Dora Maar at Tate Modern

Jim Crawley reviews ‘the most comprehensive retrospective of Dora Maar ever held’—but the real Dora Maar remains elusive

The Invention of Dora Maar are the first words you see as you enter Tate Modern’s expansive but ultimately vexing new show. For Dora Maar invented and reinvented herself again and again during a career that spanned six decades.

Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907 to a Croatian father and a French mother, she first shortened Theodora, preferring the straightforward Dora. Then in her 20s, she simplified Markowitch and the thoroughly modern Dora Maar emerged to carve out a career of stunning variety that took her from advertising and erotica, through street photography, surrealism and landscape painting, to a final intriguing experiment with abstract photography.

Her credentials as a modern woman are established early in the show. In the first room, a wall is given over to photographs of her by Brassaï, Beaton, Lee Miller and others as well as several self-portraits. Beautiful but elusive and unsmiling, these already give a sense of Maar the consummate looker with a penetrating intelligence and keen eye. Jacques Guenne the French art critic described Maar as “a brunette huntress of images”, a double-edged compliment perhaps for a female photographer looking to build her career but one that tallies with the impression of these portraits.

Young and ambitious, Maar turned first to commercial photography. Maar’s technical proficiency was clear from the start and allied with her avant-garde sense of the times, she quickly established a reputation for arresting images and an ability to master briefs that ranged from advertising to book plates to erotica. In a swimwear advert, Maar overlays images to depict a model incongruously deep in rippling water while in an advert for moisturizer, she plays on the fear of looking in a mirror for signs of ageing by featuring a model peering out pensively through a spider’s web. And in another striking image, the head of the star of a show has been replaced literally with a glittering star. Daring us to follow her backstage, she flirts with the camera, anonymous but alluring.  

Dora Maar, 1907-1997, Untitled (Fashion photograph) c. 1935; Collection Therond © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Maar’s shifts in style are nothing if not dramatic and suddenly in the next room, she leaves her studio and hits the street. Animated by her left-wing politics, Maar documented the social impact of the Great Depression in London, Paris and Barcelona. Shot through with irony, Maar records human vulnerability struggling against the odds. In one photograph, an old woman forlornly peddles lottery tickets in front of a bank. In another, a City gent still dressed for the office sells matches while in a third, a young mother cradles her baby beside an advert for a fortune teller. In others, ordinary street scenes are rendered extraordinary by Maar’s keen eye for patterns, shapes and sight lines. And yet there is something about this room that isn’t quite authentic. Undoubtedly sincere in her convictions, there’s nevertheless a lack of spontaneity in these photographs, of life not just observed but manipulated.   

Then abruptly again, Maar suddenly takes a different road, plunging this time into the world of surrealism. Famously dominated by male painters, the surrealists struggled at first to accept a female photographer, but Maar quickly became a member of their inner circle and the only artist to exhibit in all six of the movement’s shows. In Maar’s commercial photography, there were already hints of her playful imagination, while her street photography embodies a ‘found surrealism’. Now in the company of kindred spirits, Maar gave full vent to her imagination and technical mastery, producing a series of 20 photomontages that have become icons of surrealism. A woman’s perfectly manicured hand emerges from a shell to scuttle across the sea floor, while the true nature of her unsettling Portrait of Ubu (1936) titled after Alfred Jarry’s play was only revealed after her death to be an armadillo foetus. But to my eye, there’s again something affected in these images. Rather than embodying a natural talent, they seem more like the work of a master technician on assignment.   

Dora Maar, 1907-1997, Untitled (Hand-Shell) 1934; Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

But in 1935, Maar met Picasso and her life would never be the same again. Their first meeting is one of the most famous in modern art. Sitting in the café Les Deux Magots and stabbing a knife between her fingers so erratically she drew blood, Maar made quite an impression on Picasso. Impressed too by her intelligence and rigour, they were soon lovers and collaborators. Maar taught Picasso photographic techniques while he in turn encouraged her to return to painting. Her first efforts are not convincing; a cubist inspired portrait of Picasso with an eye where his cheek should be is so derivative it’s almost a parody.

But more convincing and heartfelt is The Conversation (1937). Not only was Picasso still married to Olga Khokhlova during this time, he continued to see his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, who had just given birth to his daughter, and never committed fully to Maar. Distraught by Picasso’s treatment of her, Maar shows herself sitting at a table with Walter. Maar’s back is turned to us while Walter, blond and open-faced, looks directly at us. Bring me out of the shadows, Maar seems to be saying to Picasso, choose me.  

Dora Maar, 1907-1997, The Conversation 1937; Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, Madrid  © FABA Photo : Marc Domage © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Artistically, their relationship proved fruitful. A room is devoted to the studies Picasso made of Maar in both pencil and paint, while another room shows at length Maar’s photographic record of the creation of Guernica (1937), probably Picasso’s most famous painting. More collaborator than mere recorder, Maar brought the town’s devastation to Picasso’s attention, inspired key elements of the painting like the single light bulb and even painted part of the work. But despite their attraction to each other, they were ill-matched. Maar’s independent nature provoked fits of rage in Picasso, while his womanizing drove her to despair. Revealingly, Maar was the inspiration for The Weeping Woman (1937), in which Picasso crumples Maar’s face into spasms of grief. Rarely has cubism’s fractured style been more appropriate for the sitter’s interior state.

Then in 1945 when Picasso replaced her with a new lover, Françoise Gilot, Maar suffered a mental collapse, falling into a deep depression compounded by religious mania. And this brings to the surface my nagging doubt about this show. Any show needs to walk a fine line between the artist and the person. The art should stand on its own. No doubt too Tate’s current crusade to restore the reputation of forgotten female artists makes them reluctant to tell Maar’s story in the context of the men in her life. So overlooked was Maar’s own talent, even in her obituaries, she was still referred to as ‘Picasso’s muse’.  

Dora Maar, 1907-1997, Untitled c.1980; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

But Maar was there at the birth of advertising, rubbed shoulders with the surrealists and had a tumultuous relationship with the giant of 20th century art in Picasso and yet we learn little of her life. And to now skim over Maar’s mental collapse seems willfully misleading and unsympathetic. How else to explain the muddy coloured landscapes in the penultimate room which are truly dire but are understandable as an attempt to find inner peace on emerging from her deep depression? Only in the last room of inky sensuous abstract photographs is there a sense of Maar’s restless intelligence and instinct to create re-emerging from the depths of her desolation.

Dora Maar was clearly to be reckoned with. Ambitious, talented, independent and politically committed, she thrived on the challenge of being a female in the male-dominated worlds of business and art. And this show charts the twists and abrupt turns of her career over six decades. It’s just a shame that we don’t learn more about Maar the person, her extraordinary life and the company she kept. The real Dora Maar remains elusive. 

Dora Maar is on at Tate Modern until 15th March 2020. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website here.

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