A great photographer hidden behind the master of painting

In the inevitable tide of recognition of so many women artists of the past 20th century who passed simply as muses, lovers, wives or companions when their work was true as strong, beautiful, and original as that of their partner, Dora Maar, for many reasons, occupies a special place. photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson alternated her depictions of the rich and famous, fashion and luxury, with descriptions of the squalor and poverty that existed in Paris at the time. The difference between Maar’s photographs at that time and those of BrassaiEugene Atget, and others is that the objective or documentary aspect does not prevail in them, but rather a search for symbolism and freakishness that we would later find in the work of photographers such as Diane Arbus.

In 1932, Maar traveled to Barcelona and photographed street life in the city. She also took crude portraits of poor people.

Montage of several photographs taken by Dora Maar in Barcelona in 1933, recently acquired by the Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya. Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

Her work attracted the attention of the society of the time. She was soon invited to join the most advanced and modern circle in Paris: the surrealists. In this environment, she was a lover of the writer Georges Bataille, a friend of Jacques Prevert and Paul Eluard, and a close friend of Andre Breton’s second wife, Jacqueline Lamba. In fact, Lamba and Breton probably met through Maar.

Surrealism freed Maar from the tyranny of appearances in photography and allowed her to express a wild spirit that mocked everything, including, and perhaps above all, her fears.

Enter Picasso

Maar met Picasso in 1935, a year before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In addition to her physical and intellectual splendor, the Malaga-born artist was undoubtedly attracted by the fact that she spoke perfect Spanish.

Married to Olga Jojlova and also paired with a young lover, Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso fell madly in love with Maar. She had caught his eye by playing at cutting herself with a knife in a cafe, and the painter stole the bloody glove she was wearing at the time. This, no doubt, was the beginning of a relationship with dark omens.

When she became part of Picasso’s strange circle, his circus of valuable but submissive women, her career ventured down a dangerous path.

She spent eight years with Picasso. It was undoubtedly an extraordinary period for the artist, during which he painted many of his best works, including portraits of Maar. She performed a remarkable act by photographically recording the constructive “process” of Guernica. This was totally innovative at the time, and would give rise to many other works by photographers such as Hans Namuth with Pollock or Clouzot with Picasso himself, but Maar’s originality remains unrecognized.

Part of Dora Maar’s reportage on the creation of Guernica. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

Picasso also worked painting on negatives with Maar but later insisted that she abandon photography to devote herself to painting – in his view, the “great art.” In the end, Picasso led Maar into the terrain he absolutely dominated.

It must be said that she struggled to make personal pieces, and some of her works, despite the influence of Picasso’s art, are interesting in their own (e.g., The Conversation, from 1937). But to compete in a terrain in which Picasso was the master was an almost impossible challenge.

In 1945, Maar produced still life paintings in the style of Picasso and later some portraits, mainly of women, reminiscent of other surrealist artists such as Leonor Fini.

As always with Picasso, it was a new love affair, this time with the young painter Francoise Gilot, that ended a relationship that had become extraordinarily toxic, with Maar bordering on madness and Picasso abusing her appallingly.

Third act

Maar was confined to a mental hospital, received electroshocks, and suffered the terrible psychological treatments of the time, which was as good for schizophrenia as it was for broken hearts or depression. Thanks to the poet Paul Eluard, who asked Picasso for help, Maar managed to leave the institution. She underwent therapy with Jacques Lacan, then went into seclusion, devoted herself to painting, and sought relief in Catholic mysticism. Thus, her famous phrase was born: “After Picasso, only God.”

From the 1950s onwards, her painting moved towards abstraction, albeit closely linked to landscapes, highly impastoed works that are a complete departure from Picasso’s art but not formally very interesting.

Maar’s tremendous emotional dependence on Picasso, the extreme aspect of her despair, meant that her figure, for a long time, was deprived of the brilliance that accompanied her early success and the complexity of her work.

Notable historians such as Mary Ann Caws and Victoria Combalia, who knew her personally, brought her out of anonymity with their writings. And little by little, exhibitions, such as the 2019 show at the Tate, have recovered her name and her legacy in the history of art. The third act is underway.

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