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As a young man, Picasso’s daring, from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to analytic and synthetic Cubism, forged his reputation as one of the most audacious artists of the twentieth-century. In 1937 he was commissioned to make a large-scale work of art by the Spanish Republican government for inclusion in the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. The boiling turmoil of the Spanish Civil War and, some months after he received the commission, the bombing on the town of Guernica, provided the impetus for his painting of the eponymous monumental canvas, which would be exhibited alongside Joan Miró’s The Reaper (Catalan Peasant in Revolt) and Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain.
The dire political situation in Picasso’s native Spain and in the whole of Europe in the 1930s was combined with momentous disruptions in the artist’s personal life: “For Picasso the question of ‘modernity’ was acute in the 1930s and 1940s, since modernity in this period meant a personal life, a nation, a Europe and indeed a world in crisis. This period in Picasso’s art is marked by a succession of shattering events in his personal life that no doubt appeared to him mirrored by the disasters in the world at large…. Personal events include the death of his mother in 1939; the slow breakdown of his marriage to Olga Khokhlova (they eventually separated in 1935); his ongoing secret affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter (from 1927) leading to the birth of his daughter Maya, in 1935; and new relationships with the artist and photographer Dora Maar (from 1936) and then the painter Françoise Gilot (from 1943)” (Picasso, Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery, London, 2009, p. 88).
Picasso’s mother died suddenly from a fall in January of 1939. Unable to travel to Spain and living in a country facing increasing pressure from Nazi Germany, Picasso maintained relationships with both Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar. Physically they were quite different. An athletic, statuesque blonde, Marie-Thérèse Walter was the embodiment of sensuality, and her physical presence elicited some of Picasso’s most visually arresting images. Maar was quite opposite in many ways. She possessed a strong, determined personality and was an artist in her own right. Where Marie-Thérèse was blonde, Maar was brunette; where Marie-Thérèse was rounded, Maar was pointy. Both of these women, so opposite in character and appearance, populated Picasso’s life and paintings. While many attributes of Buste de femme au chapeau point to Marie-Thérèse, including the blonde sweep of hair and the bright-yet-soft tonalities of the palette, portions of Maar are also reflected here.
In contrast with his depictions of a more passive Marie-Thérèse, the present painting is one of his most animated, tactile and sculptural renderings of the young woman. Her figure is rendered with incisions into the thick paint, adding dimension to her features. Dora's presence also makes its way into this picture vis-a-vis the artist's focus on Marie-Thérèse's hat. Picasso embellishes this accessory with a blue feather and variations in the colors of its planes. While the luxe accessory may have been important to the sitter, its significance in this painting becomes clear in retrospect: for it was Dora who would be immortalized in Picasso's portraits as the wearer of stylish hats. What may have then been an important personal item for Marie-Thérèse becomes here a symbolic indicator of her status as the saintly new mother of Picasso's daughter and as the antithesis of her new rival. In fact, the picture can be read as an amalgam of both women, and evidences a Madonna/Magdalene dichotomy that manifested in Picasso's art while he was simultaneously involved with both women.
The significance of the hat in Buste de femme au chapeau can also be tied to another focus of Picasso during the late 1930s. Anne Baldassari asserts that: “A series of portraits dated 1937-39 amounts to a deliberate tribute to Van Gogh, whose oeuvre, lambasted by the Nazis as ‘degenerate art,’ was being publicly burned in Berlin. Borrowing his attire, as well as his color scheme and expressionistic virulence, in Homme au chapeau de paille et au cornet de glace (Man in Straw Hat with an Ice-cream Cone, 1938), Picasso produces a self-portrait in Van Gogh’s features. Likewise, Picasso imposed the master’s stylistic idiom on contemporary portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, which display chromatic tracery and a scarified palette. Informed by the geometrical faces of the protocubism of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the angelic features of his lovers are deformed through the deconstructive prism of a revived cubist method” (Picasso’s Masterpieces, The Musée Picasso Paris Collection, Paris, 2014, p. 397).
As is the case for many of the works now considered to be among Picasso’s greatest pictures, Buste de femme au chapeau remained in the artist’s possession until his death in 1973. It was then inherited by Maya, his daughter by Marie-Thérèse. Because Picasso was not able to divorce Olga due to the heavy financial penalties that would ensue, he was unable to marry Marie-Thérèse and kept their relationship a secret well into the 1930s. Marie-Thérèse, for her part, was mostly tolerant of the situation, with Picasso forever reassuring her that she was the primary object of his affection. Her permissive temperament, however, is alleged to have faltered upon meeting Dora. As the story goes, Picasso was painting Guernica in his studio when Marie-Thérèse met Dora for the first time. “I kept on painting and they kept on arguing,” Picasso told Gilot in later years. “Finally Marie-Thérèse turned to me and said, ‘Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?’ … I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they’d have to fight it out for themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories” (quoted in L’Amour fou, Picasso and Marie Thérèse (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, pp. 47-50).
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