June 5 – July 29 2019
The old fear that the camera could steal one’s soul is a reminder that to be dispossessed of one’s image is to risk losing agency over one’s narrative. Dora Maar (1907–1997) is best remembered as the figure in Picasso’s famous Weeping Woman (1937), part of a series spanning 60 works and multiple years. Through her relationship with Picasso, she would be labeled variously muse, mistress and madwoman. But as the new eponymous exhibition at the Centre Pompidou makes clear, Maar was an independent and firmly established artist adept at self-fashioning. At age 25, she changed her name from Henriette Théodora Markovitch, and a few years later, she staged her meeting with Picasso with the same precision she applied to her visual compositions. Stationed at a café she knew he frequented, she is said to have captivated him by stabbing a small knife between her fingers, drawing blood that stained her gloves. Picasso took the gloves as souvenirs, and accepted Maar’s invitation to be photographed at her atelier.
This first major retrospective of Maar’s work seeks to retell her story and restore her status as a photographer and painter—in particular her contributions to the Surrealist canon—independent of her relationship to Picasso, which has overshadowed her oeuvre in the past. Curators at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, together with curators at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, and the Tate Modern, in London, have assembled over 500 works and documents to locate Maar’s work in relation to social and artistic movements of the time. Thematically organized, the exhibition spans Maar’s vast career in architectural photography followed by her commercial work in fashion, then her forays into street photography, surrealism, cinematography, photograms, and painting.
As the exhibition shows, Maar moved fluidly across milieus and media. At various points in her career, she worked with major fashion houses (Lanvin, Schiaparelli, and Vionnet, to name a few). Yet she also displayed radical political sympathies, signing socialist manifestos and joining the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (AEAR). She was involved with the artistic avant-garde as well, lending her work to Symbolist publications and maintaining close ties to the Surrealist movement as a central member of the Gradiva collective (the ‘d’ standing for Dora). Dora Maar demonstrates her unceasing and diverse creative output at all stages in her life, even after she retreated from the public sphere following her break with Picasso in 1946.
Ironically though, the exhibition opens with a number of works in which Maar plays the role of muse, such as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film Headquarters (1947), featuring the character of a lesbian photographer inspired by Maar, or the t portraits by Marianne Clouzot from 1927 presenting Maar as a cosmopolitan Parisian woman decked out in furs and a cloche hat. One approaches the artist through the eyes of others, be they contemporaries or today’s curators.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the first rooms showcasing Maar’s own work focus on her commercial photography and fashion spreads, pieces that concern the production of the self for the social market. Reflecting Maar’s experiences as both model and artist, masks that hint at performed and layered identities figure prominently in her oeuvre, especially in her earlier work. In an issue of Vagues from 1936, Maar’s Janus-like photograph doubles a woman’s classically-styled profile for a spread on the history of masks across civilizations. For another commercial photograph, Maar presents a smiling, well-coifed woman holding an identical mask of her face in her hand against a background that has been obliterated by white gouache painted over. The image echoes earlier work from 1934, in which Maar posed the popular model Assia nude with her hands obscuring her face and a mask over her genitals, and in another photograph dwarfed by her shadow’s exaggerated proportions. Other deceptively simple and formally composed nudes, shown on a wall nearby, are printed on silver gelatin paper textured with waves that break up the surface, subtly interfering with a simple reading of the body. Elsewhere, the creation of the social self is depicted step by step in advertisements for bath products, titled “Before and After the Bath” (Rester jeune, 1936), in which a woman applies cosmetics to her face and hair.
Maar’s bold and idiosyncratic perception manifests in the choice of subjects she trained her lens on outside of the commercial sphere, from the surrealist classic Portrait of Ubu (1936), of an armadillo fetus, to a candid of a Londoner with his head submerged in a sidewalk manhole (London, 1934). Surrealist humor emerges particularly in collages and photomontages that favor the bizarre, as in the illustrated photograph of a face whose nostrils have become eyes, titled Grotesque (1935).
The ability to envision other possible realities can of course be a form of political and social critique, a means of highlighting the overlooked. Maar’s sensitivity to social issues is most apparent in her street photography in the cities of London, Barcelona, and Paris, where she photographed beggars and evangelists, and captured workers and their poor housing conditions. However, in suggesting alternate perspectives, even Maar’s more conceptual and mysterious works provide a radically deconstructive approach to traditional narratives and forms that cannot be dismissed as simply aesthetic experimentation. One photocollage contains two knights: the chess piece, along with the statue of a man in armor on horseback, are placed diametrically across a checkered board to form an eloquent visual and linguistic pun that nods to the political game of monuments and canon (Knight, 1936). In a pair of haunting photomontages, Maar has flipped a found photograph of an arched hallway in Versailles and sealed off the windows to create a sloped chamber for dreams; in Silence (1935) she parades three figures sleepwalking on their sides; in Le simulateur (1935) a single boy throws his head back, the curves of his body an inversion of the curves of the wall. His eyes have been covered over in white and one cannot know what fantasies he sees. A few years later during the Second World War, a similar quality of silence pervades and transforms Maar’s still lives of domestic objects, such as pitchers or alarm clocks, in sparse compositions of somber colors and simple lines.
Near the end of the exhibition, Maar’s relationship to Picasso is finally broached—but on Maar’s terms. The rooms begin with her vision of Picasso, displaying a series of Maar’s paintings and photographs of the famous artist made in the 1930s. Photographs of Picasso appear amidst those of other artists in their circle, such as Paul and Nusch Éluard, André Breton, Leonor Fini, and René Char. He is pictured on vacation at the beach, or leaning against a wall and gazing at the camera, cigarette in hand. In a traditional three-quarter studio portrait, Maar has scratched out a cloud of black space around Picasso’s head on the negative to leave only half his face visible, his expression falling somewhere between stern and pensive (1935–36). In her cubist pastels (1936), Maar has enlarged and emphasized Picasso’s eyes, setting them as if they were crystalline pearls in lids heavily-defined and open like oysters.
It is only after establishing the intimacy of their relationship, and highlighting the exchange of gazes between the two, that Picasso’s portraits of Maar are presented. Notably, the significant curatorial decision is made to exclude “Weeping Woman” from both imagery and wall text. Displayed instead are Picasso’s “Head of a Woman” series (1939) and Portrait of Dora Maar (1937), in which Maar is confident and sanguine. The other works by Picasso included in the exhibition are ones that involved active contribution by Maar: her photographic documentation of the making of Guernica (1937), for example, or their collaboration on clichés-verre portraits, where Picasso relied on her darkroom expertise.
The exhibition concludes with Maar’s experimental work from the 1940s onwards, with sketchbooks, numerous catalogues from exhibitions she participated in as a painter, and a portrait of the artist in her studio, testifying to Maar’s ongoing professional career long after the end of the surrealist movement. Maar’s early ability to look beneath the surfaces of people and things extended throughout her oeuvre and appears in her later paintings and engravings, where landscapes are abstracted into rough brushstrokes of muted earthy colors. Abstract ink and oil landscapes are mirrored in a stunning series of photograms from the 1980s. Painting and photography borrow from each other and merge, with painterly techniques applied to colored silver gelatin prints or placed directly onto negatives that are scratched and chemically distorted. From afar, it is difficult to distinguish her photograms from her paintings, as they share the same staccato strokes or scribbled lines, sloping valleys of color that are similarly composed in tones of rust and cobalt. She did not shy away from ambiguity and the breadth of her work reveals the immense potentiality for interpretation when translating the vocabulary of one medium to another.
Maar was a multi-faceted woman whose multi-media work manifests the depth and originality of her artistic vision; accordingly, Picasso’s one-dimensional identification of Maar as a tragic figure was one she explicitly rejected, declaring to writer James Lord, “All [Picasso’s] portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar.” For the rare self-portrait included in the exhibition, Self-portrait. On backside, Still Life with Pitcher (1945), Maar pointedly chose to represent herself on the backside of a canvas, its honeycomb texture and watermark showing through the paint. Hers is a work in palimpsests, one that demands to be read and reread. So at last, an exhibition in recognition of Dora Maar; she, who in the words of Paul Éluard, “holds every image in her hands.”1
1. Éluard, Paul. La Rose Publique, 1934.