Being one of Picasso’s women was a double edged sword. It ensured you a place in the pantheon of art history but always as the role of helpmeet to the great man rather than as an independently talented woman. Such has, mostly, been the fate of Henriette Theodora Markovitch, the only daughter of a Croatian architect. In 1910 her father left for Buenos Aires where he received a number of commissions before the family moved to Paris in 1926. There, under her chosen pseudonym of Dora Maar, Henriette took courses at the Central Union of Decorative Arts and the School of Photography, also enrolling in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian, which gave the same instruction to women as to men. Not the norm at the time.
It was at the École des Beaux-Arts that she met the surrealist Jaqueline Lamba and became associated with André Breton and the surrealists who hung out at the Café de la Place Blanche.
Later, Maar left Paris alone to visit Barcelona and London, where she photographed the economic knock-on effects of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. On her return to Paris she opened, with the help of her father, a workshop in the 8th arrondissement. It was there that she first met Picasso. She was to become his lover and muse. A role that has overshadowed her own singular achievements. One of these was running a workshop that produced commercial photography for fashion magazines and advertisements, reflecting the influence of surrealism in the use of mirrors and heavy shadow. She also had an affair with the filmmaker Louis Chavance and attended meetings with the October Group that revolved, after his break with the surrealists, around the poet Jacques Prévert. And she held her first solo exhibition at the Galerie Vanderberg.
Aligning herself with the political left, she demonstrated against Fascism and signed the Appeal to Struggle, supported by the likes of Simone Weil and Georges Bataille. This, then, is the exceptional woman who, now, is mostly known to us as the Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Picasso liked to see her as the embodiment of suffering, emblematic of the war-torn Spanish people. But Dora Maar, who photographed and documented the successive stages of Guernica, insisted that “all portraits of me are lies. They’re Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar”.
But Maar was enthralled by Picasso. The writer Jean-Paul Crespelle described the, now, legendary scenario that took place at the Café des Deux Magots. There, in front of Picasso, the pale faced young woman “kept driving a small painted penknife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves”. Intrigued by this seductive, yet masochistic behaviour, Picasso asked her to give him the gloves as a memento. But during the nine years they were together, he never ended his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of their daughter Maya. He also physically abused Maar, forcing her to fight with Marie-Therese for his affections. When her relationship with him finally ended, he bought her a house in Ménerbes where she lived alone turning, like that other talented woman spurned by a more powerful male artist/lover, Gwen John, to the comfort of the Catholic church. A later friendship with Jacques Lacan led her into years of psychoanalysis after she suffered a breakdown. Much of her photographic work was only found posthumously.
Paul Stolper has chosen to ignore this biography in his current exhibition that is showing a number of Maar’s silver gelatin contacts and posthumous silver gelatin prints taken during her most productive decade, the 1930s. His argument is that he wants to show her in her own right and it’s hard to argue with the integrity of this decision but it does leave out something of the dramatic backdrop. The exhibition opens with stunning black and white silver gelatin prints of Inés Sassier – Picasso’s beautiful young housekeeper – seated on an olive trunk arm chair. Her dark curly hair and black dress are sharply delineated, casting shadows against the tree trunk and ground. Another image of her seated in the same chair holding a cat, as it stares out at us with its big saucer eyes, has much of the disturbing drama of a Picasso painting. There’s also a fascinating photograph, La Zone, Paris, taken in about 1935 that depicts the vanished outskirts of the city: a couple of broken-down wooden huts, a picket fence and washing line and lots of mud, the sort of living conditions we now associate with the most deprived parts of eastern Europe. Beside the fence is a pile of discarded rubbish, including the disembodied head of a male manikin, which emphasises her eye for the uncanny and surreal. There are other photographs of her and Picasso’s dogs and melancholic pictures of the Jardin des Tuileries at twilight, circa 1935, as well as the prow of a Viking ship that could be seen either as large tear drop or an onion.
But of all the works in the exhibition the most revelatory is her one of Picasso. He is leaning, odalisque-style on a bed that has a heavily patterned cover and matching pillows. His dog lies curled beside him but he appears terribly ill at ease in his heavy tweed suit. It is still uncomfortably buttoned as if he didn’t mean to stay for long, the tweed rucked into ungainly angles. Beneath the half open jacket is a heavy watch chain and in the breast pocket, a folded handkerchief, so that instead of looking like the Spanish stud of modern art, this might be the picture of a little Spanish farmer in town for the day visiting his mistress. It was probably not meant as such, but this photograph might be Dora Maar’s posthumous revenge.