National Gallery of Victoria


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Man with a straw hat and an ice cream cone
Mougins, Summer 1937
oil on canvas
61.0 x 46.0 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 174
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Grand Air
3-4 June 1936
etching on vellum
41.8 x 32.0 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 2735
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Dora Maar
French 1907–1997
Portrait of Picasso standing under a cane awning
Mougins, Summer 1937
gelatin silver photograph
6.0 x 6.0 cm
Musée National Picasso, Paris (deposit MNAM)
© Dora Maar/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2006


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Bathers by a beach hut
Paris, 20 June 1938
Indian ink, coloured crayons and pencil
43.5 x 24.2 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 1206
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Portrait of Dora Maar
Paris, 1937
oil on canvas
92.0 x 65.0 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 158
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006

A Journey Through the Exhibition
Portraits and Mythologies 1936 – 38

string of moons fan of oil of swallows fastening her sandal in the imperceptible watermelon smell the aqua viva of her mingled hair lights up dregs of breath of hand that shakes up the flute's wings
Pablo Picasso, 25 June 1938

Pablo Picasso, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and other poems, Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, Exact Change, 2004

The intense heat, seductive light and heady aromatic scents of the South of France, where Picasso and Dora spent several summers, were to mirror their deepening love and creative fusion.

In 1936 and 1937 they spent their summer holidays in Mougins, a little hilltop village above Cannes, where they were joined by a circle of friends from the intellectual and artistic milieu of the time. Man Ray and his girlfriend Ady, a dancer from Martinique; Roland Penrose, the British artist and writer accompanied by Valentine, his wife, and the elegant and accomplished photographer, Lee Miller; Eileen Agar, the British Surrealist sculptor; Andre Bréton, founder of the Surrealist movement, and his wife the painter Jacqueline Lamba, were included in this stimulating group. The Surrealist poet, Paul Eluard, and his wife Nusch, a circus performer before her marriage, who enchanted everyone with her vivacious personality and fragile beauty, were particularly close friends.

Accompanied by Picasso's devoted Afghan hound, Kazbek, they would relax in the balmy atmosphere of the region, swimming, sunbathing, dipping in the sea and taking long walks along the beach looking for pebbles, shells and roots that had been sculpted by the waves. A terrace shaded by cypress trees and vines provided a tranquil setting for lunch, where Picasso would hold court, sometimes boisterous and theatrical, at other times quietly absorbed in what became known as café art. This involved tearing miniature sculptures from paper napkins or making drawings of his friends on the tablecloth with anything at hand, such as burnt matches, lipstick or colour from crushed leaves and flowers. After lunch, while others drifted into a peaceful siesta, Picasso's insatiable energy would be channelled into making numerous portraits of his friends. The drawings, paintings and pastels that varied from the refined and classical to the Surreal and cartoon–like, reflected their happy days together.

Picasso's practice at any one time was always diverse, unlike other artists who pursued only one style during particular periods in their careers. Comparing the gentle, wistful drawing, Portrait of Dora Maar in a robe with a pea design, 1936, with another drawing from this period, Bathers by a Beach–hut, 1938, an aggressive, energetic composition of deconstructed figures, exemplifies this extreme contrast in approaches.

Picasso and Dora, deeply in love at this time and seeing all the best qualities in each other, mythologised themselves as heroes and heroines from Ancient Greece. The well–built, athletic physique of Picasso enhanced Dora's photographic reincarnations of him in classical roles. Her photographs taken on the beach depict the seated Picasso masked by the skull of a bull, legs astride and exuding power as the blinded Minotaur; and as Neptune in valiant stance with black, manicured nails wielding a monumental piece of driftwood. He, in turn, fascinated by Dora's many moods, presents her in a constant state of transformation from a Harpie (Siren) to Sphinx; from soulful and pensive to turbulent and distorted with angst.

From an early age Picasso was keenly sensitive to the co–existence of good and evil. He resisted definitive ideals of beauty and ugliness as he believed that one can be found in the other. As a scholar of Greek and Roman myth, the process of transformation so evident in mythology fascinated him. The Minotaur, for whom Picasso felt a particular affinity, was originally a half–man, half–beast described in a Cretan myth that tells of the union between Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, and a magnificent bull offered to Minos by the gods for sacrifice. The beast–man that resulted from their coupling was imprisoned in a labyrinth before meeting his death at the hands of the heroic Theseus.

During the early days of their relationship Picasso showed his respect for Dora by portraying her as a female Minotaur – a hirsute, inscrutable and devilish creature who battles with the might of the sun, reflecting its rays with her open hand until it is blinded and extinguished. This flattering portrait, which can be seen as a metaphor for the power of photography, formed part of an engraving illustrating the poem Grand Air by Paul Eluard. A process invented by the great master–printer Roger Lacourière enabled Eluard to write the text of the poem on a plate that Picasso then decorated with high–spirited, humorous drawings that reflected the lyrical and optimistic poem.

In the early summer of 1936, Lacourière was also involved in the printing of Picasso's illustrations for Buffon's Natural History, a classic zoological text written in the 1760s. After it was published in 1942, Picasso presented a copy to Dora with an inscription on the title page that read in Catalan, 'per Dora Maar tan rebufond!' – a pun playing on the Catalan word 'rebufon' that means sweetheart.

During a visit to Dora's apartment in the depths of wartime winter, instead of amusing himself as he often did by transforming accidental flicks of paint on her walls into realistic insects, he added forty extra drawings to her copy of Natural History. A skull crowned with snakes, shrieking gorgons' heads and Dora as an emaciated sphynx with piercing eyes and talons clutching a branch, were some of the images that he drew and that reflected the grim world events of the time.

For Picasso, the Minotaur represented the different forces in man's nature – sometimes fun loving and sensual, sometimes violent and aggressive – to suggest political barbarism and sexual domination. It frequently appears in his work as a symbol of himself or the ritual of his beloved bullfight.

A fine example of this symbolic use of the Minotaur can be seen in Dora and the Minotaur, 1936, which blends charcoal, black ink and scratching on paper. Here the image of Picasso as the Minotaur, brutally consummating his overwhelming desire for the pure acquiescent Dora in an idyllic Arcadian setting illuminated by a flaming sunset, can be read as a symbol of his passion or as a sign of the success and defeat occurring in the French and Spanish left–wing politics of the time. Picasso was a supporter of both groups, the Popular Front government who swept to power in France in 1936, and the Republican leadership of Spain that was embroiled in a civil war with the right–wing Nationalist forces of General Franco.

After the summer of 1936, the Minotaur ceases to appear in Picasso's work. It is replaced by new figures, such as the Centaur and the Faun that haunt Picasso's self–portraits.

Picasso was devastated by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and took comfort from Dora during long night-time walks along the coast. He had become increasingly drawn into the politics of the time through the strong influence of Dora who believed that artists should take part in social revolution instead of dwelling in ivory towers. In 1936 he agreed to design a drop curtain for a play by Romain Rolland that was intended to celebrate the first Bastille Day (14 July) since the Popular Front came to power. The curtain, which expressed the political concerns of the day, was illustrated with images such as a hammer and sickle motif and a revolutionary fighter and combined classical and contemporary imagery to express people's struggle for freedom.

In 1937 Hitler visited the Nazi–organised Exhibition of Degenerate Art that attempted to ridicule the work of great modern masters such as Munch, Klee and Picasso. This blunt criticism of his work galvanized Picasso into challenging accepted notions of Aryan beauty, and his portraits of the time were as distorted, degenerate and as highly coloured as possible. Man in a hat with an ice–cream, painted in 1938 when Picasso and Dora were again holidaying in the south of France, exemplifies this approach. The painting pays homage to Vincent van Gogh's Self–Portrait with a Straw Hat, 1887, and vibrates with brilliant hues of blue and green exaggerated by stark outlines and the dense black of the background. Picasso was a great admirer of Van Gogh's work and in 1901, as a young man, had seen an exhibition of his work in Paris, which had a profound effect on his own work of the time.

The impending Second World War was already beginning to cast its foreboding shadow. Memories of the carefree, creative summer days on the shores of the French Mediterranean where Picasso and Dora's love had flowered were to fade rapidly.

Questions for Further Discussion:

  1. What is a portrait? How does the medium affect the essence of a portrait?
  2. Picasso once said when talking about portraits: "The artist loses himself in a futile effort if he wants to be realistic. The work can be beautiful even if it doesn't have a conventional likeness."
    (Del Pomar, 1932, page 129)
    Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art, 1972

    Discuss this idea with reference to a range of portraits in the exhibition.
  3. Picasso's portraits vary from the realistic to the childlike to the Surreal. Compare two portraits from the exhibition. Consider their style, medium, technique and composition.
  4. Consider Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar in 1936, 1937 and 1938. What do these works reveal about the nature of their relationship?
  5. Select one portrait from the exhibition. What does it tell us about the character and state of mind of the sitter?
  6. Picasso sometimes transforms himself and people he knows into mythical characters. How would you draw your own mythical character which represents someone you know and admire?

 Other References (Journey Through the Exhibition)



NGV: Art like never before