For the better part of her life and decades after her death, the establishment relegated Dora Maar (1907-1997) to the realm of mistress, model and muse. In fact, she was a revolutionary artist in her own right – and a new travelling museum exhibition, Dora Maar, wants to right these historical wrongs once and for all.
Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch, the French photographer, painter and poet took on her illustrious pseudonym while studying art in Paris during the 1920s. She opened a commercial studio at the age of 25, where she produced provocative photographs for glossy magazines, books and fashion houses, while exhibiting alongside contemporaries including Man Ray and Salvador Dalí.
“Dora Maar’s career spanned much of the 20th century, and was really characterised by innovation, experimentation and reinvention,” says Emma Jones, the show’s curatorial assistant.
“We see Maar’s eye for the absurd in many of her works. One of her most well-known photomontages, ‘The years lie in wait for you’, is a portrait Maar took of her close friend Nusch Eluard, overlaid with a spiders-web. The work has surrealist elements, but its title suggests that it was actually an advert for an anti-ageing cream.”
In 1936, Maar, then 28, began a tempestuous relationship with Pablo Picasso, 54. He approached her at the Cade Les Deux Magots in Paris and sat down. She placed her hand on the table and began rhythmically stabbing a small penknife between her fingers – sometimes missing and cutting herself. Afterwards, Picasso asked Maar for her bloodstained gloves. It was a harbinger of things to come.
In the years after, the establishment framed her as one of the many lovers in Picasso’s life: the subject of numerous paintings, most famously ‘Weeping Woman’ (1937) – a portrayal Maar deeply disliked.
“There’s a photograph in the show of Picasso’s studio, with a collection of these paintings of her that I think about when we talk about the mythologisation of Dora Maar,” Jones says. “She said that he never painted her from life, he may have sketched her in informal settings, but she never sat for portraits. ‘they’re all lies’ she said, ‘they’re all Picasso’s, not one is Dora Maar.’”
At Picasso’s hands, Maar suffered physical abuse and psychological cruelty until the relationship ended in 1943. Maar then suffered a mental breakdown and was treated with electroshock therapy. When she remerged in 1946, she focused on painting, spending the remainder of her life in Menerbes as a recluse.
With the exhibition, Maar’s independent voice is restored, and her narrative reclaimed from those who saw her as nothing more than an extension of Picasso’s world. Her photographs are significant contributions to modernist thought, revealing the subversive possibilities of a woman working in an industry that was keen to capitalise on female bodies to sell products.
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