Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso, 1937
This is not the anti-war painting that most people associate with Picasso.
In some ways, it is more powerful than Guernica.
The Weeping Woman is a silent protest at the bombing of Guernica, a Basque town in Spain, by Germany in the Spanish Civil War. It compresses more suffering in a single face than Rubens normally put into an entire Crucifixion.
The Bigger Picture
The painting, completed in 1937 at the time the Civil War was raging, plays on our emotions.
The strategically placed tears, the blue chattering teeth and piercing black eyes display a woman deeply upset. Her baby has died in the town’s bombing. The woman’s face has jagged lines and a jaw that seems to remove itself. We are confronted with a combination of bright colours and dark hues that represent both the shock and the death that surrounds this woman.
The painting is about the violence that we feel when we look at it, about translating the rawest human emotion into the paint.
The Weeping Woman went on an international tour with Guernica and other works to publicise the plight of the Spanish Republic. It has been part of British historical memory since it was shown here in 1938.
This painting was bought by the English artist Roland Penrose from his close friend Picasso in Paris in the late 30s. The canvas is not large (608 x 500 mm) but it packs a considerable punch. It shows the bust of a Spanish woman wearing a mantilla sobbing into a handkerchief. In just six colours, plus black and white, Picasso created an indelible image of mortal grief.
The bean-shaped head, balancing precariously on the point of a triangular neck, is surrounded by dense blackness. The resulting sense of compression is enhanced by the flattened forms of the mantilla, whose open weave of lace is paradoxically represented by thick, crisscrossing lines.
The woman's skin is bright white. Her nose and cheek are flushed with hot magenta; her acidic green lips shaded with pale, icy blue. The vivid yellow blouse framing her knotted fingers shrieks against the blackness of the background while her red-orange hair hums against the complementary greens of the mantilla framing her head. Look closely at her eyes and the silhouette of a plane is seen in each eye.
The sobbing eyes and the handkerchief are dramatic inventions. Thick, black lines stream weightily from the eyes, which are themselves shaped like teardrops. The handkerchief adjacent is a crumpled cloud, which Picasso has muddled with an agitated storm of scribbled pencil lines. The use of distorted images and an Expressionism vibe surround this painting.
Picasso’s model, Dora Maar, was the inspiration after she suffered a tremendous loss during the war. The oil on canvas painting displays her loss through angles, lines and colour. Picasso painted Dora’s hair with a mix of blue and black. He also used the shallow space to give depth while acidic green and shades of mauve create the appearance of loss.
Pablo Picasso’s The Weeping Woman is the final portrayal in a series of painful images. It was painted within a week or two of the completion of his famous monumental picture of the brutal fascist bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica, a picture to which the small canvas bears an apparent relationship.
Picasso hardly ever painted faces that portrayed intensely descriptive emotion. The series of weeping women, which appear in about 60 drawings, prints and paintings throughout 1937, are an anomaly.
They come from the intersection of political events, represented by the Spanish Civil War, and of personal relationships, in the artist's notoriously tangled romantic life, which together conspire to give us these remarkable pictorial essays on human sorrow.
Guernica by Picasso, 1937
Clement Atlee opens the Whitechapel exhibition of ‘Guernica’ in January 1939. Penrose is to his left.
Massacre in Korea by Picasso, 1951
The Weeping Woman series is regarded as a continuation of the tragedy depicted in Picasso's epic painting Guernica. In focusing on the image of a woman crying, Picasso was no longer painting the effects of the Spanish Civil War directly, but rather referring to the common image of suffering.
The destruction of Guernica was carried out by German aircraft, manned by German pilots, at the request of the Spanish National Commander, Mola. Because the Republican Government of Spain had granted autonomy to the Basques, Guernica was the capital city of an independent city. Its razing was taken up by the world’s press as an example of Fascist barbarity.
Picasso's insistence that we imagine ourselves into the contorted face of this woman, into her dark eyes, was part of his response to seeing newspaper photographs of the Luftwaffe's bombing of Guernica on April 26, 1937.
The Weeping Woman, 1937 came at the end of the series of paintings, prints and drawings that Picasso made in protest. It has very particular, Spanish sources. In May 1937, Picasso's mother wrote to him from Barcelona saying that smoke from the burning city during the fighting made her eyes water. The Mater Dolorosa, the weeping Virgin, is a traditional image in Spanish art, often represented in lurid elaborate sculptures with glass tears, like the very solid one that flows towards this woman's right ear. Picasso's father, an artist, made one for the family home.
The model for the painting, indeed for the entire series, was Dora Maar, who was working as a professional photographer when Picasso met her in 1936; she was the only photographer allowed to document the successive stages of Guernica while Picasso painted it in 1937. Dora Maar was Picasso's partner from 1936 until 1944. In the course of their relationship, Picasso painted her in some guises, some realistic, some benign, others tortured or threatening.
About Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso was born in 1881.
He was the most dominant and influential artist of the first half of the twentieth century. Associated most of all with pioneering Cubism, alongside Georges Braque, he also invented collage and made significant contributions to Symbolism and Surrealism.
He saw himself above all as a painter, yet his sculpture was greatly influential, and he also explored areas as diverse as printmaking and ceramics. Picasso first emerged as a Symbolist, influenced by the likes of Edvard Munch and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This tendency shaped his so-called Blue Period, in which he depicted beggars, prostitutes, and various urban misfits, and also the brighter moods of his subsequent Rose Period.
It was a confluence of influences - from Paul Cézanne and Henri Rousseau to archaic and tribal art - that encouraged Picasso to lend his figures more weight and structure around 1906. And they ultimately set him on the path towards Cubism, in which he deconstructed the conventions of perspectival space that had dominated painting since the Renaissance. These innovations would have far-reaching consequences for practically all of modern art, revolutionizing attitudes to the depiction of form in space.
Picasso's immersion in Cubism also eventually led him to the invention of collage, in which he abandoned the idea of the picture as a window on objects in the world, and began to conceive of it merely as an arrangement of signs that used different, sometimes metaphorical means, to refer to those objects. This too would prove hugely influential for decades to come. Picasso had a liberal attitude to style, and although, at any one time, his work was usually characterized by a single dominant approach, he often moved interchangeably between different forms - sometimes even in the same artwork.
His encounter with Surrealism in the mid-1920s, although never transforming his work entirely, encouraged a new expressionism that had been suppressed throughout the years of experiment in Cubism and subsequently during the early 1920s when his style was predominantly classical. This development enabled not only the soft forms and tender eroticism of his portraits of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter but also the starkly angular imagery of Guernica (1937), the century's most famous anti-war painting.
Picasso was always eager to place himself in history, and some of his greatest works, such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), refer to a wealth of past precedents - even while overturning them. As he matured, he became ever more conscious of assuring his legacy, and his late work is characterized by a frank dialogue with Old Masters such as Ingres, Velazquez, Goya, and Rembrandt.
Aside from the several anti-war paintings that he created, Picasso remained personally neutral during World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II, refusing to join the armed forces for any side or country. He had also remained aloof from the Catalan independence movement during his youth despite expressing general support and being friendly with activists within it.
At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Picasso was already in his late fifties. He was even older at the onset of World War II, and could not be expected to take up arms in those conflicts. As a Spanish citizen living in France, Picasso was under no compulsion to fight against the invading Germans in either World War. In the Spanish Civil War, service for Spaniards living abroad was optional and would have involved a voluntary return to their country to join either side.
The Spanish Civil War provided the impetus for Picasso's first overtly political work, The Dream and Lie of Franco, which was produced "specifically for propagandistic and fundraising purposes." This surreal fusion of words and images was intended to be sold as a series of postcards to raise funds for the Spanish Republican cause.
Guernica, together with various versions of The Weeping Woman, toured England to build support for the Republican cause in the Civil War. This tour was organised by Roland Penrose. At its British opening at the Whitechapel Gallery, around 15,000 people attended during the opening week. The admission price was a pair of boots for the Republican Army fighting at the front. They were laid out in front of Guernica, adding to the dramatic impact of the event.
In 1944, Picasso joined the French Communist Party, attended an international peace conference in Poland. In 1950 received the Stalin Peace Prize from the Soviet government, But party criticism of a portrait of Stalin as insufficiently realistic cooled Picasso's interest in Soviet politics, though he remained a loyal member of the Communist Party until his death.
In a 1945 interview, Picasso stated: "I am a Communist, and my painting is Communist art. ... But if I were a shoemaker, Royalist or Communist or anything else, I would not necessarily hammer my shoes in a special way to show my politics." His Communist sympathies, common among continental intellectuals and artists at the time (although it was officially banned in Franco’s Spain), has long been the subject of some controversy. In the late 1940s his old friend the surrealist poet and Trotskyite and anti-Stalinist André Breton was blunter; refusing to shake hands with Picasso, he told him: "I don't approve of your joining the Communist Party nor with the stand you have taken concerning the purges of the intellectuals after the Liberation".
He was against the intervention of the United Nations and the United States in the Korean War and he depicted it in his painting Massacre in Korea.
He died in 1973