group executed the following day and finished finally in June the same year, show scenes of the Franco-figure assuming the guises of various figures that constituted the Nationalists: he is wearing a crown, holding a bishop’s mitre and a Moorish fez. In the fourth vignette of the first group, he is depicted as a Spanish marquesa or a maja, wearing a mantilla and clutching a fan with an image of the Virgin on it. It is this image that would inspire Picasso to create, just a few days later, Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne).
Here, Picasso has taken the idea of this caricature and transformed it into a fully formed, painted image. Situated leaning from a balcony, this figure takes on a bestial appearance, her exaggeratedly elongated hair-lined neck, brown torso and paw-like hands a searing parody of the marquesa. Her outstretched and elevated arm is immediately reminiscent of the fascist salute. The horizontal pose of this figure’s outstretched body would be seen again a few months later in a related yet radically different composition: Guernica (1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid). The female figure who leans from a window on the right hand side of the composition, bearing in her outstretched hand a lamp, has the same strongly horizontal emphasis as the protagonist of the present work. Yet, unlike in Guernica, the figure in the present work is not a symbolic victim, but is rather the target of Picasso’s unbridled rage and contemptuous eye, falling victim to his ruthless power to distort, deform and denounce.
The exaggerated, boldly rendered features of the leering woman in Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne) would become the vocabulary with which Picasso used to depict his iconic wartime depictions of Dora Maar. Fiercely intellectual, the intense, raven-haired Surrealist photographer would become Picasso’s muse and lover in the years before and during the Second World War. Having met in the autumn of 1935, or the beginning of 1936, depending on different accounts, Dora did not enter Picasso’s art until the autumn of this year. Using at first a tender, naturalistic language to portray his enigmatic new muse, Picasso would gradually develop a new, angular, distorted language to convey her in his art, often picturing her in fashionable hats. Following the completion of Guernica in the summer of 1937, Picasso developed the motif of the ‘Weeping Woman’ into a haunting series of portraits inspired by Dora’s image. Her face became the mirror through which Picasso conveyed his angst and trauma of the political situation in Spain. As Mary Ann Caws has written, “On Dora Maar’s singularly expressive face Picasso could read every international event as in a newspaper” (M.A. Caws, Dora Maar with & without Picasso: A biography, London, 2000, p. 103). In this context, Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne) could therefore be seen to prefigure this remarkable series of female portraits; the first example in which Picasso uses the female form to express his anger and revulsion at the events taking place in his homeland.
A work of historic importance, Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne) demonstrates how, in 1937, Picasso’s approach to art irrevocably changed. Up until this point, his work had been essentially autobiographical; deeply subjective and based entirely on his own vision of the world. From the beginning of 1937 however, Picasso’s work became the expression of an era; a symbol of creative freedom and resistance against the forces of oppression that swept across Europe. In the words of André Malraux, “What [Picasso] considered themes (I quote) were birth, pregnancy, suffering, murder, the couple, death, rebellion, and, perhaps, the kiss... Nobody could be ordered to express them, but when a great painter encounters them, they inspire him” (Malraux, quoted in A.M. Wagner, “Mater dolorosa: The Women of Guernica”, in T.J Clark & A. Wagner, Pity and terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica, exh. cat., Madrid, 2017, p. 107).