This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
What is perhaps most frustrating about studying women in the arts in the early 20th century is realizing how often women have been overlooked and overshadowed. Though many have since received their dues, too often these female talents are introduced as “forgotten” members of art movements they were often central to. Dora Maar is one such artist who has suffered this fate. Though she was already an established photographer, her legacy quickly became swept up in Pablo Picasso’s when they met—and was reduced to the messy outcome of their love affair.
Born in France in 1907 as Henriette Théodora Markovitch, but raised between Paris and Buenos Aires, Maar was an intelligent young girl, able to speak French and Spanish fluently, and read English. At the age of 19, she returned to France and began studying painting and photography at a number of schools, including Académie Julian, École de Photographie de la Ville de Paris, and the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. By the 1930s, photography had become her main pursuit; around this time she abandoned her given name for the moniker she would become known for.
Maar swiftly became involved in the world of Surrealism through her evocative images that featured the group’s favorite motifs of shells, hair, spirals, and shadows. She also integrated herself into the scene via her friendships with other artists; Maar notably posed for Man Ray, while Leonor Fini notably posed for her. She also expanded beyond Surrealist work, photographing scenes of poverty and ill health on the streets of Paris, London, and Barcelona, proving Maar’s interests delved into politics and human rights.
Though they technically first met on the set of Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange in 1935, Maar and Picasso’s relationship only began in 1936 after reuniting at the Parisian café, Les Deux Magots. Apparently, he was drawn to her work ethic and intelligence, though he did encourage her to abandon photography in favor of painting, based on his personal preference to the medium. That being said, Picasso’s work benefitted greatly from Maar’s eye behind the lens; she documented the making of one of his most famous works, Guernica.
Picasso was famously cruel to Maar, taunting her with a series of concurrent relationships and through mean-spirited “gifts” (including a deliberately hideous chair, and an unwearable ring with a spike inside) long after they separated in 1946. Their split lead Maar to have a nervous breakdown, and she proceeded to retreat into a life of seclusion. What was left of her in the public eye were the numerous portraits Picasso had painted of her, some of them (such as 1937’s Weeping Woman) being among his most well-known pieces. Despite the use of her visage, the paintings were not a substitute for the real woman. “All his portraits of me are lies,” she once clarified. “They’re all Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar.”
No one can really determine how Maar’s career would have evolved had she not been involved with Picasso, though it can be assumed that she would have kept up her moody and often eerie photography at least a little while longer. And it seems likely that her Surrealist collages and her abstract landscapes of Provence would have been more widely viewed.
The last exhibit of Maar’s work took place in Paris in 1990 and it was the final time that she was seen by much of the general public before she passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. Since then, it seems the world is more than eager to rediscover her body of work, as her photographs increasingly began to appear in exhibitions.
In 2017, Rizzoli released a book collecting her images, and in 2019 they will be part of a traveling exhibition beginning at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It seems that now, more than 20 years after her death, the narrative surrounding Maar’s brilliance is finally getting back on track.END
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