Head of a Woman
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Etching on copper
Dimensions: Print 176 x 155mm, 7 x 6 1/8″; sheet 410 x 310 mm, 16 1/8 x 12 3/16″
Signature: Signed “Picasso” in bold, thick pencil in the lower right; inscribed “epreuve d’artiste” by another hand in the lower left
References: Bloch 256;
Baer 295 Bb2;
Fryberger, Picasso: Graphic Magician, p. 63;
Baer, Picasso the Engraver, p. 54 and 72;
Baer, Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection, p. 71;
Müller, Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter: Between Classicism and Surrealism, p. 93
Ingrid Mossinger, et al., Picasso et les Femmes, Kunstsammlung Chemnitz, Dumont, p. 181
Edition: One of several artist’s proofs apart from the numbered edition of 50 published by Leiris in 1961 before the cancellation of the plate.
Paper: Tinted Arches laid paper (vergé d’Arches teinté [Geiser/Baer]); untrimmed–deckled edges on all sides
Impression: Unusually strong
Condition: Excellent (trace focal toning in the peripheral margin in the top left corner from a previous overmat, barely if at all discernible upon close scrutiny; otherwise flawless), framed
Price: Upon request
Only Picasso could manage to so utterly lay bare the soul of his muse, despite such extensive anatomical distortion, or perhaps because of it. For all her altered features, Marie-Thérèse still manages a demure, introspective look with her stony, sightless, inwardly directed eye and her sensitive lips. What’s especially wondrous about this artwork is that Picasso managed to convey such tenderness–with sausages. All the while, his subject engages the viewer, seemingly asking, “Yeah, right–you say there’s a what on the top of my head?”
This head of a woman represents one of Picasso’s many stylistic forays into surrealism, the cutting-edge movement in art of the time. Though Picasso refused to ally himself with this movement, he was clearly its inspiration and its vanguard. As André Breton, who is best known as the principal founder of surrealism, conceded, “Surrealism, if it tends to define a line of action, simply has to go where Picasso has gone, and where he will return” (quoted in C. Piot et al., The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p. 232). Sir Roland Penrose described the radicalism of Picasso’s surrealism in the context of his previous work as follows, “These excursions into realms formerly forbidden by a canonical respect for beauty were more profoundly disturbing than the attacks made by Cubism on academic conceptions of painting. They upset man’s vision of himself which had sprung from classical tradition. But we were to discover, thanks to Picasso, that the image of man did not reside only in an ideal conception, but that in its nature it should be organic and alive” (Picasso: Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, pp. 255-256).
As is readily apparent from the rather long list of references above, this magnificent print has been included in every general survey of Picasso prints, at least those in our library. It is significant on several levels. In 1931 and -32, Picasso developed a sensational, unique style, one more in a chain of innumerable unique styles, in which Marie-Thérèse’s facial features were modeled in plaster with exaggerated, thick, rounded forms, which have been likened to ropes or sausages by various writers. The results in plaster and later in bronze were magnificent and compelling (see an example of one of these bronzes, Buste de Femme, PP.31:029, below). About twelve months later, in February and March, 1933, Picasso made several etchings of Marie-Thérèse’s head including this one that look very sculptural and are modeled in the same style as the recent plasters. Two of these, Bloch numbers 250 and this one, 256, are simply amazing works. That Picasso could create such shapes out of plaster was amazing enough, but that he could imbue their two-dimensional representations on paper with such sculptural volume was in and of itself incredible.
Right after creating these works, Picasso began incorporating similarly modeled heads onto full-length figures of models in the sculptor’s studio, or into the form of sculptures within the studio. All of these prints were later grouped into the Vollard Suite, and, because of its much larger edition size as well perhaps as its cache, are better known. (See, for example, Bloch numbers 146 and 219, illustrated as Figures 13 and 18 in Chapter 6 of A Guide to Collecting Picasso’s Prints on this website. Other examples include Bloch numbers 148-158, 176 and 218.) As far as these strangely modeled heads goes, the smaller series of portraits to which this Tete de Femme belongs is most impressive because of the larger scale of these portraits and because the viewer’s attention is not distracted from these sculptural portraits by the presence of other pictorial elements.
This Tête de Femme is also unusual because it is perhaps the only Picasso print, in addition maybe to his lithographic fingerpainting (Paloma et Claude, Bloch 664, see elsewhere in this catalogue) in which the technique is not only innovative—typical fare for Picasso—but in which the very technique itself is charming! In creating this portrait, Picasso used his mistress’ nail polish as a sort of resist with which he drew directly onto the raw copper plate. Then, a prolonged dip in acid lowered the surface level of the copper plate everywhere except where the nail polish had been applied, yielding a “negative engraving” in which the image, rather than engraved into the plate itself, is presented in relief, such that everything other than the image would get the printer’s ink. Baer refers to the medium of this print as an etching, but that is likely because the actual technique, unique in this application yet somewhat akin to aquatint, has yet to be named.