DORA MAAR: PARIS IN THE TIME OF MAN RAY, JEAN COCTEAU, AND PICASSO

by Louise Baring
Rizzoli New York, 2017

 

Review by Lauren Greenwald

Issue 98

 

Who was Dora Maar? For most, she was one of Picasso’s mistress/muses, known as the “weeping woman.” I’ve only even seen her photographs as part of a Picasso exhibit, and most of those were portraits of Picasso and his work.

Louise Barings’s new book from Rizzoli New York, Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Coctea, and Picasso, combines a condensed biography of Maar with a comprehensive selection of her photographs, many never exhibited. 150 color and black and white plates beautifully reproduce Maar’s work, along with images from the archives of contemporaries Lee Miller and Man Ray. Baring presents an artistic time capsule of sorts, interspersing Maar’s commercial photographs and experimental photomontages with images of Picasso, Maar, and their circle of friends in France in the 1930s and 1940s.  The book is divided into six chapters, each elaborating on the stages of Maar’s life: Chapter 1, An Unusual Childhood, Chapter 2, The Young Photographer, Chapter 3, A Cryptic Dreamworld, Chapter 4, L’Amour Fou, Chapter 5, Wartime Paris: Into the Darkness, and Chapter 6, A Retreat From the World.

Maar and Picasso were lovers from 1936 to around 1945, a relationship that transformed, tormented, and forever defined her. In a note from 1946, now in the Picasso Archives, she writes, “Yes, I believe it … my fate is a magnificent one, however, it seems.” While immortalized as the subjects of many paintings and sketches by Picasso, her work suffered, sacrificed to the overwhelming demands of her lover, his career, and his personality. She closed her studio and took up painting, many believe at Picasso’s urging. In her 2005 biography of Maar, Alicia Dujovne Ortiz writes, “[Picasso] pushed her to paint because he couldn’t tolerate the idea that she might be better than him in any sphere.”

After Picasso left her for another woman, and her subsequent breakdown and hospitalization, Maar became increasingly reclusive. She withdrew from her previous life, both socially and artistically. In several places in the text, Baring refers to a “Miss Havisham”-like quality to her existence. For the most part, she refused access to her work or permission to reproduce it, rejecting entreaties from the publishers, collectors, and even large exhibitions. When her work was included in a major Surrealist photography exhibition in 1985, the catalogue entry for her pieces read, “Dora Maar has declined permission to reproduce her photographs in this book.” Ironically, when writing this review, I discovered that only a very small selection of images from this book was cleared for press use, with strict limits on how many images could be shown.

After Maar’s death in 1997, her collection of Picasso work and memorabilia, carefully guarded for more than 50 years in her apartment in Paris, was sold at auction. She also preserved a series of cliché-verre experimental images she created around 1937 with Picasso, along with thousands of old negatives and piles of dusty prints. In 2004, the Centre Pompidou in Paris acquired a large portion of her photographic archive, around 1,850 negatives and a few hundred contact prints. Most of the images in this book come from that archive. It’s startling to look at the captions and read flexible monochrome negative instead of gelatin silver print – it highlights how much of her work may never have been printed - perhaps never seen except by the photographer and a few close friends.

The great accomplishment of this book is the amount of Maar’s work that is presented. It’s easy to place her among her contemporaries; her street photography has the quirkiness and humor of some of Eugène Atget’s work, and her commercial photographs evoke Man Ray’s studio work. In one photograph, Man with his head in a manhole, London, 1934, a dark-suited figure kneels on a sidewalk, his head submerged in the dark opening of a square manhole. A second figure, headless as well, his head cropped out of the frame, occupies the background and top right corner of the image, either caught mid-stride or pausing to regard this improbable scene.

 

Man with his head in a manhole, London, 1934

Man with his head in a manhole, London, 1934

In one of a series of photographs Maar made of Assia, a popular artist’s model of the day, the nude figure of a woman becomes monstrously doubled by her massive, distorted shadow cast onto the wall behind her.  It almost has the effect of a photomontage, as the sharply defined shadow looks more like a cutout figure layered behind the muscular form of Assia than a creation of light.

Assia, 1934

Assia, 1934

It’s a little difficult to view some of her photographs now, in view of her later life. In one of her photomontages, Hand emerging from shell, 1934, a beautifully manicured female hand stretches out of a seashell on a bed of sand, the tips of the reaching fingers like the legs of some creature, so brightly illuminated by the light as to become iridescent. A dark, roiling sky occupies most of the frame, pressing down on the creature. It seems almost prescient, as the artist would eventually retreat into her own self-contained world.

Hand emerging from shell, 1934

Hand emerging from shell, 1934

I wish I could include more examples of her photographs here – there are wonderful portraits of other artists, a strangely lit Alberto Giacometti, looking like of one his standing figures, a beautifully spare portrait of Meret Oppenheim, leaning, eyes closed, in a corner of bare white room, and a re-imagined, hand manipulated portrait of André Breton from the 1980s. There are other works I loved, too, a nightmarish vision of an embryonic animal, titled Père Ubu, and a fabulously freaky study of prosthetic eyeballs and water droplets on a white surface.

I’ve used the word irony already, but it’s unsettling to read about an artist whose name is remembered mostly due to her relationship with another, far more famous, artist. Baring gives us a sympathetic, engaging glimpse into Dora Maar’s life, but this is not an in-depth biography, it is more of a sampling of biographical highlights paired with a great collection of images. It most definitely makes me want to read a biography devoted solely to her, but this book serves as a wonderful reference volume for previously unseen works by Maar, and a complement to the standard canon of photographers active in Paris during the 1930s. But as much as she deserves to be seen as an artist in her own right, she is more defined by her relationship with Picasso, her place within the circle of artists who were her friends, and their influence (both positive and negative) on her and her art.

All images ©Dora Maar

Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.

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