by Rahul KumarDec 22, 2021
Anyone who is even vaguely interested in art will remember the stunning image of painter Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, taken in a tin shed in 1937, where the artist is also captured working on the canvas. What many do not know is that the woman behind that photograph was Dora Maar (b 1907-d 1997), Picasso’s muse, lover and an artist in her own right. Maar may have been covered by many fashion magazines as Picasso’s muse, but it is only recently that her own work as an art photographer is being recognised.
The ongoing exhibition at the Tate Modern in London brings forward Maar’s work, allowing viewers to discover her art as a photographer and then briefly as a painter. The exhibition opens with portraits made by Maar, goes on to showcase her street photography and then lingers on her later Surrealist photomontages. It provides an insight into her long career and the political context, professional opportunities and personal networks that shaped her decisions at every stage. It has been tagged as one of the most comprehensive retrospectives held so far.
Emma Lewis, who is Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, has co-curated the exhibition. She writes, “As a talented photographer, Maar made work that developed quickly from acute poetic street realism to otherworldly Surrealist manipulations. She was particularly apt at making work out of her own hidden and dizzying emotional interior—as well as the desire to retreat from it.”
There is also the teasing question that has been on many art historians’ lips, “Does Dora Maar deserve credit for Guernica?” Emilie Bouvard, a curator at the Musée Picasso-Paris who had organised the Guernica show two years back, made it public knowledge that Maar did not simply document Picasso painting the great mural, Guernica. In fact, her Surrealist photography influenced the work itself. While this aspect of Maar’s contribution to the painting may remain in the realm of question, what is certainly unquestionable is her photographic work that was ahead of its time and is certainly visionary, even today.
Maar’s real name was Henriette Théodora Markovitch, but it has been documented that during her childhood she preferred to be called Dora and later she officially changed her name. She was raised between Argentina and France; her mother owned a fashion boutique and her father was an architect. Initially, she was educated in the applied arts and painting at the most progressive art schools in Paris. In her early twenties, encouraged by mentors who saw her talent, including Man Ray, she decided to pursue photography.
In 1932, a public bulletin announcing the opening of her first studio marked her transformation from Henriette Markovitch, ‘artist-painter’, to Dora Maar, photographer. Within just a few years, she built a photographic practice of remarkable variety. She took assignments in fashion and advertising, travelled to document social conditions and made wildly inventive images that came to occupy an important position in Surrealism.
During the 1930s, Dora Maar’s provocative photomontages became celebrated icons of surrealism. Her eye for the unusual also translated to her commercial photography, including fashion and advertising, as well as to her social documentary projects. In Europe’s increasingly fraught political climate, Maar signed her name to numerous left-wing manifestos—a radical gesture for a woman at that time.
It has been stated that Maar abandoned photography due to Pablo Picasso's insistence that “every photographer was merely a painter waiting to be released”. In fact, the two even went on to create a series of portraits that combined experimental photographic and printmaking techniques. “Dora Maar’s relationship with Pablo Picasso had a profound effect on both their careers. She documented the creation of his most political work, Guernica, 1937. He painted her many times, including Weeping Woman, 1937,” writes Lewis.
Whether it was a blessing or a misfortune, by the end of the 1930s, Maar had returned to painting. She would devote herself to this medium for the remainder of her life. Remembered mainly for her surrealist photographs and photomontages, it is only since her death in 1997 that the full breadth of her output has begun to be recognised.
Upon her separation from Picasso, Maar experienced a nervous breakdown and recovered with the help of the famous psychiatrist, Jaques Lacan. In later life, she moved from Paris to rural Provence and painted mainly abstract landscapes and melancholy still-life paintings. She became a recluse and a devout Catholic. Despite her achievements, following their destructive relationship, Maar lived partially in the shadow of Picasso's words; she never returned to photography, the medium through which her exquisite and unusual character shines so brightly.
Dora Maar is on view till 15 March 2020 at the Tate Modern, London.