Tête de femme (La Lectrice) belongs to Picasso's celebrated series of paintings portraying Dora Maar, who was his mistress and artistic companion in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Picasso's love affair with Maar was a partnership of intellectual exchange as well as of intense passion, and Maar's influence on the artist resulted in some of the most daring and most renowned portraits of his career. Painted during the years marked by the Spanish Civil War and later the Second World War, Picasso's portraits of Dora resonated with the drama and emotional upheaval of the era. In 1937 he executed his celebrated series of weeping women (fig. 1), portraying Maar in the most openly dramatic and emotionally charged manner. Whilst in this series he alternated between depictions of Dora and his previous mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, it was the images of Dora Maar that came to symbolise Picasso's emotional state and the instability of the era.
The story of Dora Maar's relationship with Picasso is legendary in the history of twentieth century art. Picasso met Maar (1907-1997), the Surrealist photographer, in early 1936, and was immediately enchanted by the young woman's intellect and beauty and by her commanding presence. Although still involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter and still married to Olga Koklova at the time, Picasso became intimately involved with Maar by the end of the year, having spent the summer with her and a group of fellow Surrealists. Unlike the docile and domestic Marie-Thérèse, Maar was an artist, spoke Picasso's native Spanish, and shared his intellectual and political concerns. She even assisted with the execution of the monumental Guernica and produced the only photo-documentary of the work in progress.
Throughout the years spent with Dora Maar, Picasso would depict her in a variety of ways: from the menacing, almost monstrous character of the weeping women series, to the much calmer, dignified images such as Dora Maar au chat (fig. 4) and the monumental bronze sculpture Tête de femme (fig. 5). The woman depicted here in the act of reading projects an intellectual quality and quiet introspection, while at the same time her lively eyes and tense features reflect her strong personality. Like Picasso's most accomplished portraits of Dora Maar, this is a psychologically intense and penetrating image, conveying her physical beauty and radiant personality, as well as a sense of anxiety and uncertainty of the times. Her beautiful features that Picasso greatly admired - her flowing chestnut hair, dark eyes and strong nose - are distorted in a way that powerfully embodies all of the complex and conflicting emotions that marked their relationship, as well as the time they lived in. It was her brilliant intelligence that distinguished Dora from other women in Picasso's life, and here he depicts her reading a book or a newspaper, deeply immersed in her thoughts. Despite the highly abstracted and stylised manner in which Picasso depicted her features, with the use of a bright palette and energetic brushstrokes he captured the luminosity and vitality of her character.
What first caught Picasso's attention, however, was Maar's transfixing beauty, which James Lord described upon meeting Maar in 1944: 'Her gaze possessed remarkable radiance but could also be very hard. I observed that she was beautiful, with a strong, straight nose, perfect scarlet lips, the chin firm, the jaw a trifle heavy and the more forceful for being so, rich chestnut hair drawn smoothly back, and eyelashes like the furred antennae of moths' (J. Lord, Picasso and Dora, New York, 1993, p. 31). Her striking features and complex personality captured the imagination of a number of artists and made her the subject of numerous photographs by Man Ray, Lee Miller and Picasso himself (fig. 6). Rather than merely celebrating her physical beauty, however, the present work represents a complex synthesis of various themes that preoccupied Picasso at the time.
Maar's strong, pronounced features acquire a certain masculine quality, suggesting a degree of the artist's introspection and self-reflection. Furthermore, Maar shares her stylised features with Picasso's depictions of bulls, thus evoking one of his favourite themes - the bullfight, that remained throughout his life a symbol of his native Spain, a subject particularly close to his heart at this time of civil war. In combining major images from his iconography, Picasso weaves a rich web of associations that reflect his own and his model's emotional state, as well as circumstances that surrounded them. It is this complexity of ideas and connotations, combined with a strikingly modern pictorial style, that place Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar among the most accomplished works of his career.
Brigitte Léal wrote about Picasso's portrayals of Dora: 'Their terribilità no doubt explains why the innumerable, very different portraits that Picasso did of [Dora] 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 its 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 that way for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of terrible and tragic beauty' (B. Léal, 'For Charming Dora: Portraits of Dora Maar', in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1996-97, p. 385).
Oil on canvas
Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Museum Berggruen (on loan)
Paris, Musée National Picasso, Picasso/Berggruen: une collection particulière, 2006-07, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (titled Lectrice, Dora Maar)
66 by 51cm. 26 by 20 1/8 in.
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso. OEuvres de 1937 à 1939, Paris, 1958, vol. 9, no. 128, illustrated pl. 63
The Picasso Project, Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. Spanish Civil War, 1937-1939, San Francisco, 1997, no. 38-061, illustrated p. 150
Mary Callery, New York & Paris (acquired by 1940)
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired from the above in 1966)
Basil Goulandris (acquired from the above in 1967)
Private Collection, Japan
Heinz Berggruen, Berlin (acquired from the above in 2000)
Thence by descent to the present owners