Mother of sorrow

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Picasso's "Weeping Woman" symbolised a nation's anguish, says Deborah Riding, and was also a personal expression of the artist's feelings for his lover

Pablo Picasso said: "a head is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like. The head remains a head." In "Weeping Woman" (1937) it is the distribution and description of these features, the distorted head and shoulders of a woman obviously in a state of distress, in which the painting's power lies.

Between May and October 1937 Picasso made 36 paintings and drawings of an anguished mother, often clutching an injured or dead child. Earlier that year he had agreed to make a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, and the motif of a grieving mother featured strongly in the resulting work, "Guernica". "Weeping Woman" was one of the most important pieces produced during the development of this project and is now recognised as one of Picasso's greatest works.

Throughout his development of the weeping woman theme, Picasso used facial features as increasingly expressive elements in his paintings, exploring the intense physical and mental distress of the subject. Surrealism appealed to Picasso for its engagement with the unconscious mind; Surrealist influence is evident in "Weeping Woman", where the features take on a symbolic dimension. The eyes, for example, are depicted like capsized boats from which huge teardrops run, while some commentators have noticed how the pupils seem to reflect aeroplanes.

In "Weeping Woman", the angular shapes and heavy black outlines are harsh and confrontational, directing the viewer to the eyes, mouth and hand of the woman, focusing on her tears and anguished expression, and the handkerchief clenched between her teeth. This complex and confused focus evokes direct and raw emotions. Grief is further expressed though her heavy dark eyes and furrowed brow.

Although undeniably a portrait, the work also explores Cubist concerns, as it represents several viewpoints simultaneously. Cubists felt that a more genuine experience could be conveyed like this, allowing more personal forms of perception, such as memory, emotion and experience, to inform the composition. Picasso plays with this Cubist notion of fragmentation to accentuate the expressive and emotive aspects of his portrait.

Throughout his long and prolific career, Picasso drew inspiration from a huge range of sources and some of these interests are apparent in this painting. He studied African art objects and experimented in his own work with simplified and stylised representations of the figure, such as masks and totemic carvings he had seen in museums. There are also obvious references to the Madonna, often represented as sorrowfully grieving for her child, although "Weeping Woman" perhaps more directly refers to the Mater Dolorosa, a depiction of the Virgin Mary with tears on her cheek, particular to Spanish Baroque art.

Picasso fervently supported the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War. The bombing of the small town of Guernica on April 26, 1937 became a particularly emotive focus. The severity of the attack and consequent devastation was reported in the press accompanied by harrowing photographs. One of the mural's most enduring images was of a distraught woman engulfed in tears, holding her dead child. Picasso's many versions of this woman not only came to symbolise the anguish of the Spanish nation, but to resonate worldwide in the years to come.

While a public demonstration of political feeling, "Weeping Woman" was also a personal expression of Picasso's feelings towards Dora Maar, on whom the woman in the painting was modelled. Dora Maar was Picasso's mistress at the time. A formidable character, she was key in Picasso's political engagement. He said of her, "I couldn't make a portrait of her laughing.

For me she's the weeping woman."

There is another portrait of Dora Maar on display at Tate Liverpool which, although Cubist in style, is much more sympathetic than "Weeping Woman".

Both portraits show her distinctive dark eyes, which Picasso referred to as her "mirada fuerte" or brazen stare. Dora's personality and demeanour are also evident; she was renowned for dramatic clothes and make-up and comes through as confident and elegant in the painting, despite its raw emotion.

l "Weeping Woman" is the subject of the Focus Room in International Modern Art at Tate Liverpool until December 12. It is presented alongside other works from the Tate Collection, and scrapbooks, propaganda material and film footage of the Spanish Civil War from the Imperial War Museum and the British Museum. Admission is free. For enquiries, workshop and in-service bookings call Samantha Brewer, education assistant: Tel: 0151 702 7451 Email:

For information about works by

Official Picasso website: www.picasso.franglais

"Guernica" can be viewed at:

The bombing of Guernica: guernica.htm

Deborah Riding is School and Colleges Programme Curator at Tate Liverpool

Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

One of the most prolific and influential artists of the 20th century, Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain. Exiled from his homeland in 1939 after the Civil War, he lived in Paris until his death. Although best known for pioneering Cubism, his career embraced many other styles and he constantly experimented with ideas. Some key works are "Les Damoiselles D'Avignon" 1907, "Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper" 1913, and "Guernica" 1937.


KS 1-2

Art and design

Lay a large roll of paper across the floor and have the class sit in two rows on either side, facing each other. Call out different feelings - sad, scared and so on - and ask them to take it in turns to pull an expression and draw the person opposite them with marker pens. Encourage them to make their drawings bold and simple.


Give pupils a collection of magazines and catalogues and ask them to make a surreal self-portrait collage.

Encourage them to use different objects for the facial features that say something about their personality and interests.


Ask students to make a painting in response to a news item. Encourage them to collect newspaper articles, make notes and sketches from the television news and research the subject on the internet. Their finished piece of work should focus on one particular image from their research.

History and citizenship


Picasso said painting is "an instrument of war". Discuss with your group the implications of this quote. Show them some other works by war artists.

How different is painting from photojournalism? Which is the most powerful propaganda?


The i- Map project on the Tate website has been designed for visually impaired people but is useful for teachers. It explores some of the ideas, innovations and working methods of Matisse and Picasso.

* Key work cards for Teachers: Portraits and Identity. This set of work cards for teachers includes a section on "Weeping Woman".

pound;9.99 from Tate shops and mail order Tel: 020 7887 8869

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