Dora Maar, ed. Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, and Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by the J. Paul Getty Museum (here). Hardcover, 208 pages, with 240 reproductions. Includes essays by Amanda Maddox, Alix Agret, Patrice Allain, Laurence Perrigault, Victoria Combalía, Dawn Ades, Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, Ian Walker, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Emma Lewis, and Damarice Amao. (Cover and spread shots below.)

This catalog supports an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum from April 21-July 26, 2020 (TBD). It had previous presentations at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (June 5-July 29, 2019 here) and at the Tate Modern in London (November 19, 2019-March 15, 2020 here).

Comments/Context: Given Pablo Picasso’s enduring place in the pantheon of artists, it isn’t at all surprising that his presence cast a very long and dominating shadow across his close friends and lovers. In the case of Dora Maar, whom Picasso met in the winter of 1935 and made his muse for more than a decade, her own artistic achievements have long been under-recognized and obscured, in many ways directly due to her public fame as the model for Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” series and other works. This exhaustively researched catalog (and the series of exhibitions that it supports) seeks to rectify this lack of scholarly attention, by more fully examining her own artistic efforts both before and after her association with the celebrated Spanish painter.

Maar is rightfully acknowledged as an important contributor to Surrealist photography, and many of her collaged/montaged photographs as well as her images of “found” Surrealism are cornerstone works of the larger movement. What this catalog does is expand this baseline understanding of Maar, both deepening our knowledge of these two critical areas of her artistic activity and placing them in the larger context of her fashion and commercial work, her social documentary image making, and her other photographic efforts. And while her bodies of work have been neatly separated into discrete subject matter and stylistic categories here, what emerges most strongly is that Maar’s artistic star burned extremely bright for a very short period of time, perhaps just a handful of productive years in the 1930s, and at the height of her own artistic arc, she worked on many of these photography projects relatively simultaneously.

Maar was born Henriette Markovitch in 1907, and studied at the Union centrale des Arts décoratifs in Paris in the mid 1920s. As her interests evolved from painting toward photography, she briefly enrolled at Ecole Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographie, and started to make photographs under her own name (Dora Markovitch) in the late 1920s. She then opened a studio in Paris in 1931 with the art director and set designer Pierre Kefer, using “Dora Maar” as her professional name, and it is from this point on that her photographic career starts to gain momentum.

Much of Maar’s early success came in the realms of fashion and commercial work, where she was unafraid to use multiple exposures/negatives, montage/collage, elaborate staging, dramatic lighting, and other manipulation techniques to generate striking imagery. While contemporaries like Madame d’Ora (her recent retrospective at the Neue Galerie reviewed here) stayed closer to the flattering, soft focus aesthetics of society portraiture, Maar was clearly more experimental, pushing her compositions in more avant-garde directions. She places standing swimsuit models in wavy swimming pools, turns short haired headshots into intermingled busts and mannequins, adds a crinkly spiderweb to an ad for anti-aging cream, and sets a tiny ship sailing atop waves of hair for a hair care brand. She also made female nudes for various erotic magazines, variously posing the athletic model Assia with darkly distorted shadows, eerie solarizations, and a blank white mask.

Trips to Barcelona, London, and around the streets of Paris got Maar out of the studio and led her to develop an interest in social documentary imagery. Her eye was often drawn to the disadvantaged, from blind musicians and street peddlers in Spain to disabled war veterans and old women in the United Kingdom, and she infused these portraits with empathy and attention, even when poverty, despair, and disfigurement might have turned others away.

The oddities of Maar’s “found” Surrealism are just a few aesthetic steps from these straightforward images made in the streets. They locate themselves in similar locations, but observe quirks and eccentricities of vision that seem to allude to dreams, fears, or other inexplicable strangeness. Maar watches the grasping jaws of a crane, the dark shadows of a carousel at night, the distortions of glass aquariums, and the peculiarities of mannequins in shop windows and rubber boots for sale. She turns pinwheels into palm trees, uses steep angles to make bridge sculpture come to life, and catches a man as he mysteriously peers into a trap door in the sidewalk. In each of these photographs, everyday life takes a sudden turn somewhere more than real, seeming to open up alternate worlds hiding in plain sight. This is particularly true of Maar’s tightly framed 1936 image of an armadillo Portrait d’Ubu, whose title connects the natural history specimen to a savagely vulgar character in an 1896 play by Alfred Jarry.

Back in the studio, Maar got even more technically inventive, cutting up photographs and collaging them together, combining negatives into photomontages, and rephotographing her resulting compositions to hide the interventions. Her results are further from reality and often filled with irreverent and sometimes shocking juxtapositions, taking photographic Surrealism into darker territory. A young boy urinates in a perplexingly muddy formal room, a bare chested man in lingerie and heels rides another in an ornate home study, loose eyeballs wash up in the waves, a two headed calf decorates a fountain, and a disembodied hand emerges from a seashell. And in another of Maar’s masterworks, Le Simulateur from 1935, she merges an upside down view from the Palace of Versailles (with the windows retouched to look bricked up) with an image of a flipping boy from the streets of Barcelona, creating a claustrophobic curved world where the boy bends in a trace-like state of ecstasy or hysteria.

But just as Maar reaches this fever pitch of innovative photographic activity, she meets Picasso; according to Brassaï, the two met at the cafe Les Deux Magots in the winter of 1935. She then starts to appear in his drawings and paintings in 1936 and 1937, and photographically documents the intermediate stages of Guernica (also in 1937). With Picasso encouraging her to return to painting, she apparently did just that – there are essentially no additional photographs to be found in her work until a few photograms very much later in her life. Instead she began making increasingly abstract paintings through the war years. In 1945, she suffered a nervous breakdown, had electroshock therapy, and eventually broke with Picasso (who had been seeing Françoise Gilot for the better part of three years at that point) in 1946. While she continued to intermittently make art in various forms until her death in 1997, she never returned to photography with anything like the vitality she devoted to medium in the mid 1930s.

So while the curators successfully bring Maar’s photographic history into much clearer view here, the ending of her story is seemingly tragic, at least from the perspective of what Maar might have done with her camera (and scissors) had things gone differently. In the span of just a few years, she became a key contributor to a major art movement that ripples all the way down to our world today, and then let it drop away. This smart catalog certainly helps us to better appreciate her underappreciated triumphs, but even more, it leaves a huge empty space where her ongoing photographic experiments might have led.

Collector’s POV: Dora Maar’s prints have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $5000 to $325000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Void Publishing (here). Open spine softcover (16,8 x 24 cm), 168 pages, with 106 color photographs. In an edition of 350 copies. ... Read on.

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