The brilliant, innovative photographer at the forefront of Surrealism was much more than merely Picasso’s mistress, says Matthew Dennison.
Posterity frequently distorts, both its verdicts and its remembering unreliable. In the case of Dora Maar, currently the subject of a large-scale retrospective at Tate Modern – the first in this country and a joint undertaking with Paris’s Centre Pompidou and the J. Paul Getty Museum in California – she is chiefly remembered as Picasso’s mistress and the ‘weeping woman’ of a number of portraits he created in the late spring and early summer of 1937.
‘Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman,’ Picasso commented on the artist, who died at the age of 89 in 1997, and so she has survived into a new century. Picasso’s schematic, deconstructed, vigorously coloured profile portraits of Maar – stricken expression, tears like spilt seeds or shards of glass – conferred on her a distinctive immortality that is successfully challenged in this exhibition, which seeks to present the entirety of Maar’s long and varied career as an artist.
That career has obvious appeal for the ‘MeToo’ generation eager to redress the balance between the sexes that has typically celebrated male achievement more fully than female. Maar was admired and celebrated – and had enjoyed a degree of commercial success – before she met Picasso. Indeed, the bulk of her most distinctive work predates their relationship.
Her early decision to modify her name from Henriette Theodora Markovitch to Dora Maar suggests a desire for autonomy. Although her decision as a young woman to pursue photography rather than painting, having studied both, was almost certainly economic in inspiration – photography was profitable, fashionable and popular in Paris in the early 1930s – she brought to the medium something distinctively and unapologetically her own.
Maar’s vision placed her in the first rank of Surrealist photographers: she was the only photographer whose work featured in all the large-scale Surrealist exhibitions of the 1930s international art scene.
Even today, her photographic collages and photomontages retain the power simultaneously to disorientate and to beguile. Two untitled images of glass eyeballs are by turns shocking and winsome, inviting inevitable comparison with Salvador Dalí, but humorous, too, with a spare beauty, and equally capable of appalling.
Untitled (Hand-Shell) of 1934, by contrast, could serve as a poster for inter-war Surrealism. It is elegant and stylised, with an inarguable internal logic, bold contrasts of light and shade and a delight in form, from the shell’s spotted whorls to the marble curves of the female fingers.
The magnificently odd 29, rue d’Astorg of the following year, one of Maar’s best-known works, juxtaposes wholly incongruous elements so skilfully that it challenges the viewer to doubt its reality even as we recognise its fantastical inspiration. The hideous figurine, placed in a vaulted corridor of the palace of Versailles, is quite at home – and entirely unreal.
The strength of the current exhibition is the breadth of its overview of Maar’s career as photographer. Her Picasso-influenced paintings of the 1940s, with their thick black outlines and sometimes dingy colours, and the abstract landscapes she completed late in life, lack the vigour and brio of much of her street photography and even her commercial photography for fashion and beauty houses. Images such as Shampooing (Woman’s Hair with Soap) (1934) combine the intimacy of an unnecessary selfie with the subject’s transformation into foaming maenad.
A number of related pictures stunningly appear to blur the distinctions between reality and statuary, dramatic chiaroscuro turning Maar’s female subjects into Classical busts, each lash, curl and lip crisply carved from palest stone in what becomes a powerful commentary on the unrealistic pressures and expectations imposed on women by the beauty industry, even 85 years ago.
The Years Lie in Wait For You must have startled viewers in 1935: Maar superimposed on a flawless female portrait an image of a spider’s web, complete with spider. More than a caution against vanity, it provokes both fear and pity.
Maar’s street photography from Paris, London and Barcelona, partly inspired by her strongly anti-Fascist leanings, includes, nevertheless, extensive evidence of her interest in abstract form: images of cranes, bridges, metal benches and park railings. Her view is never mundane. Untitled (Man Looking Inside a Sidewalk Inspection Door) resembles a still from a Laurel and Hardy film and she reimagines Kew Gardens as a brightly lit tropical Eden.
She reveals her humanity in many images of the grotesque and the disadvantaged, strikingly unvoyeuristic photographs that retain a power to move, such as Untitled (Old Woman Selling Lottery Tickets, London) or Untitled (Ragpicker), both from 1934. In such pictures, Picasso’s weeping woman teaches the viewer to weep afresh.
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