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PARIS — Previously known more as the short-lived, ill-fated, muse-mistress-photographer of Pablo Picasso during his “Guernica” (1937) period than as an artist in her own right, Dora Maar (née Henriette Théodora Markovitch) is finally receiving her first solo show, which includes more than 400 of her bold works and other items, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Dora — a diminutive nom de plume based on her middle name, Théodora — did more than photograph the various stages of “Guernica” for Christian Zervos’s art journal Cahiers d’art. She was an enthusiastic poet who created powerful photo-based images, such as “Nude” (circa 1938), very much in the vein of Georges Bataille’s transgressive wing of Surrealism, even though she exhibited numerous times with André Breton’s opposing wing. Bataille — Maar’s short-term, pre-Picasso, lover — considered exhilaration as an emotional and philosophical state, essential, as apparently did Maar. She signed Bataille’s Contre-Attaque manifesto. Certainly, her nonconformist poetic-political photo works reflected Bataille’s excessive ideals without neglecting female introspection.
Though from a bourgeois family, Maar, who was fluent in Spanish, showed a leftist sociopolitical consciousness with her compassionate photographs of impoverished and marginalized working class youths of Ramblas street in Barcelona, as well as those in neglected areas of Paris, seen in the touching, off-centered composition “Untitled” (1933). Besides wringing pity, this photograph has a mood of pleasurable expectation about it.
Dora Maar opens with her early studio-based photographs, begun before she met Picasso in 1936. Between 1930 and approximately 1939, she produced a variety of photographs by aiming her camera to and fro at many spectacularly lit subjects. These include heads of coiffed hair for “Fashion Photograph” (circa 1934) and powerful and erotic female nudes of the favorite New Vision model Assia Granatouroff — for instance, “Assia” (1934). The latter image circulated widely, even appearing in the soft-core magazine Seduction. Maar also worked for advertisers to sell beauty products and promoted the latest fashion trends, as seen in her heartwarming photographs “Mannequin-Star” (1936) and “Untitled Fashion Photo of Seated Mannequin in Dress and Evening Jacket” (circa 1932–35). In addition, she took on architectural and portrait assignments for individuals as well as popular magazines and books.
For her seductive surrealist art, Maar experimented with her commercial photographic techniques, producing haunting and enigmatic images like the harsh-haloed “Portrait of Picasso, Paris, Studio, 29, rue d’Astorg” (Winter 1935–36), the spry “The Pretender” (1936), and the utterly mad and wholly hilarious hand-colored gelatin-silver print “29, rue d’Astorg” (circa 1936). Her paramount surreal art piece was the sensationally bizarre picture of an armadillo fetus, “Portrait of Ubu” (1936). These and more of Maar’s often psychologically loaded photographs appeared in various Surrealist art exhibitions, like the famous 1936 L’Exposition d’objets surréalistes at the Paris Galerie Charles Ratton.
Unsurprisingly, these technologically savvy images are the most interesting in the exhibition, as they reject the pretense of naturalism in straightforward photography and instead attempt to achieve something much deeper than resemblance. Indeed, some of these works, like the uncanny photomontage “Untitled” (1935), seem to crystallize dream states. Often Maar seems more interested in creating a beguiling atmosphere evocative of drowsing in bed with a hangover than in cultivating either playful or socially alert observations. In that respect, her work of this period can evoke that of the provocative photographers Man Ray and Hans Bellmer, two fellow photo-artists who intellectualized the sexually vulgar without vulgarizing artistic intellectualism.
Unfortunately, with works like the drawn-and-painted “Portrait of Pablo Picasso” (1936) and “Nature Morte” (1941), the exhibition also spotlights Maar’s 40 years working as a derivative painter. After an initial period of making uninteresting paintings of interiors marked by a mood of solitude, Maar began painting weepy landscapes based on romantic views around her home in Ménerbes in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France. This work eventually led to little-known (for Maar had largely withdrawn from the art scene) semi-abstract paintings in the 1950s, such as “Untitled” (1956). This, and many more unexceptional paintings produced during the last 40 years of her life, remained virtually unknown until now — as did her supercharged return to wild, rip-roaring photograms in the 1980s, as in “Untitled” (circa 1980), created 17 years before her death at age 89.
Though studded with moments of marvelous intensity, Maar’s retrospective plants one foot in the world of radical, seedy, adventurous photo-artistry, and the other in a world of mawkish, sentimentalism. As such, it felt to me, as it must have to the curators, like an overdue examination of an artist torn between desire and duty.
Dora Maar continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges Pompidou, Paris, France) through July 29. The exhibition was curated by Damarice Amao and Karolina Ziebinksa-Lewandowska with the assistance of Amanda Maddox.