Animals made from pebbles and paper napk ins, portraits sketched on matchboxes and jewels - these are among the strange mementoes Picasso made for his lover Dora Maar. She died last year, and this we ek her treasures will be auctioned, some with estimates of under pounds 1,0 00. By Matthew Sturgis

Matthew Sturgis
Saturday 24 October 1998 23:02 BST

AN ORIGINAL Picasso drawing could be yours for pounds 300! This is the sort of arresting claim that usually arrives through the letterbox accompanied by a garishly printed return-envelope for a prize draw. But on this occasion the prospect comes - discreetly packaged in a three-volume illustrated catalogue - from a rather more plausible source: the combined French auction houses of Piasa and Monsieur Mathias.

It has to be said that the drawing in question is small. Very small. And rather rough. And that it has been done on the back of a packet of cigarettes. And of course it might go for considerably more than its estimate. But nevertheless it is a Picasso. And it hovers within the grasp of anyone with enough money to contemplate paying their water rates, or dining alone at Nobu, or doing anything else that involves a spare, readily accessible pounds 300.

The drawing is part of a great trove of Picasso's art that is going under the hammer later this month. It is all drawn from the estate of the late Dora Maar, Picasso's mistress between 1936 and 1943. The collection includes many important paint- ings, drawings and prints by Picasso (and indeed by other artists of the time), but among the most fascinating lots are the scraps of artistic ephemera. Picasso's private performances done to amuse her and himself. There are carved pebbles, torn paper- napkins, sketches on matchbox lids. They open up a whole world beyond the conventionally accepted boundaries of gallery-art, and offer a glimpse of Picasso and Dora's intense, sometimes troubled relationship.

Dora was a Yugoslav - she was born Dora Markovitch - but she was brought up in Argentina, an accident that allowed her to converse with Picasso in Spanish. She came to Paris in 1926 at the age of 19. When Picasso met her, 10 years later, she had established a reputation as a photographer, a dark-haired, solemn-eyed beauty and as the Egeria of the Surrealist group that revolved around Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Man Ray.

It was her beauty that impressed him most. Picasso had little respect for Surrealists and less for photographers. He once remarked, "There are two professions whose practitioners are never satisfied with what they do: dentists and photographers. Every dentist would like to be a doctor and every photographer would like to be a painter."

Dora clearly knew how to live up to her looks. At one of her first encounters with Picasso, at the Deux Magots, she removed her black gloves and, picking up a long pointed knife, began to stick it into the table between each of her outstretched fingers. The blade went faster and faster. Occasionally she pricked herself, drawing blood. At the end of the performance Dora drew the gloves on to her bleeding hands. Picasso, enraptured, asked whether he might have the gloves. He kept them in a glass case in his studio. Over the course of their affair she returned the compliment with interest. She preserved almost everything connected with him.

Through photography she even recorded the development and progress of his paintings, including his masterpiece, Guernica, which he worked on during 1937/8. The figure of the "weeping woman" is based on Dora.

Certainly she seems to have done her share of weeping. Relations with Picasso were never easy. In 1939 she discovered the existence of Picasso's previous, and not entirely ex, mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. And by 1944 she realised that she was being supplanted by Francoise Gilot, a younger artist. Nevertheless, even as the affair ended in bitterness and a major nervous breakdown, Dora clung to her memories and mementoes. And during long, lonely years of seclusion - when, confirming Picasso's adage about photographers, she devoted herself to painting - she kept her treasures intact. Even the most fragile items in the sale are said to be in excellent condition,

Some items were not susceptible to decay. Picasso was an enthusiastic beachcomber. And Maar had preserved dozens of the sea-smoothed pebbles and other bits of flotsam that he converted into art. Many are lightly carved with classical profiles or the heads of monsters. Some, however, he left untouched, claiming that the sea had sculpted them already, and he had nothing to add except a title.

Not everyone, it seems, had Picasso's gift for interpreting the sea's work. When two young boys brought him a strangely shaped pebble, claiming that it looked like the head of a dog, Picasso felt obliged to show them that "in reality it was a typewriter".

The "typewriter" stone is not, alas, preserved in Maar's collection. But there is a distinctive piece of sea-worn bone, unembellished except by the title Tete d'Aigle. In claiming the chance finds of the seashore as his own work, Picasso does not seem to have been adopting Marcel Duchamp's radical notion of the artist's right to "elect" any object as a work of art. He only "elected" things that looked like Picasso's; he was content to accept the flattery of Nature's imitation.

Although Picasso's relationship with Dora seems to have been characterised by tempestuous "scenes", there were clearly moments of tenderness. Among the delights of the collection are a group of little medallions made by Picasso. In each, a deft crayon sketch is framed within a simple oval of gold or brass. The crayon-drawings are usually portraits of Dora, and without doubt were among her most treasured possessions.

Picasso's pebbles and bijoux, despite their tiny scale, are finished works. His many sketches, though, hold a different place in the oeuvre. They tend to be ideas or preparations for future paintings. Picasso sketched on everything: the backs of envelopes, the fronts of menus, the insides of cigarette packets. And Dora has preserved the most humble scrap. For one drawing Picasso seems to have used a single sheet of Bronco lavatory paper; it is catalogued as "tracing paper" but the claim is unconvincing. There is also a series of miniature compositions made on matchbox lids - a telling reminder, as the catalogue notes with some relish, that Picasso was a keen cigarette and cigar smoker.

The dimensions of a matchbox echo, in miniature, those of a conventional easel-painting. Picasso's little compositions, often with neatly drawn frames, are amusing, satisfying, and priced at Fr30,000 to Fr40,000 (pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000) for a set of 11.

Perhaps less immediately accessible are the roughly fashioned animal shapes that Picasso made from torn paper-napkins, their eyes marked with cigarette burns. They pre-date Matisse's experiments with paper cut- outs, seeming to belong more to the primary school-style of design. They do, however, reveal an unexpectedly sentimental side to Picasso's character.

Apparently, he made many of them to amuse Dora after the death of her pet bichon dog. A friend recalled that, at every meal for several days after the unhappy event, Picasso, through these little creations, would "bring the dog back to life, with its big dark eyes and flapping ears". The "fluffy paper" of the napkin, he noted, suggested the "silky, wavy fur" of the dog "looking out from under its long fringe".

Meals with Picasso were evidently highly creative times. Along with the torn-napkin silhouettes, he produced a host of little figures fashioned from the soft metal tops of mineral-water bottles. One pair - a bird with splendid tail plumage and a rather hard-to- distinguish "dancer" - are valued at a modest Fr4,000 to Fr6,000 (pounds 400- pounds 600).

If there are no figures made from dripping candlewax, no ingeniously folded Quality Street wrappers, no bits of satsuma peel torn into interesting shapes, it can only be that Picasso and Dora did not consume satsumas and chocolates by candlelight. Or, perhaps, these items are being held back for future sale. Certainly Picasso seems to have been consumed by an urge to transform almost everything with which he came into contact. The fact that he was able to transform it into art is the measure of his genius, for these pieces do not rely on his reputation.

He himself always had a distinctly romantic notion of his genius; a belief that everything he made was infused with that "special" spirit. And others (including Dora, the auction houses, and the art-buying public) have tended to agree him. Whether the art-buying public will agree with the auction houses' estimates for this most unusual collection of work remains to be seen.

The preservation of the fugitive scraps in Dora Maar's collection is wonderful. Inevitably, it prompts a thought as to what must have been lost. Some media are, after all, less enduring than others. Vasari always held that one of Michelangelo's finest sculptures was a snowman that he made in the Boboli Gardens. Picasso probably didn't see much snow down in the south of France. But surely there would have been sandcastles made on the beach? Pictures traced in the condensation of car windows? Arrangements of sugared almonds made on restaurant tablecloths?

Preserving such things was perhaps too difficult for Dora Maar in the 1930s. But today - when so much contemporary art is made of sand, confectionery, or hot air - curators frequently grapple with such problems. The technology is available. We must hope that the friends and lovers of today's great artists use it. Dora Maar's Picassos are on view at the Maison De La Chimie, 28 bis, rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris, until Tuesday and will be auctioned on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Telephone: 00 331 45 55 62 45

Captions: Clockwise from top left: Nine drawings on matchbox lids of subjects including Harlequin and still life with eggs (1939), estimated price at auction Fr30,000-Fr40,000 (pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000). Torn paper figure with cigarette burns, 12 inches high (1943), estimate Fr10,000-Fr15,000 (pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500). Portrait of Dora Maar engraved on brass plate-fronted watch (1936-39), estimate Fr20,000-Fr40,000 (pounds 2,000-pounds 4,000). Pendant- sized engraved terracotta amulet (1937), estimate Fr25,000-Fr30,000 (pounds 2,500- pounds 3,000)

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