Pablo Picasso’s Tête de femme is one of a small and powerful series of portraits inspired by the artist’s wartime lover, Dora Maar. Picasso painted this radically deconstructed visage on 3 March 1940 in Royan, the French seaside town on the Atlantic coast where he, Dora, his secretary Jaime Sabartés and his wife, together with his dog Kasbek, had taken refuge since 3 September 1939, during the early months of the Second World War. Picasso had taken the precaution, as war clouds were darkening, of moving Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter Maya there as early as July, in rooms at the villa Gerbier de Jonc. Picasso and Dora stayed in the Hôtel de Tigre; the artist provisionally set up his studio in the Gerbier de Jonc, and in January 1940 rented a larger space in the villa Les Voiliers, overlooking the port, and facing the setting sun.
For years I have painted [Dora Maar] in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure either, just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was a deep reality, not a superficial one.”
This, then, is the wartime face of Dora Maar, the public persona Picasso grafted on to the visage of the woman he passionately prized for her dark, beguiling beauty as well as the most intriguing personality of any lover he had known thus far. The relationship that she and Picasso shared was intense and exhilarating, both intellectually and emotionally; it was as productive for him as it proved to be fraught with self-sacrifice for her. In his paintings, drawings and prints, Picasso created an elaborate and compelling myth around Dora, transforming her into an iconic image, the sum of the unrelenting deformationstowhich he had subjected her, as he engraved on her expression a universal cri de coeur in response to the terrible events that beset the middle decades of the last century.
The present Tête de femme is one of four works, each in the same dimensions, Picasso painted on the second and third days of March 1940 (Zervos, vol. 10, nos. 299-301; the present painting is no. 374). One may imagine Dora standing by the French window in his Les Voiliers studio, starkly lit in brilliant mid-day sunshine, her back to the blue sky over the Bay of Biscay. On the very next day, 4 March, Picasso commenced making drawings in a new Royan sketchbook (Zervos, vol. 10, nos. 387-513; Musée Picasso, Paris). These studies led to his masterwork of the early war years, Nu assis aux bras levés, on which he worked in Royan from 6 March to 19 June 1940, completing it soon after German troops entered Paris and the French government called for an armistice (Zervos, vol. 10, no. 302; The Museum of Modern Art, New York).
In response to the disasters of the Spanish Civil War during 1936-1939, Picasso had cast Dora as the Weeping Woman, and thereafter continued to configure Dora’s mysterious and inscrutably impassive visage to reflect the ominous and troubled mood in Europe during the years that preceded the Second World War. Marie-Thérèse, Picasso’s other, more tenured mistress, had been the female presence in Guernica. Picasso now preferred to spare her, as the mother of their child, from further association with violence, making her instead into a personal symbol of loving domesticity and peace. Dora alone would have to bear the brunt of Picasso’s wartime depredations. “For years I have painted her in tortured forms,” Picasso explained to Françoise Gilot, who would replace Dora as Picasso’s next lover, “not through sadism, and not with pleasure either, just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was a deep reality, not a superficial one” (quoted in F. Gilot with C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 122).
As with his earlier depictions of Dora as the Weeping Woman, here, Picasso has used his lover’s visage as a vessel for his own deeply felt emotions—in this case undoubtedly angst and torment. Picasso had fled Paris suddenly upon learning of France and Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939. “Don’t you know,” he warned Sabartés, “that there is the danger German planes will fly over Paris tonight. I’m going right home to pack my baggage. Pack yours and stop fooling, I’ll come for you tonight” (quoted in L.C. Gasman, Picasso and the War Years, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, p. 61). Holed up in Royan, he began working as soon as he could, yet a sense of underlying anxiety and fear pervades his work of this time. In the present portrait, Picasso has given Dora the great snout of his Afghan hound Kasbek. Her mouth and one ear are virtually detached, spindle-like, from the rest of her features. Bearing witness to the spreading insanity of modern warfare, recurring as one Guernica after another, has thrown her cognitive senses, and her state of mind, into complete disarray.
Lot Essay Header Image: Man Ray, Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1933. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2021. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.