:: Article

dora maar

By Hailey Maxwell.

The exhibition Dora Maar will be coming to Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July; Tate Modern, London, 20 November-15 March 2020; and the Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020.

Between 1935-38 Dora Maar (born Henriette Theodora Markovitch) exhibited with André Breton’s Surrealist group nine times. By virtue of being one of the movement’s few women, her participation in exhibitions, publications, and political projects as one of its few photographers has largely been atrophied in histories of Surrealism. Displaying over 400 works and documents, a landmark retrospective—starting its tour at Centre Pompidou—evinces Maar’s career-long investigation of the language of vision; showcases her sustained interrogation of the complex relationship between painting and photography.

In many ways, Maar’s career was Janus-faced, epitomising the many duplicities and doublings characteristic of modernism. Training in both painting and photography in Paris, in 1932 she opened her first studio in partnership with film set designer Pierre Kéfer, around the same time she became affiliated with the surrealists. The studio was principally commercial in nature, and while the images it produced were signed Kiéfer-Maar, it was often Dora supplying photographs to magazines like Arts et Metiers and Vogue, fashion houses like Lanvin and Chanel. In first half of the 20th century the development of fashion and photography was inextricably linked, and by the 1930s fashion magazines were booming in Paris as their visual content transformed from engraved illustrations to lavish and highly experimental photographs. Although the exhibition’s chronology could be interpreted as suggesting that Maar graduated from fashion photography before entering the world of surrealism and political activism, it is more correct to suggest that one enterprise sustained the other: like many photographers of the time, her commercial work allowed her the means and space to experiment and develop an expanded photographic practice. Many of her tonally clear, linear portraits of models such as the iconic Assia Granatouroff respond to convention and are modish, occasionally to the point of banal. Elsewhere, her surrealist taste for the uncanny and strange creates arresting images—sometimes Maar’s hand intervenes on the photographic process, doubling faces or creating new elements. In a perfume advert thick brown curls spill out from the tipped glass bottle, inviting the viewer to imagine the smell of their lover’s hair. This work is reminiscent of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s 1921 work Belle Haleine (Beautiful Breath)—a parody product complete with a photograph of Rrose Sélavy (the femme alter ego of Duchamp) on the label. As a visual language of desire, surrealism has always excelled at expressing lust for magical women and magical objects. Indeed today, surrealism’s trace in contemporary culture is most strongly felt— albeit stripped of its political convictions—in the service of commodity fetishism and mass media advertising.

Charles Baudelaire’s criticism of photography as fine art in the 19th century was that the mechanical reproduction of reality would entirely empty art of imagination. The Surrealists lodged Baudelaire firmly in their canon of proto-surrealist saints and rehabilitated photography as a tool for re-enchanting reality. One of the defining principles of surrealism is that the marvellous is revealed within the collision of contradictions—of the collapsing boundary between dream and reality, reason and chance. In the 1930s photography as a medium was contingent upon violent contrasts—the photographic instant in which light and darkness clash to produce images composed of black and white tones. Far from submitting to the autonomy of the camera, Maar mastered reality by approaching photography as a dark alchemy. Kiéfer-Maar disbanded in 1935 and Maar moved on to her own studio at 29, rue d’Astorg. In her darkroom with her silver salts and gelatine plates, she experimented with the mercurial effects of light, time and temperature. The trace of her painterly hand frequently haunts her photographs, manually scraping the emulsion she subverted the mechanical process, creating ghost elements within the image.

Though sidestepping the laddish puns of her male peers, her photomontages are suitably placed in the veiled-erotic, Freudian hinterland of the surrealist imagination. She provokes the thought of a finger pressing into the libidinous wetness of a mollusc curled inside its shell in Untitled (hand and shell) (1934), while in Forbidden Games (1935) a curious child peers from under a desk as a melancholy figure grips a man between her thighs and rides him around the parlour. That isn’t to say Maar lacked a sense of humour—the grotesquely frocked figure of 29 rue d’Astorg (c. 1936) is hilariously camp in its coyness. Maar’s experimentation with photomontage is idiosyncratically onanistic and introspective—she preferred to reconfigure and rearrange her own photographic elements before reproducing in a larger format, rather than by collaging elements from found photographs, newspapers or children’s books like Max Ernst. In works like Silence (1935), the incorporation of architectural elements allowed her to subvert the rules of Euclidian geometry.

The exhibition positions itself as revising and expanding the surrealist canon with female friendship as a strong thread. Many viewers will be delighted to see Maar’s portraits of the women at the fringes of the movement—Nusch Eluard, Dolores Miró, Jacqueline Lamba—on display. Fabulously witchy, Leonor Fini rolls on the floor with a self-aware coquettishness only a female friend could elicit. That said, Maar’s emancipatory politics seem unconcerned with a self-reflexive feminine gaze. Like many surrealist women Maar’s rarely makes gender, conventionally understood, the explicit theme of her work. As flâneuse, Maar wandered the streets of Paris, London and Catalonia distilling deprivation. Women and children laugh and play on the filthy streets of war torn Barcelona; in London millenarian preachers proclaim the apocalypse and suited men beg on the street. Like her friends Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai, Maar’s revelled in uncovering the magic-circumstantial dreamworld of Paris which lived alongside the catastrophes and drudgeries of industrial modernisation.

The 1930s were punctuated by a series of political and personal devastations which irrevocably altered Maar. She witnessed first-hand the horrors and indignities of the Spanish Civil War and famously documented the making of Picasso’s Guernica. As the far-right spread in France with fascist riots in 1935, Maar joined militant collectives of artists and intellectuals, exhibiting at the “Documents de la Vie Sociale” exhibition organised by the Association of Revolutionary Artists and Writers (AEAR). She signed the declarations of Georges Bataille and André Breton’s Contre-Attaque which proclaimed DEATH TO ALL SLAVES OF CAPITALISM. Maar lived in France under occupation as French Jews were deported, and Paris was bombed. For his participation in the resistance the surrealist Robert Desnos, likely a close friend and whom Maar photographed, was sent to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Flossenberg before being murdered Theresienstadt. In 1946 Dora’s dear friend Nusch Éluard who had also worked for the resistance throughout the war, collapsed on the street and died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

In the post-war period, Maar underwent electro-convulsive therapy and spent two years of psychoanalysis with her friend Jacques Lacan. She gave up photography for many years, seeking comfort instead in Catholicism and a quieter life in the countryside. While her post-war still lives were largely anaemic, Maar’s landscapes of around her house in Ménerbes contain an element of something extraordinary. These small-scale canvases amount to a re-examination of paint as a medium which should be contextualised in terms of advancements in photographic technology in the latter half of the 20th century. Having spent her career as a photographer obsessing over technical innovations, Maar revisits painting and in particular, its textural qualities of paint, around the time that Kodak created the polaroid. Her elegiac landscapes teem with lurid, aqueous pigment which threaten to overspill out of the canvas surface. In other works, the surfaces of impasto thick, creamy layers of oil paint verge on disintegration. In the last decade of her life she returned to photography once more – echoing the experiments of the 1930s to create images with sculptural qualities through manipulating the effects of light and shadow, again scratching or corroding with acid the surface of fresh exposures.

Maar had spent around decade in a volatile, often abusive relationship with Pablo Picasso and for the rest of her long life was forced – often through deliberate actions of his – to languish in the shadow of his reputation. This is the first major retrospective of a creative life of an artist who reached almost ninety years old. Existing in the twilight between the photographic and painterly the hermetic practice which Maar developed over the course of more than half a century is finally beginning to attract the exposure and examination it deserves.

Hailey Maxwell is an art historian and writer. She specialises in the interwar avant-garde in France. She is currently completing a PhD on the atheology of Georges Bataille. She Tweets @_acephale

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 8th, 2019.