During the whole of the war period, the artist’s output, though troubled by the political events and their financial implications, nevertheless continued to flourish. In effect Picasso completed more than three hundred canvases and five times as many drawings, studies and oils on paper as well as a large number of illustrations including prints and lithographs, developed his sculpture including the incredible Homme au mouton in February 1943 and succeeded in casting existing plasters in bronze by transporting works overnight to foundries while the Germans were requisitioning metal to construct cannons. As Laurence Bertrand-Dorléac recalls, for Picasso, “to create was to resist” [ex. cat. L’Art en guerre, MAMVP, 2012, p. 128]. The Spanish artist who had declined French nationality in 1940 refused to take exile in America or to return to Franco’s Spain. He took refuge in Royan from 1930 to 1940 but decided to return to Paris later that year. It was there that he spent all of the Occupation years in his studio on the Rue des Grands Augustins where he had been working since 1936 and where he had executed his masterpiece Guernica in 1937, abandoning his apartment on the Rue de la Boétie on the other side of the river. As a foreigner all of his travel plans were subject to authorisation. During this period Picasso was spared by the Nazis thanks, no doubt, to the protection of the German artist Arno Breker, official sculptor to the Reich and friend of Jean Cocteau. However, as the leading light of Modern Art, he was nonetheless threatened by the Gestapo and had his work banned from exhibitions because it was deemed “degenerate”.
As for the private sphere, Picasso was relatively isolated and the summer of 1943 marked a transition in his romantic life. His relationship with the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar had been stalling since summer 1936. Picasso had been seduced by the young woman’s intelligence, beauty and strong personality but now he could no longer tolerate her excessive tantrums and acts of jealousy as the possessive Dora struggled to tolerate the simultaneous presence of his younger mistress Marie-Thérèse and their daughter Maya who had been born in 1935. In addition, Picasso already had a new muse in mind. In May, he had met Françoise Gilot in the restaurant Le Catalan, near his studio, which he regularly frequented before it was closed down by the Nazis. The young woman, who was also a painter, had already visited his studio several times and, if she had not already fallen for the maestro, she had certainly made an impression on him. Though we have no direct record from August 1943 we do know that Françoise fled to the free zone in July and didn’t see Picasso again until November. According to James Lord, it was at this time that Dora Maar began to have hallucinations and sank into depression – she already barely tolerated Picasso’s existing double life and was heartbroken at the appearance of this new rival. Picasso however continued to see his daughter and Marie-Thérèse as shown by the magnificent portrait of Maya in coloured pencil dated 29th August 1943 [Private Collection, Z.XIII, 94]. This delicate portrait of the little girl, perfectly executed, shines like a glowing parenthesis in the otherwise sombre production of this period.
Executed just two days after the drawing of Maya, Femme assise en robe grise bears witness to this context and highlights the extraordinary creative vitality of the artist. This oil painted with a powerfully expressive palette of grey and beige is the very antithesis of the tenderness that emanates from the portrait of the child. Here, the figure is difficult to identify, the woman seeming to fuse together several models. As Sidney Janis recalls, Picasso never worked directly from a model, his portraits were rather produced from impressions and memories. Of course, this work undoubtedly evokes Dora Maar, such an icon of the war years. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler would later say during his interviews with Francis Crémieux : “In Picasso’s work, we could feel the war. Not because, as people believe, he depicted monsters. He always painted the women he loved. At the beginning of the war, and throughout the war, it was Dora Maar. All the women he painted at that time resembled Dora Maar” [in Mes Galeries et mes peintres, Gallimard, 1961]. However, this seated woman could also evoke Inès Sassier, the young woman of Italian origin whom Picasso had met in 1937 and hired as a chambermaid. After her 1942 marriage, she and her husband moved into an apartment beneath the painter’s studio on Grands Augustins. Picasso trusted Inès completely and had great affection for her. She stayed on his payroll right up until 1970 and he regularly painted her portrait. The wavy hair of the woman in the grey dress also suggests Françoise Gilot who, though far from Paris, continued to intrigue the artist. In her thesis Picasso and His Art During The German Occupation 1939-1944 [Stanford University Phd, 1985, p. 304], Mary Margaret Goggin goes so far as to see this woman in grey as a synthesis of Françoise Gilot and Picasso himself, describing the bald, shadowy left side of the face as more masculine, like an imprint of the artist’s own presence whereas the right side is that of his new muse. The significance of this female face with two distinct profiles remains open to discussion: shadow and light, the artist and his muse, or Dora Maar already being erased, ready to cede her position to Francoise?
Femme assise en robe grise is perfectly integrated into this cycle of works, but here, all of the graphical tension is condensed into the woman’s dress, the background left virtually untouched and light. The dress with its dark, stiffly stretched fabric and prominent, pointed shoulders, morphs into a veritable straitjacket. The notion of incarceration does not arise from the setting but from the figure itself. Maurice Jardot would declare in the catalogue to the retrospective Picasso at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in 1955 : “These seated women and these busts of women that abound during the Occupation owe their undeniably aggressive nature to the fact that, in the finest versions, a prodigiously reinvented head, sometimes coloured and contoured, appears atop a body “signified” in such a way that it could represent anyone. And the larger this discrepancy, the more powerful the sense of aggression” (cat. no. 98). If the face of this woman, painted in curves, seems rather tender; it stands in stark contrast with the wide black bands forming the dress in order to confer an unprecedentedly violent presence on the model.
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