Louise Baring’s Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso focuses on the photography career of Dora Maar, one of Pablo Picasso’s many muses. The book is as elegant as its subject, with clarity of design and effortless dialogue between images and text.
Dora Maar was born Henriette Markovitch in Paris in 1907, and she spent some of her childhood in Buenos Aires. An early interest in art evolved into a career in photography in the thriving Parisian intellectual scene between the World Wars. She was well-read and produced diverse work from commercial commissions to street photography. She used a Rolleiflex camera, handheld for spontaneity. Photographs of her depict a stylish figure with a serious gaze. Even at the beach she wears lipstick and statement jewellery.
Maar worked, exhibited and socialised with major artists of the time, including Emmanuel Sougez, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, and she shared a darkroom with Brassaï. The mid-1930s was a fruitfully creative time for Maar, who flourished as an experimental imagemaker in a young medium. Her commercial for hair oil shows a tiny boat sailing in a sea of blonde curls while in a fashion photo a model in a Grecian-draped dress has her head replaced by a giant star. She finds eccentricities on the street in London, Barcelona and Paris, in the dead-eyed stare of a shop mannequin or the nonchalance of a boy leaning on a wall, styling out his grinding poverty. Her nudes are disrupted with looming shadows and grotesque masks.
Her curious, unsettling photomontages echo the Surrealist interest in the dreamy subconscious, some with an S&M influence. Grand interiors are soaking with urine and disembodied legs tiptoe on giant fingertips, with the Seine as the backdrop. Maar slices attraction with repulsion, creating peculiar landscapes of horror and humour. She also photographed her contemporaries including Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim and Alberto Giacometti. Even when they look away they engage the viewer. You lean in to listen.
Picasso enters Maar’s work by peering through black scratches on the negative like a menacing face in a storm cloud. She created work in the darkroom with him, manipulating negatives and combining photography with painting. She photographed Picasso at work, inside the peeling walls of his airy studio and working on the colossal Guernica. Picasso encouraged her towards painting instead of photography, and she soon closed her photographic studio.
Maar was the mistress for the cultured circles, while Picasso was still involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter elsewhere. He nevertheless painted numerous variations of Maar’s face, distorted, usually in tears. In contrast, her self-portraits show firm composure. Although she embarked on her affair with Picasso knowingly, the end of the relationship shook her mental health irreversibly. She eventually retreated into reclusion, with a deep devotion to Catholicism. Tracing her energetic work leaves a lingering question of what could have been next.
Art history mainly remembers Dora as Picasso’s Weeping Woman, but this book outlines her as an artist far beyond the narrow definition of the muse. She herself thought that Picasso’s images of her were “lies…Not one is Dora Maar.”
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Riikka Kuittinen
Below, images from Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso (courtesy of Rizzoli):
- Dora Maar, ‘Hand emerging from shell’, 1934. Photomontage, gelatin silver print. Centre Pompidou, Paris
- Dora Maar, ‘Advertising study for Pétrole Hahn’, 1934–35. Flexible monochrome negative enhanced with color. Centre Pompidou, Paris
- Dora Maar, ‘Assia’, 1934. Gelatin silver print. Centre Pompidou, Paris
- Dora Maar, ‘Model with star’, 1936. Gelatin silver print Private collection, Paris