When Dora Maar died on 16 July 1997 at the age of 89, few people seemed to notice. It took the French newspaper Le Monde – in her home country – 10 days to publish anything. And when journalists did cotton on, they didn’t seem to think Maar was the story. The New York Times called her “a muse of Picasso” and the “principal model for many of his so-called weeping women portraits in the late 30s and early 40s”. The Independent, while admitting that Maar had been an artist in her own right, suggested that she would nonetheless be “remembered as the most poignant of Pablo Picasso’s mistresses”.
Forget that she’d also been a major surrealist photographer, one of the few women in that circle, and that she was still painting into her 80s. For critics, she was Picasso’s Weeping Woman – the eternally spurned mistress and muse. Maar herself bitterly resented being regarded as a sort of art-world Miss Havisham, the subject of someone else’s picture. “All [Picasso’s] portraits of me are lies,” she once said. “Not one is Dora Maar.”
Not before time, the Weeping Woman is having the last laugh. After a spell at the Pompidou in Paris, a major retrospective is heading to London’s Tate Modern then Los Angeles. The largest exhibition of its kind yet staged, it features nearly 300 objects: photographs, photomontages, advertising mock-ups, self-portraits, watercolours, oil landscapes and still lives. Few of these objects have been exhibited before, and certainly not on this scale. The sense is of a curtain being pulled back. Forget those Picasso portraits: here is how Dora Maar actually wanted to be seen.
Born Henriette Théodora Markovitch in Paris in 1907, to a French mother who owned a fashion boutique and a father who was a Croatian architect, her upbringing was multicultural. The family relocated to Buenos Aires when she was three, and she spent her childhood shuttling between Europe and South America, taking her first photographs on the sea journeys between. She trained as a painter in Paris, but found herself drawn to photography in the 1920s, becoming friendly with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï.
“She was very ambitious,” says her biographer, Victoria Combalia. “She wasn’t sure which direction she was going in, but she had such energy.”
In 1931, she took the bold step of opening a professional studio. To celebrate this artistic reinvention, Théodora Markovitch renamed herself Dora Maar: catchier, more chic.
The work the studio did was commercial, but Maar let her imagination roam. One advert from 1934 shows a shampoo bottle on its side, dollops of liquid hair pouring out. In a fashion photograph from the same period, Maar jazzes up a portrait of a female model by covering her skin with yakuza-style tattoos, each painstakingly drawn and coloured by hand.
Her sense of playful subversion shines through. Another study for a fashion advert depicts a pearl nestling in a velvet holder in a way that bears more than a passing resemblance to a clitoris (you wonder if male editors noticed).
As well as posing for Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, Maar was also shooting nude models for so-called revues de charme, erotic magazines. In addition, she showed skill as a documentary photographer, travelling to London and Barcelona and catching droll street images that make some Cartier-Bressons look bland.
“She’s prolific in so many registers,” says Emma Lewis, who has co-curated the exhibition at Tate. “She knows how to use the camera to make the everyday extraordinary.”
By 1935, Maar was entrenched in the group of Parisian artists calling themselves surrealists. She had a brief fling with the writer Georges Bataille and became drawn into leftwing circles. Her art became more fantastical and gothic in tone, pushing her techniques to the expressive limit.
Some of Maar’s photographs are straightforwardly unsettling, such as her picture of what must be an armadillo foetus, photographed looking like a monk huddled in his cowl. (Maar refused to be drawn on how she had made the image.) It became one of the most famous surrealist pictures of the period. Others play with the limits of visual impossibility. Particularly vertiginous are a series of photomontages based on architectural photographs. Maar manipulated them in her studio then placed her own photos on top – the contorted bodies of people she’d seen on the street, bizarre not-quite-human sculptures. Still in her mid-20s, Maar was one of the few photographers André Breton and his notoriously sexist acolytes deemed worthy of inclusion in their exhibitions.
Maar had little doubt about her talent, says Combalia. “She always considered herself a very good artist, and a very good photographer especially. She once told [the gallerist] Marcel Fleiss, ‘I am as good as Man Ray!’”
In 1936 she met Picasso, and seems to have decided that the painter, nearly 30 years older, was her next project. The story of the encounter that turned them into lovers has been much mythologised. Legend has it that Maar sat in the famous literary watering hole, the Cafe les Deux Magots, playing a game where she stabbed a knife between her fingers to excite Picasso’s attention.
Whatever the truth, Combalia suggests that the striking thing is the way it suggests that she, not he, was in charge. “She wanted to seduce him, I’m sure. The whole scene with the knife is like a sadistic joke, almost a performance.”
Yet the balance soon tipped the other way. Picasso was also having a long-running affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, which he refused to break off. He seems to have taken a perverse thrill in making Walter and Maar compete for his affections, describing a story where they came to blows in his studio as “one of my choicest memories”. Having initially painted Maar as a nymph or a bird, his portraits begin to show her in tears, notably the excruciating Weeping Woman (1937), now in Tate’s permanent collection, in which she seems to dissolve before our eyes.
Maar’s own artistic response is similarly hard to look at, though in quite different ways. A painting of hers from the same year, The Conversation, shows her and Walter sitting next to each other, almost in mirror image. Walter looks out, passive and inscrutable; Maar has her back to us, face hidden.
Yet while the relationship was emotionally punishing, it was productive. 1937 was also the year that Picasso painted Guernica, and Maar – as well as teaching him darkroom techniques – agreed to photograph the process of its creation. Indeed, it seems likely that his decision to depict that particular atrocity came from Maar, who was far more politically engaged. Not only does its style – severe black-and-white, almost photographic in its pitiless detail – borrow from her work, she actually painted a small section of it.
“He trusted her,” says Morris. “As much as being a sexual or emotional relationship, it was a collaborative one.”
When their relationship finally fell apart in 1945, Maar was devastated and suffered a brief breakdown, intensified by the death of her mother. The guilt-stricken Picasso helped her buy a house in Provence, where she spent an increasing amount of her time. Catholicism began to occupy her life; rumours circulated – fanned by her former partner – that she’d gone mad, or become a recluse.
The truth is different, Combalia says: Maar kept making art, producing textile designs and devoted more time to painting. She also travelled, and continued to exhibit through the 50s and 60s. It’s also not true that she abandoned photography, as some claim. Though she made fewer photographs after the break with Picasso, she continued to experiment, crafting a late series of photograms (photographic prints made without a camera) in the 80s, as if reconnecting with her younger artistic self.
Maar never regained the profile she had experienced in her 20s, yet it’s wrong to say she disappeared. It was a slow withdrawal, and came about largely because Maar wanted to focus on her art. “In letters she writes, ‘Well, I don’t want to be social, I want to do my own thing. I have to paint,’” says Combalia
Morris, who visited Maar at her apartment in Paris in 1990, agrees. “It was an artist’s home. Every surface, every wall, spoke of that. There were easels and lots of canvases in her studio, covered in polythene. She was still working.”
What was Maar like to meet? Morris laughs: “When she answered the door, I thought at first it was the maid, this little old woman.” But she was soon struck by Maar’s forcefulness. “She was terrifically strong, you could see that. I think that’s what it was, in a way: making art was more important to her than how she was perceived.”
“She was very curious about the world,” Combalia adds. “She was always asking me what I was doing in Paris, what the name of my boyfriend at the time was. She loved gossip.”
Despite Maar’s talents being overlooked during her lifetime, Combalia believes we should be grateful that we can see so much work, and that so much of it is so good. “She really deserves to be known. We owe her that justice.”
Dora Maar is at Tate Modern, London, 20 November to 15 March.