Surrealist Photographer Dora Maar Was More Than Picasso’s Muse

By some accounts, the beginning of Dora Maar’s relationship with Pablo Picasso marked the end of her artistic career.

When the young photographer took up with the older, celebrated artist in 1936, she was a rising star in Surrealist circles. Her photograph Père Ubu (1936) had become an emblem for the movement after it was exhibited in London at the International Surrealist Exhibition.

But, under Picasso’s influence, she eventually gave up photography for painting. (Picasso had always considered the medium inferior, insisting that “inside every photographer is a painter trying to get out.”) And invariably, paired with such a giant of art history, Maar’s story was bound to be overshadowed. For years she was remembered solely as the muse who inspired Picasso’s iconic series of “Weeping Women.”

In fact, it wasn't until her death in 1997 that art historians were finally able to examine Maar’s masterful body of work in full. Following her breakup with Picasso in 1946, she had begun to withdraw from public life; by the time she passed away, Maar had been largely forgotten.

Her early days in Paris, however, gave no indication of the reclusive woman she would become. Daughter to a French mother and a Croatian-born father, who was an architect, she was raised between Paris and Buenos Aires. In 1926, at age 19, Maar’s family settled in the French capital. There, she began to study art seriously—at André Lhote’s atelier, alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as at the École de Photographie de la Ville de Paris, the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, and the Académie Julian. Although she initially split her time between painting and photography, by the 1930s, she had devoted herself to the latter.

In 1931, she established herself as a professional photographer alongside young designer Pierre Kéfer. (By this time, she had changed her name—born Henriette Theodora Markovitch, she had long gone by Dora and eventually shortened Markovitch to Maar.) Together with Kéfer, she tackled a number of commercial projects, infusing the images with a healthy dose of Surrealism. In one advertisement, a bottle of Pétrole Hahn hair oil lays on its side—but instead of oil, out spills a tangle of long, wavy locks.

Soon, Maar was deeply embedded in the Parisian avant-garde. Striking and dark-haired, she modeled for both Man Ray and Jean Cocteau; André Breton named his surrealist gallery, Gradiva, partly in her honor; and her affair with the writer Georges Bataille, famously fixated on eroticism, sparked endless rumors.

Her photographic practice was not limited to commercial work, either. Alongside a burgeoning focus on surrealist imagery—hands emerging from snail shells, warped and dreamlike stairwells—Maar traveled to Barcelona and London to capture street life and served as an on-set movie photographer. It was during the filming of Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) that she first laid eyes on Picasso. Although she was instantly intrigued by the 54-year-old painter, he did not remember that encounter. It wasn’t until a second, much more dramatic, run-in that she piqued his interest.

Maar, knowing that Picasso often frequented the Café Les Deux Magots, had concocted a plan. The journalist Jean-Paul Crespelle, sitting at a nearby table that day, recalled her “serious face, lit up by pale blue eyes which looked all the paler because of her thick eyebrows; a sensitive uneasy face, with light and shade passing alternately over it. She kept driving a small pointed penknife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves.”

Picasso later told Françoise Gilot that Maar’s dramatic display “was what made up his mind to interest himself in her.”

The two soon became lovers. Picasso liked that she spoke Spanish—from her days in Argentina—and admired her fierce intellect and commitment to her work. She was also one of his most influential models, sitting for a number of now-famous portraits that most frequently show her in distress. “For me she’s the weeping woman,” Picasso said. “For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was a deep reality, not a superficial one.”

Maar also took it upon herself to serve as Picasso’s official photographer during the 36-day period in which he painted Guernica. John Richardson writes that “Dora’s expertise would prove immensely useful; she was able to make the first photographic record of the creation of a modern artwork from start to finish.” It’s clear from these images that the light bulb at the center of his canvas was inspired by one of her photographic lamps—one of the many pieces of equipment Maar moved into his studio a year after they began their affair.

Throughout this time, Picasso continued to see Marie-Thérèse Walter—his other mistress, with whom he had a child. Maar never reconciled herself with the situation, a tension that intensified in 1943 when Picasso began associating with the even younger Gilot. In 1945, Maar had a mental breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Although she continued to see Picasso intermittently, it was just a year before he broke the relationship off entirely.

Instead, Maar turned to religion. She became increasingly devoted to Catholic mysticism, particularly during the final two decades of her life. She’d given up photography entirely following the Guernica series, instead painting still lifes and landscapes that were less successful than her early experiments with the camera. Although she continued to make work, for some 25 years she refused to exhibit.

A 1990 show at Paris’s Galerie 1900-2000 reintroduced her practice to a world that had largely forgotten about Picasso’s most private mistress. And since her death, Maar’s work has become increasingly well known. She’s the subject of a book out this year by Rizzoli, and will be the centerpiece of a 2019 show at the Pompidou.

Picasso once remarked “I could never see her, never imagine her, except crying.” But in recent years, it’s become clear that Maar was always more than her tears.


—Abigail Cain

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