Dora Maar: A solo retrospective

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A new exhibition Tate Modern shines a light on the forgotten legacy of an influential artist who has, until now, remained in the shadow of her famous partner

This article was published in issue #7889 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

As museums and galleries work to bring recognition to any artist’s work, often it’s at the expense of the networks and relationships that facilitated the creative process. It’s how countless artists come to be erased from the history of art, and why today, the most compelling exhibitions are those that shed light on these forgotten networks, and reinstate the anonymised individuals we so quickly forget.

In the Tate Modern’s upcoming exhibition Dora Maar, selected works by the neglected artist – born Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907 – will be on view from 20 November to 15 March. The show traces the compelling story of an artist who, alongside purely artistic works, maintained an incredibly successful career in commercial commissions and social documentary practices.

Growing up between Argentina and Paris, later employing her skill in surrealist imagery to create her own commercial style, Maar’s history has largely been reduced to her eight-year relationship with Pablo Picasso. In a joint effort between Centre Pompidou, the J Paul Getty Museum and Tate Modern, the exhibition works to untangle and retrace Maar’s biography, exposing the complexity of her practice outside of her romantic relationships.

The exhibition opens with a selection of portraits of Maar – some taken by others, and some early self-portraits – in order to establish a foundation for the story of an individual actively working within avant garde circles. Emma Lewis, the assistant curator at Tate Modern, explains that reconstructing Maar’s identity within the history of art was no easy task, especially when the primary method for shedding light on forgotten women is pinpointing the very thing that contributed to their erasure in the first place: their gender.

© Dora Maar/ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London.

“How do we tell the story of a woman artist while being sensitive to the fact that Maar herself was of a generation who didn’t want to be known as ‘women artists’?”

Emma Lewis, the assistant curator at Tate Modern

© Dora Maar/ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London.

“The major question is, how do we tell the story of a woman artist while being sensitive to the fact that Maar herself was of a generation who didn’t want to be known as ‘women artists’?” Lewis explains. “She just wanted to be known as an artist. How can an exhibition articulate a story where her gender is relevant, but also where it isn’t?”

As visitors continue through the show, Maar’s surrealist tendencies are
seen in every corner of her work, including her commissioned advertisements. Many institutions steer clear of commercial work when putting together a solo show, but the curators of Dora Maar see these early pieces as crucial to the story of Maar and her peers – both women and men. “The 1930s were a time when the illustrated press was booming, and there were so many professional opportunities in print,” Lewis explains. “Advertising was one of the most exciting fields, and there were huge budgets for photography.”

We see Maar’s approach to fashion and cosmetics advertisements, heavy in their use of mirrors and contrasting shadows, emulating the peculiar narratives in her personal work. “Maar didn’t really distinguish between her different approaches – she was just as creative in her commissioned work as she was in any projects pursued of her own volition. It was important for us, as an artistic institution, to represent that commercial side of her work just as much as her other projects.”

The show also includes a selection of Maar’s social documentary work – another aspect of her practice that has gone largely unrecognised. As an active left-wing revolutionary, Maar observed the streets of Barcelona, Paris and London, documenting the realities of Europe’s economic depression. In these photographs, close crops are seen amongst atypical angles, intense lighting and contrasting shadows. While constructed, surrealist pieces are tightly ascribed to Maar’s existing legacy, these street scenes highlight her technical mastery of the camera, revealing that she also had an eye for candid visuals in the surrounding world of passers-by.

A creative in her own right, Maar has suffered the fate of many female artists, as she is often reduced to simply being a muse. In the mid-1930s, Maar met Picasso, and the pair entered an eight-year romantic relationship. Historically, Maar is best known for her documentation of Picasso’s most political work, Guernica, and while her photographs offer incredible insight into her famous lover’s working process, this brief project regularly overshadows the rest of her career. Additionally, Maar is often identified as the subject in Picasso’s numerous ‘weeping woman’ motifs, her character again reduced to a muse at the hands of a celebrated man.

© Dora Maar/ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London.

“It is simply impossible to represent the professional without the personal – they are intertwined”

Tasked with writing about this period for the exhibition catalogue, Lewis was hesitant about approaching the widely covered topic. How can one speak about this crucial decade in Maar’s life without allowing it to consume her history? “It was an interesting problem to grapple with, because it was such a transformative period of her life and career – for better or for worse,” Lewis explains. “As a curator, I came to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to represent the professional without the personal – they are intertwined.”

Thanks to Tate’s archives, Lewis came across some interesting insights from Maar herself. “In 1990, Frances Morris interviewed Maar about the weeping woman motif, on the occasion of a Picasso painting being acquired for Tate’s collection,” Lewis says. “The interview was never published, and there is so much valuable information in that conversation. When Maar is asked about being portrayed in Picasso’s work, she is very clear that she
is simply a motif – a representation of the tragedy of Spain. They aren’t necessarily portraits of Maar, and were never intended to be. She was standing in for something much bigger that both her and Picasso were deeply engaged with.”

So instead of situating Maar within the history of Picasso, the curators reveal how Maar actually influenced her former lover’s most famous works. Picasso’s work experienced a political shift only after his relationship with Maar began, as she is the one who introduced him to the importance of politics. Additionally, Guernica is deeply influenced by photography, and Picasso’s use of black-and-white runs parallel to the spliced- and-diced collages and photomontages made by Maar throughout the rest of the exhibition.

© Dora Maar/ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London.
© Dora Maar/ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London.

“She’s teaching him techniques in her darkroom, and she’s also photographing Guernica while painting her own canvasses throughout his studio,” Lewis explains. After her relationship with Picasso ends, Maar’s work takes a turn. She pursues painting with vigour, and doesn’t return to photography with consistency until the 1980s, when she starts creating more experimental work until her death.

“She finds what she can do in the darkroom to be more interesting, so she starts experimenting in there, and those are the photographs you see at the end of the exhibition,” says Lewis. These photomontages – cameraless images made by controlling, directing and painting with light in the darkroom – are the poetic symbiosis of what, at the end of the day, were Maar’s two greatest loves: painting and photography.

Dora Maar at Tate Modern will be on show from 20 November 2019 to 15 March 2020.

Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.