It is not startlingly unusual for the achievements of a woman artist to be eclipsed, and rendered an adjunct, by her male partner. Think Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera; Lee Miller and Man Ray; or Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky. For any such list, Dora Maar (whose intimate time with Pablo Picasso amounted to only eight of her eighty nine years) is a top contender.
Maar was a shapeshifting artist of many talents with wide-ranging interests across mediums. She trained to be a painter but, both before and after her involvement in the surrealism movement, she became more interested in photography. Under the influence of Picasso, who in turn she influenced, Maar returned to painting and then, in her later years, returned to photography.
Henriette Theodora Markovitch was born in 1907. By 1932 she had adopted the pseudonym Dora Maar. The first public shows dedicated to her work did not take place until the early years of the twenty-first century. The current exhibition at Tate Modern in London has travelled from the Centre Pompidou and, after finishing in March 2020, will move on to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.
Maar’s claim to fame as Picasso’s ‘muse’ and merely footnoted identity as a photographer is counteracted by the display of 26 portraits and self-portraits of her in the first room of the exhibition. Now we know what she looked like before her seminal meeting with Picasso.
Throughout the 1930s, as the second room of the exhibition shows, Maar worked for magazines and books, in fashion, advertising and portraiture for private individuals. The aesthetics of photography’s different genres were not self-policed and such a catholicism allowed Maar to freely move in a no-man’s-land bordered by reality on one side and surreality on the other.
By the 1930s, the photographic nude had attained a measure of artistic respectability in some publications but Maar produced portraits of the model Assia Granatouroff with a degree of daring eroticism that also earned them a place alongside titillating texts in trite fantasy magazines. The male gaze was duly satisfied but the photos stand in their own right as classical images of feminine beauty and not merely as sexist signifiers of a woman’s body. Maar’s cutting-edge play with photomontage draws on graphic design as she works on negatives, scratching, painting and combining them to dramatic and subversive effects. In Les années vous guettent (The years lie in wait for you), for instance, she joins a negative of a spiderweb with one of a woman’s face for an anti-ageing cream advertisement.
A chic commercial photographer to some, Maar was also receptive to left-wing currents stirring the fermentable politics of the 1930s. Like Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, she was drawn to politically vibrant Spain and in 1933 she travelled to the country. The exhibition’s third room, entitled ‘On the Street’, signals one of those signature gear changes that mark her career: in Spain she becomes a street photographer. Comfortable with the contingent—she snaps laughing women at a charcuterie stall with their arms held up while cooked meats hang down around them—and showing empathy for the disadvantaged, she continues in a compassionate vein on the streets of London when she goes there the following year.
Back in Paris, Marr’s exposure to the ideas of surrealism and its tropes affects her street photographs of the city: angled viewpoints, spatial discontinuities—the ‘everyday strange’ as the fourth room of the exhibition puts it. “Nothing is as surreal as reality itself” claimed her friend Brassaï and Surrealism’s influence on Maar deserves the room devoted to it in the exhibition. Her photomontages of this period, using techniques honed in her earlier commercial work, range from the playful to the provocative.
An ambiance of the oneiric pervades many of them, redolent of Freudianism; others remain enigmatic and some, like the photomontage showing a disembodied pair of female legs floating above the Seine, bring to mind one of Theodor Adorno’s observations about surrealism’s montages—though he seems to have been unaware of Maar’s photographic ones. They are not images of “something inward,” he wrote, “rather, they are fetishes—commodity fetishes—on which something subjective, libido, was once fixed.” Maar’s receptiveness to the incongruous and the unexpected reaches an apogee of sorts with the nightmarish close-up Portrait d’Ubu, thought to be an armadillo foetus.
In the winter of 1935–6, Maar met Picasso and what follows is another change of direction in her artistic career. Her interest in street photography declines as Picasso encourages her to paint and Maar herself becomes the model for his well-known Weeping Woman. A psychological crisis follows her break with Picasso and her cubist-style paintings give way to more abstract work. In her later years, she experiments with camera-less photography.
Coming to the end of the exhibition, my companion expressed the view that Picasso’s influence was detrimental to Maar and it is hard not to feel that the heady mix of the unsettling and the compassionate that characterizes her photography is not so evident in her paintings.
The career of Dora Maar is not as well known as it should be and this reparative retrospective triumphantly rescues her from relative obscurity. It establishes her importance as an artist of the avant-garde, very much one of her time, and a case could be made for reading the accompanying book from Tate Publishing before an actual visit. Its essays give granular attention to Maar’s remarkable photographs and there are enough fine reproductions of them to help keep her legacy an enduring one.
Editor’s note: Dora Maar is on at Tate Modern in London until March 15. From April 21 to July 26 it will be at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.