I don’t recall where. But I do remember the image that somehow made my chest tight, yet, like a loose tooth, I couldn’t leave it be – had to keep touching it with my tongue. Ubu held a tender mystery that entered through my eyes but set up shop somewhere deep in my gut. What was it and who would take such a photo? Dora Maar took this photo in 1936, and it became emblematic of the Surrealist Movement. Presumably to preserve its mystique, she never confirmed what Ubu actually was.
Years later, I learned that many of the images I held as icons of social, artistic and sexual independence were also works by Dora Maar. Their audacity and wit were embraced by my free-thinking, unfettered generation.
No surprise that Maar’s images were standard-bearers of the Surrealists (though there were formally no females among the Surrealists when the movement was born in 1924). But I didn’t know her name the way I knew other photographers of the period, like Man Ray or Dorothea Lange.
Dora (Henriette Théadora Markovitch) began her artistic life at 19, moving back from Buenos Aires to her hometown of Paris and enrolling in the Academié Julian which offered the same training to women as they did to men(!). She pursued both painting and photography, but early success as a photographer pointed her firmly in that direction. Drawn to the contrasts and disparities of street life, she gave her subjects what she recognized in them—grace and dignity: blind beggars, street waifs, a friend lost in thought. This sensibility manifested itself in all her work: portraits, the Surrealism of the streets, and especially with the groundbreaking images in her photomontages. Even the striking fashion and commercial photography that provided her living had an edge.
With all of that to commend her, if you Google Dora Maar, the first entry will probably state, she is most widely known as Pablo Picasso’s muse of nearly a decade (beginning late 1930s).
She met Pablo Picasso on the set of Jean Renoir’s film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and then again, famously, at café Les Deux Magots in 1936. That meeting changed forever the focus and trajectory of Dora’s life. Her beauty and daring fascinated him (she was said to have cut her fingers playing “the knife game” at a café table when he met her). They were drawn inevitably to each other. She moved around the corner from his studio: he stayed with her often, and though he reportedly displayed on a shelf her bloodied gloves from their Deux Magots encounter, she was never allowed into the studio without his invitation.
The pair became an influential part of the Surrealist Movement; they collaborated on a number of artistic projects together and with other prominent artists, including Man Ray. She had her first solo photography exhibition in Paris. She became a regular model for his work. Picasso encouraged her to leave photography and take up painting again (some say after he belittled her photographic talent). She did. Friends said that she would sacrifice anything for him. According to Maar herself, I wasn’t Picasso’s mistress; he was just my master.
For Picasso, she was the woman in tears: beautiful and sad—sad, he said, because she was barren and suffered for it. Weeping Woman and Dora Maar Seated were painted by Picasso in 1937, which is the year she documented in photos the various stages of the master creating the masterpiece, Guernica. In fact, it was said that during their time together, photographing Picasso’s work became the sole domain of Maar.
Their relationship ended tragically for Dora in 1943, when Picasso took a new lover, Françoise Gilot, who was (newer, younger, better) 40 years his junior and 20 years Maar’s. The break up sent her into a tailspin of depression, ending predictably in a nervous breakdown in 1946, after her dearest friend, Nusch Eluard, wife of the poet Paul, died suddenly. Family and closest friends gone, she felt cast aside and set adrift. So, she drifted.
Eventually, Dora found a road back, as well as solace, in Roman Catholicism. She famously told author Mary Caws, After Picasso, God. So, here’s where the tightening in my chest I experienced upon first seeing Ubu re-exerts itself, but this time, because the question is so close to home: The question is, did Dora lose herself in love or was her passion for Picasso greater than her passion for her own work? Or does it matter?
In Dora’s case, it may be that fighting her way out from under Picasso’s shadow so that the fruit of her artistic talent would be her legacy rather than her talents as a muse, was just not worth the fight. Perhaps the fight was shaken out of her along with the passion. My truth is that I don’t think it matters. The work remains and Dora Maar is a woman you should know.
Dora continued to paint (eschewing Surrealism) and to write mostly meditative poetry. She died in 1997.
(thought to have been written by Dora Maar in 1970
[though I’d prefer the title After Picasso, God])
Pure as a lake boredom
I hear its harmony
In the vast cold room
The nuance of light seems eternal
The soul that still yesterday wept is quiet -- it's
a country without art only nature
Memory magnolia pure so far off
I am blind
and made from a bit of earth
But your gaze never leaves me
And your angel keeps me.
Editor's Note: Thanks so much to Elizabeth for sharing her wonderful writing with us and for this reconsideration of Dora Maar. You can find additional posts in the Women You Should Know series in the blog archives from March 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let us know!