Dora Maar, also known as Picasso’s “Weeping Woman”, is mostly remembered for being the surrealist artist’s muse and lover. This year, Tate Modern has put together the most comprehensive retrospective of Dora Maar ever held, allowing her to be seen as a photographer and artist in her own right. The exhibition explores the breadth of Maar’s career, encompassing commercial photography, documentary projects and painting.
Dora Maar was born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in Paris on 22nd November 1907, although she was mostly known as Dora. Her father Joseph Markovitch (1874–1969) was an architect from Croatia but settled in Paris with his French wife Louise-Julie Voisin (1877–1942) in 1896. From 1910, Maar’s early life was mostly spent in Buenos Aires, Argentina where her father had obtained a commission from the Austria-Hungary Embassy. Although his work did not make him particularly wealthy, his achievements were recognised by Emperor Francis Joseph I (1830-1916).
The Markovitch family returned to Paris in 1926 where Dora enrolled at the Central Union of Decorative Arts. She also attended the newly opened l’Ecole Nationale de la Cinématographie et la Photographie (School of Photography). Following this, she enrolled at the École des Beaux-Artes and the Académie Julian. Whilst she trained in both fine art and photography, she decided photography was the way forward because it provided greater stability than painting in the commercial world.
In 1930, Dora met the Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï (1899-1984) with whom she began sharing a darkroom. Gyula Halász, who went by the pseudonym Brassaï, was an internationally known photographer between the two world wars who also worked as a sculptor, medalist, writer and filmmaker. He photographed many of his friends, who included the artists Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.
Dora also worked with Harry Osip Meerson (1911-91), a Polish-born French fashion photographer and, during 1930, she set up a photography studio with Pierre Kéfer on the Rue Campagne-Première on the outskirts of Paris. Kéfer had been a decorator and set designer for Jean Epstein’s (1897-1953) film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), however, the studio mainly focused on photography for advertisements and fashion magazines. Dora called working with Kéfer her “worldly period” because it introduced her to many glamorous clientele.
Dora’s first significant commission was for Germain Bazin (1901-90), an art historian, who wanted photographs to illustrate his manuscript about a monastery on Mont Saint Michel island in Normandy. Seventy-two photos were needed in total, of which Dora supplied thirty-seven. Unfortunately, she was only credited for six.
It was around this time that Dora decided to officially change her public name, declaring in a 1932 bulletin that Henriette Markovitch, “artist-painter”, had transformed into Dora Maar, photographer. Many of the studio’s photographs were signed “Kéfer-Dora-Maar”, however, Dora was usually the sole author.
Kéfer-Dora-Maar’s first fashion photography commission was for Jacques Heim (1899-1967) who ran a maison de couture. Maar’s job was to photograph Heim’s latest clothing designs for the fashion house’s magazine. This was Maar’s first taste of haute couture, which led to commissions from other fashion designers, such as Coco Chanel (1883-1971), Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973). Maar continued to work with Heim during the 1950s, producing textile designs and logos rather than photographs.
Kéfer-Dora-Maar dissolved in 1935 and Maar established her own studio in central Paris where she took on independent commissions. It was around this time that her style of work also began to change, becoming more experimental, for instance, using scissors and glue to turn her photographs into collages. Maar also produced photomontages, which involved sandwiching two negatives together and printing them as one image. An example of this is The Years Lie in Wait for You, published in 1935 as an advertisement for an anti-ageing cream. The image is made up of a photograph of a spider’s web and a close-up of Maar’s friend Nusch Éluard (1906-45). Eluard, who was born Maria Benz, was a stage performer who regularly modelled for surrealist artists.
Another model both Maar and other artists used was Assia Granatouroff (1911-82). Born in Ukraine, Granatouroff moved to France at a young age and trained to be a textile designer. In her early twenties, she decided to become a film actress but needed money to pay for acting classes. By modelling, often for nudes, Granatouroff managed to scrape together the necessary funds. Maar’s photographs of Grantouroff experimented with lighting and angles and re-imagined the classical depiction of the nude. Many of the photographs were circulated in art publications and erotic magazines.
Maar did not spend all her time working in a studio. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 in the United States, Europe was subjected to the worst economic depression of modern times. Maar and her peers wished to document the devastating effects of the crisis throughout Europe and, without being commissioned, she travelled to the Costa Brava in Catalonia, followed by Barcelona.
Maar explored the city, documenting both the landscape and the people she saw. None of her photographs were staged, instead, they were captured quickly on her Rolleiflex camera. This camera was portable and could be held at waist height, allowing the photographer to take rapid, spur-of-the-moment photographs.
In Barcelona, Maar saw a mix of scenes that revealed some of the worst-off areas. Photographs include a beggar woman, a blind street pedlar and a group of blind musicians, all of whom were trying to earn money in order to survive. On the other hand, Maar captured shots of children playing and someone doing a handstand on the beach, which suggests that not everything was doom and gloom.
Back in Paris, Maar continued to document the effects of the economic depression, particularly in the area known as “La Zone”. In 1844, a 3-4 kilometre strip of land in the 13th arrondissement of Paris was transformed into a military defence zone. By the 1930s, it was no longer needed and poor communities began to move into the disused buildings. Eventually, around 40,000 people were living there, although they were forcibly moved before the beginning of the Second World War.
Maar captured the life in “La Zone”, showing dilapidated buildings, working men and women, and children. These photographs contrasted with others she took in the city, which revealed well-dressed people going about their everyday lives.
In February 1934, Maar visited London where she documented various locations in the City of London and the East End. The photographs were included in an exhibition at Galeries Van den Berghe in Paris under the name of Kéfer-Dora-Maar, however, Maar was the sole photographer.
The photographs taken in London continued to reveal the state of lives during the economic depression. War veterans begging on the street, Lottery Ticket dealers and ragpickers were competing for customers to earn a wage. A man with a placard stating, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) suggests that some people believed the social and economic situation in Europe was God-driven.
To try to assist traders who had fallen on hard times, “Coster Kings and Queens” were elected to collect money on the streets. This evolved into the tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens, which continues today. Maar photographed one Pearly King collecting money for Empire Air Day, an annual air show held at Royal Air Force stations across Britain. “The idea of Empire Air Day is that the public should be enabled to see the Royal Air Force at its everyday work.” (Anthony Muirhead MP) Maar’s photograph shows the Pearly King dressed in imitation 20th-century high society fashion, decorated with pearly beads.
Affected by what she had seen in Barcelona, London and Paris, Maar signed her name on the Appel à la lutte (Call to the Struggle) manifesto by the surrealist poet André Breton (1896-1966) and screenwriter Louis Chavance (1907-79). The manifesto had been written as a response to political riots by the extreme far-right and, at the time, Maar considered herself to be on the far-left. Maar was also inspired to join Breton’s anti-fascist movement Contre-Attaque, which he led with the philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Alongside this, she attended and documented the rehearsals and performances of the leftist theatre troupe Groupe Octobre.
By associating herself with the political side of surrealism, Maar began to adopt the movement in her photography. The Surrealist Movement, which was predominantly led by Breton and Paul Éluard aimed to transform the art world, refusing to conform to constrictions put in place by modern society. Surrealism embraced the power of the unconscious mind, creating impossible, dreamlike imagery that were far from reality.
At first, it was not certain how photography could benefit the Surrealist Movement, therefore, Maar continued to photograph scenes around the city. Her way of thinking, however, had been changed and she began to seek out the stranger areas of historic cities. Whilst in London, Maar photographed a man looking inside a pavement inspection door, which was not a usual sight to see. She also came across a wire sculpture of a kangaroo on the pavement.
During this period, Maar became more experimental with the way she took photographs. Her documentary photography produced quick snapshots of city life, however, by focusing on dramatic angles and cropping the image, Maar was able to construct a more disorienting perspective. Gradually, Maar’s photographs leant more and more towards surrealism.
Alongside Man Ray (1890-1976), Raoul Ubac (1910-85) and Hans Bellmer (1902-75), Maar became one of the few photographers to be included in surrealist exhibitions. She continued to photograph objects from interesting angles, which distorted their appearance. This method resulted in Portrait of Ubu, which was named after Alfred Jarry’s (1873-1907) absurdist play Ubu Roi (King Ubu, 1895). The subject matter has yet to be identified, although the most popular suggestion is an armadillo foetus. Talking about the photo in 1994, Maar said, “It’s a real animal, but I don’t want to say which one, because it would strip it of its mystery.”
To add to the surrealist effects of her photography, Maar returned to the method of photomontage, cutting and pasting together two or more photographs to make a new image. Maar took elements from her own photographs and those of other photographers, as well as images from 20th-century publications. Rather than leaving the result in a collage format, Maar photographed the cutouts to create a seamless image. Hand-shell, for example, was produced by combining a couple of photographs to make it appear as though a hand was protruding from a shell.
Dora Maar reached the height of her career in the winter of 1935-6 when she met Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Picasso, on the other hand, was at the worst time of his life, having not produced any artwork for several months. Their first meeting took place on the set of Jean Renoir’s film The Crime of Monsieur Lange where Maar was taking promotional photographs. On this occasion, Maar and Picasso may not have spoken, however, they were formally introduced a few days later by their mutual friend Paul Éluard.
Between 1936 and 1938, Maar and Picasso spent the summers in the South of France with various friends, where Maar took photographs of Picasso on the beach. Back in Paris, Maar invited Picasso to her studio to photograph his portrait and, in return, allowed him to paint her, which he did many times throughout their decade long relationship.
Picasso encouraged Maar to paint alongside her photography career. Adopting his style, Maar produced a portrait of Picasso, displacing the facial features and adding elements of cubism. Viewers could be forgiven for mistaking many of Maar’s works as Picasso’s since she often replicated his methods.
The Conversation, painted in 1937, addresses Maar’s feelings about Picasso’s ongoing relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-77) with whom he had a daughter Maya. Despite openly being a couple with Maar, Picasso refused to break off his relationship with Walter and made them both fight for his love. It is also known that Picasso physically abused Maar and used her as a living depiction of pain and suffering in his portraits.
In 1937, Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Initially, he spent a few months half-heartedly painting in his studio, however, after the bombing of Guernica on 26th April, he was inspired to make the violence and chaos of that event of the Spanish Civil War the subject of the painting.
From 11th May to 4th June, Maar documented Picasso’ progress through photographs as he tackled the large canvas in his studio. The photographs were commissioned by the art journal Cahiers d’art who wanted to “preserve the metamorphosis of a picture”. It has been suggested Maar’s presence in the studio may have influenced the artwork. Picasso included the silhouette of an electric light, which historians have speculated was inspired by the light Maar used to illuminate the canvas for her photographs.
In an interview recorded in 1990, Maar revealed that she had helped paint small parts of Guernica so that there would be significant progress in her next photograph. She also revealed one of the female figures in the composition was intended to be her.
Not long after Guernica was completed, Picasso painted Maar as the Weeping Woman. He produced over thirty studies of Maar in this guise but Maar believed it was never intended to be a portrait. It was her belief that it was another of Picasso’s metaphors for the suffering during the Spanish War.
In 1942, Maar bought a new studio in Paris where she focused on painting rather than photography. Picasso continued to encourage her to paint in the cubist style, which is evident in some of her still life paintings. Some of her still lifes were exhibited at Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris in 1944. As their relationship began to break down, however, Maar’s artwork began to take a new direction. Inspired by the river Seine, which was a stone’s throw from her home, she began to focus on landscapes.
Life during the early 1940s was not kind to Maar. Firstly, she was subjected to an abusive relationship, which coincided with her father returning to Argentina. After Maar left Picasso, she had to face the sudden deaths of her mother and close friend, Nusch Éluard. It is no wonder she spent some time in Saint Mandé, a psychiatric hospital, presumably being treated for depression. Fortunately, she was able to recover and focus on her painting, including a self-portrait that she gave to Doctor Baron, a specialist in neuro-ophthalmology.
“These landscapes, the result of [Maar’s] recent change of style, are marked by a sensitive and very individual talent … vastness, loneliness and, above all, their sense of place.”
– John Russell, The Times
Maar’s change in artistic style was noticed by art critics at the London Leicester Galleries in 1958. Whilst they are landscapes made up of washes of paint, critics remarked on the sense of isolation and overwhelming vastness, which indicated Maar’s feelings of loneliness and unhappiness after the loss of her lover, her parents and her friends.
Nonetheless, Maar was able to work through her negative feelings and continued producing art. During the latter 1940s, Maar spent half her time in Paris and the other half in Ménerbes in the south of France. She developed a friendship with the French poet André du Bouchet (1924-2001) who offered her the opportunity to collaborate on some work. In 1956, Maar supplied a set of engravings for his anthology Mountain Soil, which involved developing a new technique and art style.
At heart, Maar was always a photographer, however, she lost interest in documenting the outside world. She no longer found exploring the city streets interesting and preferred to stay within the shadows of her darkroom. By the 1980s, Maar was virtually cameraless, having discovered the excitement of producing photograms. This involved laying household objects onto photo-sensitive paper, which when exposed to the light, left the covered sections white. Where the light directly hit the paper, it darkened.
Dora Maar continued working until her death on 16th July 1997 at the age of 89. She spent her final years living in an apartment in Rue de Savoie in Paris. Maar was never famous for her paintings during her lifetime and it has only been since her death that they have been studied in more detail. Whilst she is known better as a photographer, she is still predominantly regarded as the mistress of Picasso. Their relationship only lasted a decade but it has overshadowed her entire career. Hopefully, exhibitions such as this one at Tate Modern will allow her to be appreciated as an artist.
Dora Maar is on display at Tate Modern until 15th March 2020. Tickets cost £13 for adults and £5 for teens. Under 12s may visit for free, although some exhibits contain nudity.
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