Picasso's striking portrait of his lover, Dora Maar, to star in Sotheby's Modern Evening Auction in Hong Kong

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Picasso's striking portrait of his lover, Dora Maar, to star in Sotheby's Modern Evening Auction in Hong Kong
Marking the first time a Dora Maar portrait by the artist has come to auction in Asia. Estimate in excess of HK$138m / US$17.6m. Courtesy Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- This April in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s will offer a compelling portrait by Pablo Picasso of his lover, Dora Maar, from a hugely important period in the artist’s life. The appearance of the work not only marks the first time a Dora Maar portrait by the artist has come to auction in Asia, it also comes at a moment when demand for Picasso in the region is at an all-time high – hot on the heels of two consecutive auction records achieved for the artist in Asia by Sotheby’s last year across the spring and autumn sales seasons. Painted in 1939, when the European continent was on the brink of war, the portrait is particularly alluring, and unusual in its calm elegance, given that many of Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar show her face in anguish and fractured into a cubist treatment of her features.

Estimated in excess of HK$138 million / $17.6 million, Dora Maar will be offered as part of Sotheby’s spring sales series in Hong Kong, alongside a strong selection of works from the modern period – by artists such as Chen Yifei, Wu Guanzhong, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki – in the Modern Evening Auction on 27 April. The sale will be complemented by a similarly broad and strong offering of Contemporary Art in an evening auction on the same day, led by Louise Bourgeois’ (almost) seven-foot Spider IV – the first Spider by the artist to be presented at auction in Asia.

Picasso and Dora Maar

The love story between Dora Maar and Picasso is arguably one of the most turbulent in 20th-century art history. Their affair was a partnership of intellectual exchange as well as of intense passion, and her influence on the artist resulted in some of the most daring and most renowned portraits of his career.

Picasso met Maar, the Surrealist photographer, in early 1936, and was immediately enchanted by her intellect and beauty, and by her commanding presence. Although still romantically involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter and married to Olga Khokhlova at the time, Picasso became intimately involved with Maar. Unlike the more docile and domestic Marie-Thérèse, Maar was an artist, spoke Picasso’s native Spanish, and shared his intellectual and political concerns.

During this period of drama in his personal life, Picasso balanced Maar and Walter in an increasingly complex and acrimonious domestic environment. At the same time, world events were also coming to a climax and making themselves felt in Picasso’s work. When Picasso embarked on the great masterpiece Guernica – in response to the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica in April 1937 – Maar assisted as well as producing a photo-documentary of the work in progress. They would remain together until 1943.

Maar’s arrival marked an important stylistic change for Picasso that very quickly made itself felt in his art, with a distinct shift from the sweeping curvilinear forms of Marie-Thérèse Walter towards more sharply delineated forms that captured the essence of the multiple and often conflicting facets of Maar’s personality. With her head resting on her hand, in Dora Maar she looks pensively toward the viewer, conveying a sense of characteristic intensity and gravity. This is only further contrasted by the fiery red background, a symbolic reference to Maar’s equally passionate and spirited character. The portrait shows Maar in a self-possessed and proud pose, her captivating face both contemplative and inscrutable. Her most striking features, powerfully rendered here, were her thick mantle of rich black hair – which she kept long at Picasso’s request – and her dazzling soulful eyes.

Picasso’s choice of a panel for Dora Maar was of artistic significance. Throughout his career, Picasso often selected different media to allow full reign for his creative freedom, switching effortlessly between canvas, panel, paper, or whichever other medium he felt compelled to use. He began painting on panel during his Blue Period and his Surrealist period, and continued to do so through the 1950s.

Dora Maar belongs to a small group of oils on panel painted between 27th and 29th March 1939, including examples held in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. The painting was last offered at auction in 1988, when it graced the cover of the sale catalogue.

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