On December 13, 1954, Pablo Picasso began painting a group of fifteen works featuring two or three languidly posed, vividly colored women accompanied by a servant. He said that this series, begun shortly after Henri Matisse’s death, paid homage to his fellow artist. But his canvases, collectively titled “Les Femmes d’Alger,” more closely resemble those portraying Algerian women by a third master from an earlier generation, Eugène Delacroix, and Picasso’s canvases were begun soon after the start of the Algerian War of Independence. These connections are on full view at the Museum Berggruen in Berlin, where eight of the Spanish artist’s enchanting canvases hang alongside related drawings and prints, as well as other drawings by Matisse and Delacroix.
Two months later, on Valentine’s Day of 1955, Picasso completed his series, designating the versions A through O. As he had worked on them, the Spaniard’s captivating canvases had grown larger, the compositions more robust, and his forms increasingly fragmented. Although blues, reds, and greens predominate throughout the series, five are in grisaille, a monochromatic palette he favored during his Analytic Cubist period, some forty-five years earlier.
One of those grisaille pieces, Version L, completed on February 9, depicts only the woman at the left of the other compositions, who sits cross-legged and holds a hookah. Her ringlets swirl beneath a head covering, while her nipples double as the eyes of an owl spread across her chest like a warrior’s embossed breastplate. For many, the owl is a symbol of death more than of wisdom. Significantly, this ghostly figure was painted two days before Picasso’s estranged wife, Olga Khokhlova, whom he had been supporting since their separation in 1935, died of cancer in Cannes. As a performer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Khokhlova had worn an array of costumes; she was, in fact, photographed in similar attire in 1916. Within this series, until he painted Version K, Picasso had paired this seated figure with the recumbent nude in the scene. With Version L, Picasso made her the regal, principal protagonist, perhaps closing a chapter of his own life.