In Search of Dora Maar

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Model, Assia Granatouroff photographed by Dora Maar

 

Walking into 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, had not only been 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. 

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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.

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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!

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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 stunning setting of the hill top village, 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 confidant. 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.

KH

Tate Modern’s Dora Maar runs until 15th March 2020

LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.