Transforming her visage and head into an astonishing arc configuration, Picasso painted this bust-length portrait of Dora Maar, as if she were a sphinx mysteriously contemplating herself, on the first day of April 1939. Picasso has perhaps suggested the onset of spring in the bulging greenery of Dora's breasts. But amid the generally apprehensive mood in Europe during early 1939, there were no such signs of hopeful yearly regeneration, only undeniably ominous events signaling that the great continental powers, week by week, were sliding closer toward war. Indeed, the Second World War would commence exactly five months later.
Spain had already become the first victim in the growing struggle between the European democracies and the re-arming totalitarian states. Picasso's grief over the civil war which had rent asunder his native land had both private and public faces. Picasso's aged mother died in Barcelona on 13 January 1939. This city, one of the last redoubts of loyalist Republican resistance, fell to General Franco's fascist siege two weeks later. On 15 March, under the shameful terms of appeasement the Western allies had granted in the Munich Pact, Hitler's legions occupied Prague. On the 28th, Madrid finally capitulated to Franco's will. Total war, which Picasso had described in his mural Guernica as a rain of death from the sky, was in his view now a certainty for the rest of Europe--it was only a matter of time.
Dora Maar became acquainted with Picasso during the fall of 1935, and less than a year later she assumed the role of the artist's primary paramour. As such she supplanted Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso's young mistress since 1927, who had given birth to their daughter Maya shortly before the artist met Dora. Picasso now had two mistresses, both of whom he loved in different ways, and he cleverly manipulated the affections of both women to his advantage. Marie-Thérèse would remain his loyally nurturing and classically beautiful blond sun goddess, his household muse. Dora, on the other hand, was moody and darkly Surrealist; she possessed, as Brigitte Léal has described her, "the face of an oriental idol, with its marked iconic character, impenetrable, hard and unsmiling" (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 387). Dora would take the part--now increasingly important for Picasso--of his enigmatic and creative lunar muse. She was a photographer, an artist in her own right. They talked about art, something Picasso could not do in the company of the sport-loving, rarely inquisitive Marie-Thérèse. "Dora was added onto Marie-Thérèse," Pierre Daix observed. "Dora would be the public companion, Marie-Thérèse and Maya continued to incarnate private life. Painting would be shared between them... Each woman would epitomize a particular facet of a period rich in increasingly dramatic repercussions" (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 239).
Each woman lent her presence to one or the other of Picasso's dual iconic images of 1937. "Picasso had no hesitation in using Marie-Thérèse's image [in Guernica] as the incarnation of peace and innocence at the mercy of the forces of evil in this supreme indictment of war as well as of totalitarianism," John Richardson has written. "She is the desperate girl running from left to right across the foreground... She is also the light-giving girl clutching a lamp emerging from an upper window. The mother wailing over her dead child can also be identified with Marie-Thérèse... By contrast, Dora largely inspired the Weeping Women paintings, a separate series that should not be identified too closely with Guernica... The source of Dora's tears was not Franco, but the artist's traumatic manipulation of her. Picasso's obsession with her had intensified, but to judge from portrayals of her, it precluded tenderness. Marie-Thérèse was submissive out of love; Dora out of a Sadean propensity" (L'Amour fou: Picasso and Marie-Thérèse, exh. cat, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, pp. 45-46).
Picasso's practice of subjecting the female body and visage to daring dislocations and increasingly drastic deformations--the direct and most far-reaching consequence of his interest since the mid-1920s in the Surrealist milieu--was by the late 1930s the fundamental driving force in his approach to figuration. Dismissing the recent rise of abstraction in its various guises, he would always remain true to the figure; nothing else, he reckoned, was worthy of a true master's attention. In his hands, the figure proved to be an inexhaustible test-bed for continuing formal innovation; indeed, what he did to the figure would prove to be of incalculable value to the art of the future. He provided the license of precedent for artists then and in generations thereafter, of many different stripes, to freely intuit and realize internal visions of form, whether deeply visceral or more cerebrally abstruse, however they pleased. The results are readily apparent in many subsequent artists, from Bacon to De Kooning, Basquiat to Condo, to name a few.
The present Tête de femme à deux profils is a gripping realization of Picasso's ability to conceive, bring forth and empower such prescient ideas, in feats of imagination and invention that after nearly three-quarters of a century remain unmatched and certainly not surpassed in the art of our own time. The title of this picture, as the artist sanctioned it in the oeuvre catalogue compiled by his friend Christian Zervos, draws attention to the fact that Picasso has bifurcated Dora's head, barely connecting the two halves. He frequently performed such radical pictorial surgeries, usually to represent two sides of a personality, or one at odds with or divided against itself, from the late 1920s to the very end of his career. The present portrait is a particularly extreme version of this psychological insight made manifest in human form. Here Dora's nose dangles, as if supported by a balloon, before the rest of her face. A Cyclopian eye gazes back upon her head. We might avail ourselves of Freudian terminology here (certainly most apt for Picasso and for this period generally): the eye may be likened to Dora's super-ego surveying the personal landscape of her ego and id.
The direct impetus for this extreme treatment of Dora's facial aspect actually stemmed from the recent addition to Picasso's household of the Afghan hound he named Kasbek. The artist appropriated the canine's pronounced snout to represent his lover's acceptably handsome nose, eventually transforming it into the elephantine proboscis seen here. The overall effect is all the more striking, even terrifying, because of the sculptural presence--the artist's hard and clear rendering of form within the illusion of space--which he imparted to this image. The arching shape of the elements that comprise the head is echoed in the vaulted shape of the somber interior in which Picasso situated his subject. The sculptural and architectural character of this composition accounts for the largely grisaille quality of Picasso's palette in this picture, to which--we may be sure--the sober, precipitous tenor of events in Europe during the late 1930s contributed their share of subtext.
As the mother of their child, and his acquiescent domestic muse, Picasso largely exempted Marie-Thérèse from the wildest depredations of form to which he typically subjected Dora Maar, whose features he often attacked like some mad surgeon wielding his knife and scalpel. The artist typically approached Dora from a different place he was discovering within himself, a complex network of his own inner anxieties, which also reflected the troubled zeitgeist of time and place. Marie-Thérèse embodied the ideals of sweetly feminine beauty, fertility and the grace of tender love. Dora, however, was a different story. As if Picasso were looking into a mirror, and painting a self-portrait--something he rarely did per se after the early 1920s--he found that self he was seeking in his study of Dora's visage and emotional being. He made of her presence a female counterpart, a doppelgänger for himself, though whom he could externalize and objectify his thoughts and feelings. Brigitte Léal explained the lasting significance Picasso painted into his portraits of Dora:
"Their terriblità no doubt explains why the innumerable, very different portraits that Picasso did of her [fig. 4] remain among the finest achievements of his art, at a time when he was engaged in a sort of third path, verging on Surrealist representation while rejecting strict representation and, naturally, abstraction. Today, more than ever, the fascination that the image of this admirable, but suffering and alienated, face exerts on us incontestably ensues from its coinciding with our modern consciousness of the body in threefold dimension of precariousness, ambiguity and monstrosity. There is no doubt that by signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of terrible and tragic beauty, the fruit of our contemporary history" (exh. cat., op. cit.,1996, p. 385).
Tête de femme à deux profils
Oil on canvas laid down on panel
The Bergman Collection
Pablo Picasso , 1930s, Paintings, oil, France, Modern, portrait
New York, The Museum of Modern Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, Picasso: 75th Anniversary Exhibition, May-December 1957, p. 82 (illustrated; titled Portrait of D.M.).
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San Juan, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, Nine 20th Century Masters from the Collection of Nelson A. Rockefeller, August 1959.
San Francisco Museum of Art, 14 Paintings from the Collection of Nelson A. Rockefeller, September 1959.
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Art Institute of Chicago, Picasso and Chicago: 100 Years, 100 Works, February-May 2013, pp. 74-75 and 109, no. 169, pl. 58 (illustrated in color; titled Head of a Woman [Dora Maar]).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
36 1/8 x 28 7/8 in. (91.7 x 73.3 cm.)
H. and S. Janis, Picasso: The Recent Years, 1939-1946, New York, 1946, p. x, pl. 53 (illustrated; titled Portrait of D.M.).
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W. Halstead, Artforum, summer 1968, p. 63 (illustrated).
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L. Ullmann, Picasso und der Krieg, Bielefeld, 1993, pl. XXI (illustrated).
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: Spanish Civil War, 1937-1939, San Francisco, 1997, p. 235, no. 39-066 (illustrated).
J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso: From the Minotaur to Guernica, 1927-1939, Barcelona, 2011, pp. 420 and 451, no. 1320 (illustrated in color).
Dora Maar, Paris, gift of the artist
Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York
E.V. Thaw & Co., Inc., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1966
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