National Gallery of Victoria


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Head of a woman 1940
oil on canvas
64.8 x 45.0 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 1229
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Head of a woman 1941
Paris, (November) 1941
oil on newspaper
60.0 x 43.0 cm
Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 1990–72 © Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Cat catching a bird
Paris, 22 April 1939
oil on canvas
81.0 x 100.0 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 178
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Bust of a woman with striped hat
Paris, 3 June 1939
oil on canvas
81.0 x 54.0 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 180
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Head of a Woman
Royan, 4 October 1939
oil on canvas
65.5 x 54.5 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 182 © Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006

A Journey Through the Exhibition
The War Years

In June 1940 the Germans occupied most of France, while the remainder came under the control of the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Petain, based in Vichy. Picasso initially retreated to a rented apartment in Royan, a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast. In 1941 when it too was overrun by Hitler's troops he found himself in a difficult position. As creator of the world–famous Guernica, and a fervent Republican, he was unable to return to Spain. So he made the risky decision to live in Paris for the duration of the Occupation, despite offers of asylum in the U.S.A. and Mexico.

A sense of fear and claustrophobia gripped the city. Life was characterised by rations, curfews and biting–cold winters where fuel shortages led to people huddling together in cafes to keep warm. There was also the chilling presence of the omnipresent Nazis. Picasso and Dora were constantly receiving news of Jewish friends who had been deported to concentration camps or tortured for taking part in the Resistance. Dora, in particular, must have been racked by anxiety as she was a member of the leftist group, Contra–Attaque. It is also believed that she had Jewish parentage.

Despite the fact that Picasso was regarded by the Nazi regime as a degenerate artist and Guernica had become a symbol of defiance against Fascism he remained free from persecution. At the time the Nazis were keen not to offend the U.S.A. and it was probably Picasso's widespread fame that protected him. However, he was denied publicity and prevented from exhibiting his work, resulting in his disappearance from the world stage. Some of Picasso's closest friends had been claimed by the Nazis, including the poet Max Jacob. While some artists colluded with the Germans, he vehemently refused to engage with them, declining offers of extra food and tours of Germany. According to an anecdotal account, the Gestapo searched his apartment. During their visit he showed them a black and white photograph of Guernica. When a German soldier asked him if he had done it, he replied, "No, it was you!" Picasso's willingness to shelter anyone sent to him from the Resistance Movement was a further indication of his rebellious attitude.

Determined not to be cowed by the atmosphere of confinement and uncertainty, he continued to work feverishly, including writing poetry and making portraits and busts of Dora. In January 1941 he surprised his friends by writing a play entitled Desire Caught by the Tail, a curious blend of Picasso's biting wit, allusions to Dora, macabre imagery and the bleakness of wartime Paris that culminates in disappointment for the bizarre characters obsessed with hunger, cold and love. In 1944 a clandestine reading of the play was organised, in itself an act of defiance in the face of occupation. This illustrates how deeply Picasso was embedded in the intellectual and literary circle of the time. The performance was directed by Albert Camus and the actors included Jean–Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Dora.

During the War materials for sculpture were severely limited and Picasso worked with anything at hand, including pieces of wood, bones, wine–bottle caps, scraps of paper, cigarette packets and even a bicycle saddle and handlebars that he used to create a life–like head of a bull. When canvas was not available he painted on planks and hardboard, or as can be seen in Head of a woman, November 1941, on newspaper where the stark, black outlines seem to echo the austerity and bleakness of war–torn Paris.

Picasso's insistence on responding to the present rather than working in a strictly developmental manner is evident in his paintings of the time, which have an eerie sinister presence. Cat seizing a bird, April 1939, depicts a self–satisfied cat triumphantly gripping a defenceless bird, its flesh torn to reveal a gaping wound. It can be read as an evil symbol of General Franco defeating Madrid in the preceding March.

Head of a woman, 11 June 1940, a grimacing, haunted skull with clenched teeth set against a background of menacing greys, seems to epitomise the essence of death and the defeat of France. The grim bronze and copper sculpture Death's head, which cries out with the same hellish intensity as Edvard Munch's agonised figure in The Scream, 1895, also does. A spotlight that he borrowed from Dora cast dark shadows at night, encircling his canvases and setting off every object in Picasso's still–lives. In these the imagery of the traditional vanitas of the Old Masters is recalled. Pitcher and skeleton, 18 February 1945, and Still life with candle, 21 February 1945, show the ghostly luminescent quality of the objects emerging from the gloom, evoking dread and foreboding. The works from this time are images of despair, pouring forth a sense of isolation, fear and introspection, while at the same time retaining a cynical sense of humour and defiant strength.

In August 1944 as German tanks rolled out of Paris and the city was liberated, Picasso was visited by a constant stream of friends and admirers, all delighted to discover that he was still alive. His relief at again experiencing freedom was tempered by the knowledge that friends in Spain were still prisoners of Franco. In response he joined the French Communist Party, who, to the surprise of some, allowed him to continue his radical approach to art rather than insisting he conform to the Social Realism normally associated with Soviet doctrines. Six weeks after Liberation Picasso was honoured by an invitation to take part in an exhibition of French art at the newly reopened Salon d'Automne. Regrettably, his works were physically attacked by conservative youths who had been seduced by right–wing politics during France's Occupation. Police were brought in to guard the exhibition.

A few months later he exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where his work from the war years elicited a mixed reaction. Some viewers were taken aback by the raw, powerful and brutal expression, particularly when compared with the gentle, lyrical work of Matisse who was also exhibiting at the museum.

The strain of living through the Second World War had put pressure on the relationship between Picasso and Dora. As early as 1942 Dora's sense that the relationship had run its course was evident in her poignant poem of the time:

...Today it's another landscape in this Sunday at the end
of the month of March 1942 in Paris the silence is
so great that the songs of the tame birds are like little
flames you can see. I am desperate

But let it be

Mary Ann Caws, Dora Maar with and without Picasso, a biography, Thames and Hudson, 2000, Page 162

The situation was compounded in 1943 when Francoise Gilot, a beautiful artist forty years younger than Picasso, came into his life. She later became his partner.

Dora continued to paint after the agonising discovery of his affair with Gilot and it was noticeable that as her relationship with Picasso waned so too did his influence on her style. Dora Maar was the only one of his muses who stimulated him artistically, intellectually and politically, but the intense flame that had ignited their passion and creative partnership was dying. Although they continued to see each other until 1946, a final separation was inevitable.

Questions for Further Discussion:

  1. Examine the still life images made by Picasso in Paris at the end of the war. Consider subject matter, medium, composition, technique and use of art elements. What do these works convey about Picasso's thoughts and feelings living in Nazi–occupied Paris?
  2. Describe how art gives a voice to the lives and experiences of those touched by tragedy, conflict or events.
  3. During the Second World War, when materials were scarce, Picasso sometimes had to rely on the use of recycled materials for his painting and sculpture. Identify and discuss one of his works that uses these materials. How might you use a recycled material in one of your own artworks?

 Other References (Journey Through the Exhibition)



NGV: Art like never before