Tate Modern’s latest exhibition celebrates the work of Surrealist artist Dora Maar, drawing her out of the shadow of male contemporaries and challenging the myth of the ‘mad muse’.
At the Barbican’s recent Modern Couples exhibition, I was struck by an image of Picasso on display in a section dedicated to his eight-year relationship with Dora Maar. It was not a radical Cubist painting by the great modern master, but a simple photograph of a squat middle-aged man clowning around at the beach in his swimming trunks; an intimate, unguarded picture in which Picasso becomes the subject of the muse he immortalised as the tragic Weeping Woman. Tate Modern’s current retrospective offers a much more in-depth opportunity to explore Dora Maar’s perspective on life and art. Ranging across her six-decade long career, it’s a timely reassessment of an ambitious and talented woman who was born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907 to a bourgeois family and went on to reinvent herself as Dora Maar, an influential Surrealist artist and one of the few women to be celebrated in the movement. Like many of the recent efforts to bring brilliant female artists out of obscurity, the Dora Maar exhibition raises questions of how we go about assimilating these women artists – many of whom were, like Maar, successful in their lifetime but later forgotten – back into art history; or rather, how we might come up with new ways of conceptualising an art history that breaks down the hierarchies and binaries that have led to the systematic exclusion of marginalised groups. Maar’s career also presents its own particular challenges, namely how best to untangle her talent from – and do justice to her relationship with – Picasso, who was, of course, not only one of the most celebrated and iconic geniuses of modern art, but also an intensely domineering and downright cruel character to the women he was most intimate with.
The opening displays of Maar’s early work in fashion photography and photomontage burst with a unique sense of energy and innovation. Maar’s eye for the surreal is evident in witty and whimsical advertisements that capture the interplay between fantasy and reality, the realm of both fashion and Surrealism: a disembodied glove holds a mirror reflecting the moon (Untitled (Element for fashion photomontage), 1935); objects cast ominous, human-sized shadows (Untitled (Fashion photograph, evening gown by Jacques Heim for Mme. Jacques Heim), 1934); and long locks of hair cascade from a bottle of Pétrole Hahn hair oil (Untitled (Photograph for Pétrole Hahn advertisement), ca. 1934). Maar’s experience of being objectified and dehumanised by Picasso’s paintbrush gave her a particular insight into the false nature of portraiture: in later life, she dismissed his paintings of her as ‘lies. Not one is Dora Maar. They are all Picasso’. Yet it is clear from her fashion photography that, right from the start, Maar was attuned to the artifice inherent in images of women; her playful photomontages subtly highlight the contradictory impressions and expectations that lurked behind the emergence of the modern woman in the early twentieth century. In one advertising image, a woman holds a mask of her own face, each with the same fixed grin, like a Russian Doll (Untitled (Photocollage for advertisement), ca. 1935); elsewhere, glamorous images of women are obviously superimposed next to photographs of cars, alluding to the gap between the liberated new woman narrative and the stultifying reality of ordinary women’s lives.
Maar applies this critical lens to her portraits of the Surrealist women. In the exquisite The Years Lie in Wait for You (c. 1935), Maar combines two negatives to create a beguiling image of Nusch Eluard’s sensuous face shattered beneath a spider web. Eluard’s otherworldly gaze is fixed on a point past the viewer, creating the uncanny effect that she is both present and elsewhere, just beyond reach. The photomontage is presumed to have been created for an anti-ageing product, but one cannot help but interpret this as a comment on the Surrealists’ fixation with the femme enfant (an idealised, irrational, innocent young muse). The fractured overlay symbolises the disruptive, disfiguring effects of age and presages the inevitable crisis that ageing will bring about for women attached to a youth (or rather, young women) obsessed movement. Elsewhere, Maar captures Jacqueline Lamba in an enigmatic moment of reflection (Dawn (Aube), 1935) and photographs a fabulously witchy Leonor Fini peering provocatively from behind a curtain while clutching a black cat (untitled, 1936).
These powerful, poised portraits are a world away from the fetishized depictions so often found in the work of her male peers. In the case of Dawn (Aube), the fact that Maar took the relatively uncommon step to name the photograph is a testament to the close bonds that connected these women: Aube (Dawn, in English) was the name of Lamba and André Breton’s daughter, with whom Lamba was pregnant when this photograph was taken. These works are important reminders of the Surrealist sisterhoods that sustained and provided solace for women attached to a notoriously misogynistic movement (we might also think of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, or Lamba and Frida Kahlo). One senses that the most interesting story is not the now-familiar torturous affair between Maar and Picasso, but rather the collaborative networks these women formed (something that perhaps the Schirn Kunsthalle’s forthcoming exhibition, Fantastic Women, will address).
The beguiling Surrealist photomontages that Maar made in this period are perhaps the most striking works of her career. Through a combination of erotic images, hauntingly desolate scenes, and fragmented objects and body parts, she evokes a sense of the uncanny dream world that exists in the liminal spaces between the real and the unconscious. Maar is perhaps at her strongest when she distorts real images into grotesque, nightmarish visions, such as the aptly titled Grotesque (1935), a close-up of a protruding nose, mouth and teeth, framed by doodled pubic hair. Her street photography (carried out in this same Surrealist period) is marked out by a similarly eerie dreamlike atmosphere, whilst also successfully demonstrating the interest in social justice that defined Maar’s politics at the time. Each project represents a part of Maar’s enigmatic visual language, with which she sought to collapse the distance between reality and the unconscious.
At the centre of the exhibition, Maar’s years with Picasso and her involvement in the creation of Guernica feel like a focal point of the exhibition. It is fascinating to see the work that Maar contributed to this crucial modernist painting, and reflect on the influence her photographic technique had on Picasso. More troubling, perhaps, is the shift Maar made to focus on painting in these years, at the behest of her lover. Her paintings are in no way derivative of Picasso. In The Conversation (1937), a portrait of Maar sat alongside Marie-Thérèse Walter (the lover and mother of his son, who Picasso continued his involvement with throughout his affair with Maar), Maar emphasises a sense of isolation and anguish through her skilful handling of chiaroscuro and use of a subdued palette. Yet her paintings lack the vivid impact and distinctive perspective evident in her photography and photomontage works.
Despite the fact that the section on Guernica and Maar’s Picasso-era paintings aim to reassess their relationship as a collaboration, certain anecdotes on the wall cards serve as reminders of the extent to which Picasso saw Maar as a trophy. When the couple first met in 1936, Maar had been sat at the next table in the Deux Magots café stabbing at the gaps between her fingers with a knife – an entranced Picasso requested her blood-stained glove as a souvenir and kept it displayed in a glass-case in his studio. That same year, Picasso was so struck by Man Ray’s portrait of Maar, so much so that he begged him to trade it for an etching. In her memoir Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot quotes Piccasso as claiming that he was never ‘greatly attracted’ to Maar, but rather she was someone he ‘could carry on a conversation with.’ Unlike the ‘sweet’ and submissive Marie-Thérèse Walter, Maar was an accomplished, respected artist and intellectual – in other words, a partner that Picasso could show off as an extension of his talent and taste. Inevitably, the relationship collapsed when Picasso (then 61) met the 21-year-old artist Gilot in 1943, although he would later claim that he left Maar out of ‘fear of her madness’.
In many ways, their affair echoes Breton’s novel Nadja, a Surrealist fantasy of amour fou that implodes on impact with the realities of life. Maar was required to play the role of mad muse, an irrational, provocative but also submissive subject to serve and stimulate the creativity of the great male genius; and clearly, this was at odds with her own artistic genius, subjectivity, and, indeed, existence as a complex, contradictory human being. As with his other lovers, Picasso sought to retain some control over her life long after their breakup: he continued to send Maar disturbing gifts, such as a chair made of steel rods and rope, and a ring, discovered after his death in a parcel addressed to Maar, which was engraved P-D (pour Dora) and featured a large spike attached to the inside. It would not do justice to Maar to present her as a victim, but, arguably, nor does presenting a damaging relationship as a collaborative meeting of minds. Although Picasso acknowledged Maar’s abilities and drew influence from her ways of working, she would always be his subject, forever subsumed by the Weeping Woman.
The exhibition loses momentum after this point, as if the curators struggle to place Maar post-Picasso and the breakdown that followed their split and the deaths of her mother and her close friend Nusch Eluard. The landscapes that she painted in the immediate aftermath of this difficult episode aren’t hugely inspiring, but the 1980s and 1990s marked a late-life return to experimentation. The abstract photograms (photographic images made in the darkroom without a camera) she made during this late creative surge are incredibly striking and continue her lifelong interest in manipulating form. Through gestural marks and shadowy arrangements of objects, Maar creates abstract landscapes that recall her earlier interest in the surreal spaces of the unconscious. In the exhibition’s final rooms, it feels as if there is a missed opportunity to place these works in dialogue with Maar’s earlier Surrealist photography; the conventional linear form of the retrospective does not necessarily serve Maar well or help the viewer get close enough to the complex visual language she developed over her sixty years as an artist. In this, the exhibition raises the wider issue of how to explore and contextualise the careers of avant-garde pioneers whose lives and work exceed the boundaries of those movements and existed in dialogue with – but distinct from – later developments in modern art. Despite this, Dora Maar at Tate Modern is a welcome introduction to a compelling artist whose interest in mixed media experimentation and ability to construct disconcerting images offers a fresh perspective on Surrealism through the twentieth century. At long last, Maar emerges from the shadow of the Weeping Woman in one final act of reinvention.
Francoise Gilot, Life with Picasso, ‘I liked them both, for different reasons: MT because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent’
‘for more on ageing and modernism, see the work of Jade French, https://womenareboring.wordpress.com/2018/04/12/aging-modernism-and-unexpected-final-words/
Dora Maar will be shown at the Tate Modern until 15th March. For more information or to book tickets, click here. If you’re 16-25 you can gain entry to exhibitions for £5 as part of Tate Collective. See here for further information and how to join Tate Collective for free.