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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Dora Maar at Tate Modern


    Visionary, innovative and independent, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was already a successful photographer when she met Picasso in the winter of 1935-36. Her own achievements have since been overshadowed and Maar is now mainly remembered as his muse for the Weeping Woman. However, a new exhibition of over 200 of her works at Tate Modern aims to shed a wider perspective on her life and career spanning six decades.

    Dora Maar went to Art School in Paris. She made the lucrative decision to focus on photography over fine art to capitalise on the boom in advertising in the interwar years, which provided new opportunities for women photographers. In 1931 she established a studio with film set designer Pierre Kéfer near Paris, specializing in fashion photography for advertisements in magazines.

    There is a room full of her black and white, medium–sized fashion and advertising pictures in a well spaced out display. Some of the photographs are cropped; others are full length shots, when the figures are arranged in sculptural, classical poses.

    These were taken for commercial purposes but they have a dramatic, eerie atmosphere, which seems to elevate them above fashion photography. In Untitled (Evening Gown by Jacques Heim for Madame Heim)1934, a woman is standing wearing an evening dress. There is a candelabra stand to her left casting a shadow which creates a haunting, mysterious and uncanny effect.

    Maar’s street photography signals a departure from her previous work. Europe was in the midst of an economic depression in the 1930s and Maar was an activist, aware of its effects on disadvantaged people. She decided to record their plight, travelling to Costa Brava in Catalonia in 1933, London in 1934 and La Zone on the periphery of Paris. These documentary-style photographs − mainly of urchins and elderly people stand out in terms of their sense of immediacy and compassion.

    Maar was involved at the forefront of the French Surrealist movement alongside poet André Breton and fellow photographer Man Ray. Here she stretches the limits of what a photograph can be by creating otherworldly and dream-like landscapes. Some of the scenes are disquieting, others are Gothic and nightmarish. The Pretender (1935) features a small boy squirming in an inversely curved, window-less chamber is a photomontage made by cutting and pasting elements (pre-photoshop) from an unconnected photograph on to a base image of the vaulted ceiling in the Orangerie, Versailles.

    The rest of the exhibition focuses on her turbulent relationship with Picasso and its aftermath. The space given to this aspect of Maar’s life seems appropriate, in relation to the rest of this well-sized, punchy exhibition. It was a creatively productive time for them both. But who was whose muse?

    Picasso got over his creative block after meeting Maar. He painted hundreds of portraits (and even took a few photographs) of her. Later she said, “Not one is Dora Maar”. A distorted portrait is on display, shaded in bright, brilliant shades of yellow, lime green and red. Maar photographed Picasso. We see a picture of him wearing a Minotaur’s head, another when she etches a halo around his portrait. On the whole though, these look like vintage holiday snaps. Picasso encouraged Maar to paint because he didn’t rate photography very highly. Maar follows his example painting flat, two-dimensional canvases in subdued colours like Portrait of A Woman (1939).

    The next room looks at Picasso’s biggest project to date, the large scale painting Guernica (1937). Picasso’s working process was photographed by Maar from 11 May − 4 June 1937 and we see three of these photographs and a catalogue. Picasso painted Guernica in response to the 1937 bombing of the Basque Town by the Luftwaffe − at General Franco’s behest.

    Apparently inspired by Maar’s activism, Guernica was painted in black and white to mimic the newspaper reports on the massacre, and also reflecting Maar’s black and white photographs. A female figure in the painting was based on a sketch of Maar. An example of one these sketches by Picasso is on display, later developed into a series of portraits of ‘The Weeping Woman’.  

    Maar retreated to Ménerbes in the South of France devastated when their relationship ended in 1943. Meanwhile, Picasso had produced paintings which would define his career. She continued to work after Picasso, focusing more on painting than photography. 

    There is an array of her sombre still-life paintings. Her landscape paintings of the Luberon region in Provence are a revelation. These are calm, evocative and atmospheric, painted in few broad brushstrokes in earthy, organic colours. She looked at new techniques in her later years including camera-less photography. The pictures look like abstract markings on a photo negative and are more of an example of her inventiveness.

    It is intriguing to see that, like Picasso, Maar’s life and work are so closely intertwined. The exhibition provides lots of variety and detail (using explanatory labels) on the circles she moved in and her outlook.  Maar’s tranquil landscape paintings are a surprise here. They were forgotten until after she passed away in 1997. But her photographs are most compelling. She was always pushing the boundaries of commercial photography. Her style is unique and instantly recognisable. She continues to inspire contemporary women artists working with Surrealist themes including Australian photographer Petrina Hicks and US sculptor Kelly Akashi.

    Until 15 March 2020

     

    Untitled (Fashion Photograph, Evening Gown by Jacques Heim for Madame Jacques Heim) 1934 Private CollectionPhoto: Nicolas Brasseur
    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

     

     


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