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1936-1943 The anatomy of terror

The terror of impending war is evident in Picasso’s nudes of the late 1930s. Remaining in occupied Paris, he continued to work, but a grey veil of despair descended over his paintings. His small sculptures of heads resemble carved pebbles; despite their size, they powerfully convey the anguish of the era.

“I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done.”

[Peter D. Whitney. “Picasso is safe”. San Francisco Chronicle, September 1944]

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The imminent outbreak of the Second World War led Picasso to leave Paris and move to Royan. Together with his partner Dora Maar, Jaume Sabartés and Sabartés’s wife, the artist settled in this small town on the French Atlantic coast in early September 1939, shortly before the start of the war, and remained there until August 1940, occasionally making trips to Paris. Also living in Royan in a clandestine manner were Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter Maya, whom Picasso had decided to remove from Paris too. The turbulent international situation was thus further complicated by the artist’s own tangled 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 sketchbook 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 high-strung state in which Dora found herself according to various accounts.

One of those who described her was Brassaï, who said that Dora was ‘prone to outbursts and temper tantrums.’ Rather than ignore this aspect of her character, Picasso took it to its extreme in the portraits he made of her 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 deformed portraits that he made in Royan through the use of a deliberated randomness are not exclusively based on Dora. They also include his secretary Sabartés and the mother of Marie-Thérèse, who likewise moved to Royan at this period. None of those works, however, transmits the degree of violence and turbulence present in the portraits of Dora, which undoubtedly constitute one of the high points of Picasso’s career.

Text: Eduard Vallès “Bust of a Woman with Arms Crossed behind Her Head”. In Catalogue Pablo Picasso. New Collection 2017-2020, pp. 264-265

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Bust of a woman with her arms crossed behind her head, 1939 (in relation to the notebook).

This is the kind of female image that usually comes to mind when people think of Picasso, wouldn’t you say? A bust of an apparently deformed woman, shown in the traditional pose of a nude model. Her arms reach out and cross behind her head, in a gesture that is both relaxed and suggestive. However, she seems distorted, like a creature that is almost managing to break free of the canvas. The distortion of her profile suggests duality, both tragic and comic at the same time. The disconcerting pictorial paradox that the artist has so masterfully produced here depicts both an expression of pleasure and the painter’s own desire for the encounter. He has portrayed his model with passion, bus hasn’t thought twice about using the woman’s body to construct - with admirable skill - an artefact, an impossible figure.

 (PICASSO): “Reality must be cast aside in every sense.  What people forget is that everything is unique. Nature never produces the same thing twice (…). I want to point the mind in an unaccustomed direction, to wake it up. I want to help the viewer discover something they would never discover without me. That’s why I emphasise the dissimilarity of the left and right eye, for instance. A painter should never make them look the same. They are not the same”.

Picasso suggested that two distinct realities can coexist in a single thing. This idea was a familiar one for the Surrealists, as stated by their ideologist, André Breton. Picasso believed in the artistic idea of simultaneously combining multiple gazes and interests in time. This can clearly be seen in interesting sketchbooks such as the one on display next to this work. Produced in 1939, it contains a great variety of quick drawings that offer a glimpse into one of the many rooms in the artist’s complex intimate laboratory.  These simple sketches are solid proof of the fact that Picasso’s need to copy reality and his desire to sculpt the imaginary could coexist within his highly diverse body of work. This was at a time when he was painting a large number of unidentified female heads, with broad, angelical faces.