There was a decade in Dora Maar’s life when anything seemed possible. During the 1930s she opened her own studio in Paris with art director Pierre Kéfer. She shared a darkroom with the Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï. She showed her work in Dada and Surrealist exhibitions. Her photos began appearing print, from fashion magazines to surrealist catalogues. She worked with May Ray. She met and fell in love with Pablo Picasso.
That the 1930s was a fervent and fertile period for Maar is doubtless. This exhibition at Tate Modern – the most comprehensive retrospective of Dora Maar ever mounted – shows so many works from this period that the effect is almost overwhelming. And the diversity is extraordinary, too: fashion shots of ball-gowned women, flexing athletes, dancers and nudes, experiments with chiaroscuro lighting and clever shadow play that are full of surprising effects. By the second half of the decade she was innovating with the surrealist techniques of photomontage, sandwiching together two negatives and printing them as a unified image. The results are strange, suggestive, and loaded with promise.
And yet, after her meeting Picasso, his apparent influence over her – persuading her to return to her first love of painting and leave photography behind – instigated a change of pace, after which the distinction and range of her creative output appears to ebb away drastically.
Can Picasso be blamed? The exhibition doesn’t point fingers, yet it is the inescapable conclusion given the weight of work that falls just prior to Picasso’s arrival in 1936. Still, perhaps Pablo wasn’t the only factor. The first years of the 1940s were traumatic for Maar: life under Nazi-occupied Paris, a protracted breakup with Picasso, her father’s move to Argentina and the sudden deaths of her mother and her best friend Nusch Eluard. All these are enough to throw an artist out of step.
Born Henriette Markovitch in Paris 1907, by the time she was 25 Dora Maar had changed her name and established a career in commercial photography. The Tate show provides a comprehensive summary of these years, and in doing so rescues her from her more famous role in history, that of Picasso’s “muse.”
At the same time, as her first assignments for fashion magazines, Maar stole away from the studio and took shots in the streets of Paris and London, capturing the faces of the urban poor and bourgeois middle-class alike. She became politically active, joining the socialist association Masses and a radical collective of left-wing actors and writers called October.
Maar’s street photography also express an interest in chance encounters and unconventional framing techniques – the first seeds of a surrealist turn. In fact, her surrealist energies were already full flow from the early 1930s. Many works are included in which we see the rich fruits of photomontage and the possibilities of juxtaposition: of placing disparate objects together in the same frame with an overt suggestion of mystery. The purpose was to weaken the hold of rational expectation upon the viewer and to assert the fecundity of spontaneous imagination. The often-quoted 19th century poet Comte de Lautréamont was a beacon: “Beautiful as the accidental meeting of a sewing machine with an umbrella on an operating table.”
It is also at this point in the exhibition that one senses a more unsettling side to Maar’s restlessness, as if her willingness to try almost anything might also be a failure to alight on a single style or technique.
The commercial and artistic bounty of the 1930s would never be matched again. In the winter of 1935-36, Maar met Picasso. Several of his portraits of her – of the many hundreds he made – are included in the show, including Weeping Woman. “For me she’s the weeping woman,” Picasso said. “For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me.” Maar’s account was different: “All his portraits of me are lies.”
Their relationship overlapped with his creation of Guernica, his monumental response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War; Maar made documentary photos of Picasso at work on his painting. At the same time, Picasso encouraged Maar to abandon photography and return to painting instead.
At first her painting style is derivative of Cubism, often in subdued tones of terracotta and grey as demonstrated by her large work The Conversation – the most striking of Maar’s paintings in the show. In this piece, the artist paints herself sitting back to back with Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s previous lover and the mother of his daughter Maya. The atmosphere is appropriately claustrophobic and tense, and makes good use of the geometrical grammar of Cubism. And yet there is a sense of play missing: the mercurial apparitions of her Surrealist photography are lost to this more rigid style of image making.
From 1945, Maar divided her time between Paris and a new home in Ménerbes in the South of France. Her mental health was suffering, a fact which seems to have impelled a move towards the spare and desolate landscape paintings she began making around this time. These small abstract works adopt a looser style of smeared and blotted paint, which, whilst emotionally expressive, seem to lack any decisive weight or purpose.
In her later years, Maar returned to the dark room and made experimental photograms – the process of laying objects directly onto light sensitive paper. Albeit radical and challenging on their own terms, these final works do little to push the photogram technique beyond the achievements of artists like Man Ray and Christian Schad several decades earlier.
And so one leaves the exhibition with mixed feelings. A decade of creative outpouring, of innovative and experimental photography, proves that Dora Maar was so much more than Picasso’s weeping muse. Without Picasso she might have been so much more.
Christopher P Jones is London Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Jones speculates on art, history, fiction and fact, and the meeting place of all four. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.