Main content

6. Women, Muses and Masks

Traditionally, a portrait was meant to objectively reflect the appearance and personality of the sitter. Picasso reinvented portraiture from a subjective standpoint, capturing the model's physical features as well as the feelings she inspired in him and transforming the likeness according to his emotions. Facial asymmetry underscores the importance of the mask as a primitive representation of human beings.

“An artist isn’t as free as he sometimes appears. It’s the same way with the portraits I’ve done of Dora Maar. I couldn’t make a portrait of her laughing. For me she’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one.”
Françoise Gilot. Life with Picasso, 2013, p. 116

Bust of a Woman with Arms Crossed Behind her Head

Royan, 7 November 1939 | Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm
Museo Picasso Málaga. Gift of Christine Ruiz-Picasso
© Museo Picasso Málaga. Photo: Rafael Lobato © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2017

Read about Bust of a Woman with Arms Crossed Behind her Head

The imminent outbreak of World War II led Picasso to leave Paris and move to Royan. Together with his partner Dora Maar, Jaume Sabartés and Sabartés’ wife, the artist settled in this small town on the French Atlantic coast in early September 1939, shortly before the start of the war. Although they remained there until August 1940, Picasso made various trips to Paris. Also living there in a clandestine manner was Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter Maya, whom Picasso had also decided to remove from Paris. The turbulent international situation was thus increased with the artist’s own complex personal one, sharing space with his new lover, his ex-lover and his daughter. This portrait based on Dora Maar was executed just two months after their arrival in Royan and responds to a lengthy process that is evident in the four preparatory studies which Picasso executed in a carnet between 3 and 9 November.

The work’s vertical structure, with the face looking upwards so that the nose is located at the top, had already appeared in earlier works but without achieving the synthesis of this oil, which surpasses even the dynamic line of the prescripts and postscripts of this work. Absent here are the elements that define Dora, such as her eyebrows and nails, and Picasso only retains the short, greased-back hair and above all the striking and anarchic movement of her arms. In this case, rather than suggesting repose, the arms crossed behind the head evoke the constantly changing state in which Dora existed according to various accounts. One of those who described her was Brassaï, who said that Dora was “subject to tantrums and making scenes.” Picasso did not ignore this aspect of her character and took it to its extreme in the portraits of her created between 1939 and 1940.

Despite living in a time of war the artist rarely depicted explicit violence and rather expressed it through the distortions of his model’s face. The distorted portraits that he made in Royan through the use of a deliberated randomness are not exclusively based on Dora and also include his secretary Sabartés and the mother of Marie-Thérèse Walter, who also moved to Royan at this period. None of those works, however, transmits the degree of violent and turbulence present in the portraits of Dora, which undoubtedly constitute one of the high points of Picasso’s career.

Text: Eduard Vallés