Art and Biography

Lauren Kaplan
Nov 20, 2012 3:54AM
Sculpture d’une tête (Marie-Thérèse) (Sculpture of a Head, Marie-Thérèse), 1932
Fondation Beyeler
La femme qui pleure (Weeping Woman), 1937
Fondation Beyeler

The discipline of art history often frowns upon reading an artist’s work through a biographical lens. Many scholars consider it deterministic and an easy way out (i.e. Van Gogh was depressed when he painted Starry Night, so he used a dark color palette dominated by cool blue tones). However, biography is an important factor, and it should not be ignored. In certain cases, learning more about an artist’s personal life can prove enlightening, especially when the information is used in a responsible way. These two portraits by Pablo Picasso provide a case in point. Done only five years apart, each image depicts one of Picasso's lovers, yet they vary greatly in style and tone. How might we account for their noticeable discrepancies? 

The first image, Sculpture of a Head (1932) is a drawing based on a 1931 sculpture of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s alluring mistress who was twenty-eight years his junior.  Even five years into their covert affair, he remained intensely attracted to her athleticism, youth, and positive energy. Here, her nose is turned into a protruding phallus, and the rest of her face is comprised of curving orbs and crevices. Picasso’s love for Marie-Thérèse was always more intensely erotic than rational or cerebral, and this portrait makes that plainly obvious. 

Dora Maar, the woman pictured in Weeping Woman  (1937), was another of Picasso’s muses, beginning in 1936. An accomplished Surrealist photographer and poet, she was fiercely intelligent, witty and Picasso’s intellectual equal. She also spoke Spanish--in which Picasso preferred to converse even after thirty years of living in France--allowing her to communicate with the artist in ways that Marie-Thérèse could not.  An ardent leftist, she was instrumental in Picasso’s eventual political turn and the painting of Guernica, completed the same year as this portrait. Here, we see Dora as the opposite of Marie-Thérèse: where the younger mistress is all serene curves and pursed lips, Dora is prickly, wailing, and literally broken by cubist faceting. She seems to cry not only over the Spanish Civil War, but also over Picasso’s callousness. 

To fully understand these portraits, a bit more backstory is necessary. In 1927, when Picasso met Marie-Thérèse, she was 17 and he 45. Partly because of her youth, and also because he was unhappily married to the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, the relationship was initially kept secret. However, in 1935, Marie-Thérèse gave birth to Maya, Picasso’s first daughter, and this forced them to go public. A year later, while undergoing a rough separation from Olga and spending time with his young child, Picasso’s embarked on yet another relationship with Dora. 

The complexities of these romantic entanglements proved artistically fruitful but also emotionally wrenching for all involved parties.  As Maya, who remembers all three women from her early childhood, explains: “My father took everything he could from each one of them so that he could make them into pictures.” And even Dora admitted, “He used me till there was nothing left of me, nothing but the hundreds of portraits he painted.” 

Of course, there are many factors that account for Picasso’s stylistic changes throughout the 1930s: He was deeply affected by the violence of the Spanish Civil War, he was engaged with the findings of the Surrealists as well as long-time friends like Henri Matisse, and he was dealing with extreme tumult in his personal life. Biography is not the only lens through which to understand these portraits, but it is an important one. Picasso came into contact with Dora as Francisco Franco was violently taking over Spain, and his shift to a more angular, emotionally intense style is partly a product of these two events.  

These issues have been at the heart of a class I recently taught on different ways of interpreting Picasso work. See here to learn more about this course and others. 

Source: All quotes come from the audioguide for the retrospective Picasso Black and White , now at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 23, 2013.

Lauren Kaplan