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Anxieties of love and war: 1936–1939

For me painting is a dramatic action in the course of which reality finds itself split apart.

- Pablo Picasso

The 1930s was a turbulent decade for Picasso. His marriage to Olga broke down when his lover Marie-Thérèse became pregnant, and in 1935 he began a relationship with the surrealist photographer and writer Dora Maar. For the only time in his career, he ceased to paint for some nine months in 1935–36, instead writing poetry in the manner of surrealist ‘automatic writing’. The outbreak of civil war in Spain disturbed Picasso greatly and his monumental mural Guernica, commemorating the bombing of the Basque town by right-wing nationalists in 1937, remains a potent anti-war image to this day.

Maar photographed Picasso many times in his home and studio and famously documented the evolution of Guernica (these photos are also displayed in the exhibition). In turn, using Maar as his subject, Picasso created some of his most complex portraits, combining aspects of cubism, surrealism and the expressive colours and angles of his ‘weeping women’ to convey a distinctive psychological intensity.

Animal imagery was a significant part of Picasso’s output at this time. Guernica was dominated by the bull and the horse and these symbolic animals reappear as symbols of male vigour in works such as the enigmatic La Minotauromachie (The Minotauromachia) 1938, where again Picasso casts himself as the minotaur.

Portrait de Dora Maar

oil on canvas, 92 × 65 cm, Pablo Picasso Bequest, 1979, MP158 © Succession Picasso, 2011/licensed by Viscopy, 2011 © Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Jean-Gilles Berizzi © Musée National Picasso, Paris

Portrait de Dora Maar
Portrait of Dora Maar

Although the pose here suggests a profile, all of Maar’s facial features stretch across her face, multiple view-points fused into one. Her formidable presence stems from a confident yet nonchalant pose, her mismatched eyes framed with their distinctively splayed lashes, gazing headlong at the viewer. She is contained within a tight white niche, which Picasso has diffused by scratching back into the paint to reveal brightly coloured areas beneath – a curious blending of interior and exterior.