Dora Maar - Biography and Legacy
French Photographer and Painter
Biography of Dora Maar
Childhood and Early Training
Dora Maar was born Henrietta Theodora Markovitch on November 22, 1907 in Tours, France. Her father was Croatian and became an architect; her mother was French and brought up in the Catholic faith. Maar spent most of her childhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her father worked on a number of projects. The artist recalls her childhood as being a relatively lonely time. She read widely in English, and spoke French and Spanish fluently. She was left-handed but her parents and teachers forced her to write, eat, and conduct day-to-day affairs with her right; nevertheless, she always painted and drew with her left hand.
Maar returned to France to study painting in Paris around 1925. She visited the École des Arts Décoratifs, Académy de Passy and Académie Julien, as well as studying with Cubist André Lhote. She quickly abandoned painting for photography, studying at the École de Photographie de la Ville de Paris. She became a part of café life and was attractive to many in the Parisian avant-garde noted for her beauty, intellect, and alluring mystique. It was at this time that she simplified her given name and became Dora Maar.
Around 1930, the French set designer and photographer Pierre Kéfer noticed Maar's talents and asked her to share his studio in Neuilly. The two worked together on portraits, advertising, and fashion photography. She depicted nudes for erotic publications, posed for other artists (including Man Ray), and took photographs for the forthcoming books of art critic, historian, and Louvre curator, Germain Bazin.
Maar began to associate with some of the most prominent intellectuals in Europe at the time. She considered Louis-Victor Emmanuel Sougez, an advertising photographer and director of a French weekly newspaper as her mentor. She studied photography with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who encouraged her to become a photojournalist, and met and became friends with the Hungarian-born photographer, Brassai. Brassai and Maar admired one another's determination, professionalism, and directness of poetic vision.
Driven by Sougez's encouragement, Maar began to deepen her exploration of photography. The Kéfer-Maar studio closed and Maar opened her own studio and darkroom at 29 Rue d'Astorg in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. The photography critic Jacques Guenne described her in his 1934 book L'Art Vivant as "a dark-haired huntress of images, whom long chases do not fatigue", and also as insatiably curious, and self-possessed.
Working from her studio through the early to mid-1930s, Maar began creating some of her most famous Surrealist photographs. She also immersed herself into the Surrealist circles and was much admired by the leading poets and artists of the movement. George Bataille was one of her lovers and became a great friend, and Paul Eluard dedicated his Surrealist poem Identités (1948) to her. She was close to Man Ray and worked as his studio assistant for a time, as well as to Jean Cocteau, and to the father of the movement, André Breton. Ten years later, many of her photographic portraits made during the 1930s were included in Eluard's Le Temps Déborde (1947). Critic Julie L'Enfant noted that "Maar attracted a good deal of attention with her dramatic personal style: her lighting of a cigarette could be a theatrical event" and "the beauty of her hands [was] often remarked upon", as well as her beautiful voice.
Maar was a committed and active leftist, joining/supporting anti-Fascist political groups such as Masses, Octobre, and Contre-Attaque. She wore her passions and opinions on her sleeve - her friend Brassai acknowledged that she was "inclined...to storms and outbursts."
Even though famed Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and Maar had met as early as 1935 on a movie set, introduced by Paul Éluard, Picasso apparently did not recall the encounter. The following year she arranged an "accidental" meeting. Maar sat at a small table at the Café de Deux Magots, knowing that it was a place Picasso frequented. She was playing a game where she stabbed a small knife between her fingers, and Picasso watched as she occasionally jabbed her fingers and small drops of blood appeared on her lacy black gloves. This was entrancing to the brilliant and narcissistic artist, and before long, the two began a tempestuous love affair. Picasso depicted Maar numerous times, and she became famous as his model for the Weeping Woman canvases made in various forms between 1937 and 1944. While some of his portraits showed her lively and puissant, most were tortured and distorted. Picasso stated once that he only ever remembered his lover as being in tears.
Despite the obvious dysfunction, Maar was the only person that Picasso allowed in his studio whilst he was working on his groundbreaking Guernica (1937) painting. She photographed the piece extensively, painted a few brushstrokes on the canvas, and was the model for the woman with the lamp (Picasso's other mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter featured as the model for three figures as well). Maar's Guernica series was among the last of her photographs, for she followed Picasso who convinced her that painting was a superior medium.
Picasso and Maar's relationship deteriorated, along with her mental health. Picasso left Maar for Francoise Gilot and Maar was sent to St. Anne's hospital for electroshock treatment. Following the violent start to her treatment, her care was taken over by the Neo-Freudian psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan. With Lacan's reluctant guidance, Maar ultimately turned to religion, becoming a fervent Roman Catholic after prior experiments with the occult and Buddhism. When asked why this had become the turn of events, Lacan said frankly, "I had to stabilize her. She needed something to crystalize upon. It came to a choice between the confessional and the straitjacket."
Maar became quite reclusive but did indeed stabilize, and began to devote herself single-mindedly to painting. She concentrated mostly on still lifes and landscapes, creating a large body of work in the decades until her death. She divided her time between Paris and the house in Ménerbes that Picasso had purchased for her in 1944, eventually living full-time in the latter. Devout until the end, most people in Ménerbes reported only ever seeing her when she went to church services.
The final exhibition of her work before her death was held in 1990 at the 1900-2000 gallery in Paris. Around this time, she was a dedicated follower of the auction results for Picasso's works, and indeed lived off the sales of the ones in her possession at the end of her life. When asked why she held onto the pictures for so long before selling them, she remarked, "I'll tell you why, because they're mine. On the walls of a gallery, maybe they're worth only half a million. On the walls of Picasso's mistress, they're worth a premium, the premium of history."
Maar passed away at the age of 89 on July 16, 1997. She kept and treasured everything Picasso had given her, no matter how strange or grim; mementos included paintings, scraps of newspaper, small scraps of paper Picasso had drawn on and even smeared his blood on (bleeding from the spike of a torturous ring he had made for Maar after their separation). This collection was sold at auction following Maar's death, worth tens of millions of dollars, money given to very distant heirs (as she had never married or had children).
The Legacy of Dora Maar
Most accounts of Dora Maar's life and work reference Picasso, and certainly he played a major role in both. For years she was known primarily for being the model and muse for many of his most important works. She was also the photographer who documented the stages in production of Guernica, and acted as a catalyst for some of Picasso's experiments in painting, especially those that alluded to aspects of photography. Thus, then and sometimes still now, both rightly and wrongly, Maar is labeled the muse, the mistress, the victim, and later the recluse. Her legacy however, is more complex than restrictive definitions allow, and she was more beautiful than Picasso's tortured portraits of her lead the viewer to believe.
With her first exhibition at the Galerie de Beaune in 1937, Maar is considered one of the most significant Surrealist photographers. She was a figure who truly embodied the "convulsive beauty" ideal expressed by André Breton. Indeed, her photographs and photomontages highlighted Surrealism's fascination with the macabre, with nightmares as well as dreams and fantasy, with the uncanny elements of urban life. Artists such as Man Ray, Brassai, and Emmanuel Sougez all found inspiration in her understanding that photography had the ability to distort reality and to conjure a world only visible within the psyche. Her very early photojournalistic works that established uneasy juxtapositions between the built environment and human figures within it greatly influenced future generations of photographers, including in particular Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander.