Model, Assia Granatouroff photographed by Dora Maar
As I was about to enter the Tate Modern show on Dora Maar, a question wouldn’t go away. Would Maar’s best work turn out to be what she produced during her years with Picasso?
The Barbican show I had attended on artistic couples, in January of this year, was still fresh in my mind. It had been a fascinating exploration into the creative process and showed how women like Dora Maar were not only muses but artists in their own right. Dora Maar was one of many female creatives who had to fight their patch to get recognised. (See my review here) https://artmuselondon.com/2019/01/12/love-in-a-creative-climate/.
Taking up where Barbican left off, Tate Modern has organised a retrospective of Maar’s work. It spans decades, right up to her death in July 1997. Here, we were told by the curator, the focus was to be less on Picasso, whose fame and force of personality wolfed up the limelight, and more on Maar’s extensive output. With two hundred photographic and painted works to peruse, it promised to be quite a show.
In the room entitled On Assignment Maar’s advertising work was displayed. The inter-war years presented opportunities for women photographers to work in the fashion and beauty industry. Out of the rows of tastefully lit monochrome images of women with swept back hair and silken slip dresses, there are few that really stand out. The Years Lie in Wait For You c 1935 however is inspired. An apprehensive-looking young woman, stares out at us through a spider’s web superimposed on her face. A remarkable image, it is thought it was used for an anti-ageing cream.
Outside advertising, Maar excels in photographing the female nude. Maar was lucky to have the model, Assia Granatouroff at her disposal, whose sensuality and confidence in front of the camera, allowed Maar, not only to explore the female form but also female identity and sexuality (see Header pic) These photographs must have earned her a good deal of money in her time and to this day such erotica reaches a fine price at auction, for the work is adventurous, artistic and proud.
On the Street in Room 3, takes us outside the studio and into the streets of Paris, London and Barcelona. Having researched the subject for my 1930s novel set in Paris, I was interested to watch a short film documenting the poverty, the street children, the political riots of the era. Both right-wing and left-wing riots paralysed Paris for many years as governments came and went. Moving on from the film, I was disappointed in Maar’s prints, which did not reveal anything exceptional. It was probably to do with the lack of contrast in the printing. I prefer a rough, grainier print for documentary work of this kind, a form of printing which would become de rigueur in the 1960s with photographers such as Don McCullin, Diane Arbus.
I largely skipped Room 4 entitled The Everyday Strange, feeling like I seen too many images of the ilk: a man with his head down a hole, inspecting the sidewalk, does not strike me as that strange but maybe I’m being unfair.
More interesting was the Surrealist room. The curator quite rightly points out that, at the time, photography, considered factual, was not thought to be the best medium for the surrealist genre which highlights the subjective and the imagined world. Collage and photomontage techniques was a way around that.
I was amused, but had a sense of deja vu viewing the surrealist montages, having already pored over many surrealist photobooks in my lifetime. One photograph however caught my eye, Portrait of Ubu, produced in 1936. It is an extraordinary shot of what is now believed to be an armadillo foetus up close. It is clearly disturbing with its Dumbo ears, lemon-shaped face and two-fingered horny claws.
Maar was inspired by Alfred Jarry’s play, Ubu Roi performed in Paris, way back in 1896. Ubu Roi, the play’s central character, is ugly, dishonest, petty and cruel who carries out political assassinations and generally causes havoc. For left-wing intellectuals such as Maar, Ubu Roi symbolised the right-wing dictators of the day.
In the Darkroom and the Studio my interest spiked as we had reached the Picasso-Maar room. A negative of Picasso, taken by Maar, is attached to the wall. I had already seen the print at the Barbican and recalled the scribbled fringe running around Picasso’s face and half obscuring it. Picasso peers out at us with one eye. A peeping Tom? Jesus crowned in black thorns? A leonine male? All three? It is hard to fathom whether she was just being playful or ridiculing him.
Also of interest (both at the Barbican and Tate Modern) is Lee Miller’s candid photograph of Maar (1956) when Maar was nearing fifty years of age. With her hair up and without a scrap of make up, Maar looks older than her years. She is sitting in a chair, looking out of the window, ghostly pale. Our eye moves up to the central mantelpiece, where an unfinished portrait of her hangs. It is Picasso’s rendering of her as a younger woman. Her beautiful eyes show an intensity of character, her pursed lips, pride and her inherent sadness. The face is incomplete however. One could ask why? What is striking is that, in this simple portrait, Picasso captures what I believe to be the real Maar. She is not the composite of womanhood, The Weeping Woman, made up of geometrical triangles, garish green and reds and gushing tears; she is just Dora.
At the show, I read that Picasso never painted her from life. It obviously rankled her. The portrait in Lee Miller’s photograph, is the only one Maar liked of herself and now, in hindsight, one can understand why.
For all his faults, Picasso did encourage Maar to paint. A large canvas dominates room 6. It is of two women sitting, one full-breasted blond-haired woman facing out, the other dark-haired, with her back to us, offering just a sliver of the side of her face. The Conversation painted by Maar, with its bold outlines and flattened features, is so reminiscent of the cubist style that I had to check that it wasn’t painted by Picasso himself. The blonde woman is of course Marie-Thérèse Walter, who, having borne Picasso a child, still continued to see her old lover throughout his relationship with Maar. It is strange that Maar has chosen to have her back to the viewer. Marie-Thérèse meanwhile is in the spotlight, as if on trial. The painting is strangely still though, very much at odds with the catfights they were supposed to have had!
The Conversation by Dora Maar, 1937.
Guernica follows and from then on I lose Maar. Her expressionist paintings of her house in Ménèrbes and its surrounding landscape made little impact on me. Having visited the Provençal village myself and stood outside her beautiful house and seen the breath-taking views, I do wonder why her paintings translate simply into a blue wash.
More impressive were her engravings for an anthology for poet André du Bouchet (1924-2001) entitled Mountain Soil in 1956. Her light ink impressions of nature are charming here and suit the poetry.
Maar’s photograms at the end of the show, which she made by placing household objects or personal items on photo-sensitive paper, was an attempt by Maar to deconstruct the whole photographic process. Rather like Matisse with his cut outs. Unremarkable, they are nevertheless a record of her continuing quest to create in her final years.
Returning to the thorny problem of Picasso. There is no doubt Picasso had much to be grateful for from Maar. She was not only his muse, his model, his confidante. She was his mentor – it was she who persuaded him to paint Guernica. Picasso hadn’t been particularly politically engaged up until that point and his heart-rending canvas of the Spanish Civil War massacre would become the painting that defined him and gave him political gravitas.
To say that Maar created Picasso is an exaggeration. Picasso was his own man. I do wonder however, if her energies would have been better employed developing the theme of The Conversation, which showed great promise.
The Tate Modern is an interesting and overdue retrospective of Dora Maar’s work. By showcasing her achievements particularly in the interwar years, we get a sense of the energy and the passion she devoted to her photography and her political engagement.
Worth visiting, but I would recommend reading about her life as this is the missing link here. The lack of biography was a problem for me. I would have engaged more with her work, had I had more information about her life, her friendships and her lovers, before and after Picasso.
Tate Modern’s Dora Maar runs until 15th March 2020