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Dora Maar and the Everyday Strange

The women of the Surrealist movement have suffered a curious case of the feminine shadow, what could be termed Muse Syndrome. Often, their biographical and artistic legacies have been dogged by their associations to prominent male surrealists; the result, an awkward and myopic epitaph.  

Despite her reflection “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse”, for many years, Leonara Carrington was largely known in her native England as the 26 years younger wife of Max Ernst. The prescient Méret Oppenheim was often presumptively referenced as Mr Oppenheim. She was never included in any of Breton’s planned, promotional photos of the Surrealist group, despite being a significant and active member. For years after her death, Dora Maar was remembered as Picasso’s “Weeping Woman”, the lachrymose subject of a series of portraits. In 1997 when she died, her obituary in The New York Times contained a familiar genitive – “Dora Maar, a Muse of Picasso, Is Dead at 89’.

The current exhibition of Maar’s work at the Tate Modern is the first of its kind. Put on in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou and the J. Paul Getty Museum, the retrospective assembles over 200 pieces by Maar and some by fellow, contemporaneous surrealists. 

Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch on the 22nd of November 1907, Maar was the daughter of a French retailer and a Croatian architect. While studying at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian (two of the few institutions which offered an unadulterated education to their female students), Maar frequented the surrealist jaunt, Cafe de la Place Blanche, and workshop of André Lhote. Whilst in Paris, she also befriended the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Eluard and André Breton. Maar’s career was rarely static; her oeuvre includes painting, filmography, poetry, as well as photography. Her photographic subjects range from the Wall Street Crash to East London’s pearly kings and commissions for Vogue. 

Despite the breadth of her subject matter, Maar’s gaze is persistently singular and always aslant. The Tate exhibition includes Maar’s first paid project as a photographer, catalogue photos of the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel for an art history book. In Maar’s spatially ingenious portraits, the subject of countless dross, glossy postcards is rendered mythical, skeletal (Maar contributed 36 photos to the book, she was only credited for 6). In another of Maar’s early works, an advertisement for hair oil,  an empty ointment bottle floats on a sea of dark locks.

Filing down a row of Maar’s photos is like watching a delightful kinetoscope. Each of Maar’s montages, superimpositions or collages demand from their viewer a child-like and willing imagination, a wax tablet. A two-headed calf springs from a fountain, fingers bathe in an alchemicalblue, an alabaster hand unfurls from a shell. In one of Maar’s most notorious portraits, a soft-shelled creature is photographed at close range in a soft, lambent grain. It is all at once extraterrestrial, porcine and oddly infantile (The photo is titled “Portrait of Ubu” and Maar refused to disclose the species of its subject, scholars eventually settled on a preserved armadillo fetus). 

While much of Maar’s work could be categorised as strictly surrealist or strictly journalistic, she is at her most interesting when she occupies the space between. In one photo, a rabble of ruddy-faced boys play in an ally –  it is only upon a second, more forensic look that we notice a boy in the background running vertically up a wall. 

Even when her photographs are not manipulated, they are still distinctly surreal. Statues covered in muslin occupy Piccadily like muffled ghosts, a man with his head in a manhole is reduced to rhombuses and rectangles. Maar’s work is quick to reveal that surrealism is not strictly an elusive doctrine. If we are willing to look for it, we might find it anywhere. The exhibition terms such an outlook ‘the everyday strange’, an artistic choice which seeks to ‘transform human experience… to reject the rational in favour of a vision that embraced the power of the unconscious mind’. It is by this sensibility that Maar celebrates the sentiment of the artist (and her friend) Brassaï  –  ‘there is nothing more surreal than reality itself’.

Initially focused on her photographic career, the exhibition concludes with the paintings Maar produced later in life. It is at this stage that the looming figure of Picasso enters the gallery, and with him a slight irony. A retrospective of Maar’s work cannot refrain from a significant segment dedicated to the artist, dedicating an entire room to Guernica alone (which Maar photographed). Maar’s individualistic oil paintings are evocative and stark. However, her distinctly Picasso-style cubist paintings (an influence the exhibition identifies – “she was yet to develop her own style”)  are often her least interesting work, some appear even unfinished. It is not to say that this aspect of Maar’s oeuvre ought to be occluded, rather, that the value of emphasising it seems questionable, perhaps an attempt to exploit a connection. Maar once remarked, ‘‘All his portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar’, the exhibition might do well to remember, or at least confront, this. 

The exhibition is also careful not to be too incisive regarding Picasso. The inscription to Maar’s The Conversation –  a tenebrous painting which depicts her seated besides Picasso’s concurrent mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter –  meekly describes the painting as a ‘loaded scene’. Other critics have been less reserved; writing for The New Yorker, Brian Dillon tersely states “Picasso encouraged Maar toward painting and away from photography—and then he left her, for Françoise Gilot”. 

Nonetheless, despite diversions, the exhibition is largely successful in releasing Maar from a role as solely supplement, scribe and documenter of the Surrealist movement. Her artistic agency is celebrated and enormously enjoyable. Gallery-goers can expect to leave the Tate instilled with some of Maar’s own exuberant curiosity. 

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