Dora Maar, “Assia” (1934) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

“My wife with the hair of a wood fire/ With the thoughts of heat lightning/ With the waist of an hourglass/ With the waist of an otter in the teeth of a tiger…”

PARIS — With its sparking, vertiginous imagery of a very particular femme, Andre Breton’s 1931 poem “Free Union” illuminates in both Surrealist and Cubist fashion what the psyche can see but the eyes cannot. Breton’s spouse, Jacqueline Lamba, was surely more than the sum of her parts, but, line by line, Breton presents her as no more (and, to be fair, no less — such “parts” so feverishly rendered that they certainly stir the brain).

And then, according to Breton’s 1929 “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” we have the persnickety issue of being female in the first place: “woman is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world.” As much as male Surrealists relentlessly marveled at the female form — diced, cubed, or lyrically conflated with a clever water weasel — our cultural consciousness has been ready to embrace the Surrealist woman as eternal muse. Consider Dali’s Gala, Man Ray’s Lee Miller, or any gal except Gertrude Stein who was smitten with Picasso.

Dora Maar, “Mannequin-Star” (1936), gelatin silver print Thérond collection (© Adagp, Paris, 2019 Photo © Pompidou Center, MNAM-CCI / A. Laurans / Dist. NMR-GP)

As feminist author Germaine Greer put it in 2007,

We must identify the men of Surrealism as those who sought out sexual partners who corresponded to their fantasy and then forced fetishistic roles upon them …. The male surrealists were in thrall to [female beauty] but, more importantly, so were the woman artists themselves.

But did the women of the movement simply embrace these reductive roles, as Greer seems to argue? The Centre Pompidou suggests not. With the retrospective Dora Maar, on view through July 29, the Pompidou is the latest major art institution to wrest these women from the role of fetish par excellence, honoring Picasso’s famous muse for the pivotal part she clearly, and often daringly, played in the establishment of the European avant-garde. Off the heels of the Tate Modern’s Dorothea Tanning show, which closed in early June, the Pompidou reveals Maar’s dazzling versatility and ingenuity across more than 500 works and documents. “Belonging to the generation of women who harnessed the interwar development of the illustrated press in order to achieve emancipation by working as photographers,” the show’s brochure declares, Maar — born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907 — was never truly on the margins. Rather, she was right at the avant-garde’s combustible crux.

Dora Maar, “Untitled” (1935)

Of special note is how deftly Maar experimented with editing, photomontage, and superimposition, mingling her work in commercial fashion photography with both dreamy and nightmarish Freudian references. The composition of her black-and-white image “The Years Are Waiting for You” (1936), based on an ad for anti-aging sunblock, combines classical portraiture and horror poster. As the softly lit face of Nusch Éluard gazes at the viewer — her lacquered nails delicately framing her mouth — a superimposed spiderweb consumes everything but her eyes, a white spider listing on the bridge of her nose. In an untitled photomontage from 1935, a disembodied pair of female legs floats above the Seine, a man’s hand pinching their pointed toes; another work depicts the head of a violet-haired beauty planted on a metal stake in the middle of a beach. And in what is arguably Maar’s most famous collage of this type, a woman’s severed hand curls out of a conch shell, as though cupping the shore’s primordial ear.

“At the same time that the women of Surrealism were endlessly arraying and portraying themselves, as often in carefully posed photographs as in any other medium,” claimed Greer, “the men of Surrealism were disappearing into short back and sides, and suits and ties.” Perhaps. But beneath many of Maar’s more unsettling takes on the feminine body, a feminist sensibility lurks, anticipating many female artists of future generations, from second-wavers Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta to the 21st-century Surrealist Genesis Belanger. 

Dora Maar, “Untitled” (1935)

And though Nusch Éluard — whom Greer calls “the actual surreal body…” for how often she was photographed by Maar and Man Ray, appearing “slim, high-breasted, virginal” — is certainly on display in the retrospective, so too are photographs of Assia Granatouriff, whose athletic physique and confrontational stance serve to complicate this archetype. In “Assia,” a gelatin silver print from 1934, Granatouriff leans nude against a white wall, her brow draped by heavy bangs, her arms resting behind her hips. The shadow cast to her right — the direction of her gaze — looms at least twice her size, the musculature of her thighs and calves exaggerated, her breast a veritable dagger impaling the light. If Maar represented a lissome “virginal” woman at times (Nusch was, in fact, a close friend), she certainly didn’t limit herself to that trope, opting to also celebrate a more brazen, still defiantly feminine, form in works produced for art presses and highbrow erotica.

Rather than remembering Maar as Picasso’s iconic “Weeping Woman,” curators Damarice Amao and Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska choose a more redemptive, beguiling narrative. If there’s a Surrealist afterlife, festooned with melting clocks and furry teacups, Maar is surely looking down on Place Georges-Pompidou, her tears replaced with a bold, lipsticked grin. No matter how much her later years were marked by obscurity, she produced more work across professional and artistic realms in the 1930s and ’40s than do most artists in an lifetime, defying tidy categorization by today’s feminist standards. And perhaps that’s what’s so enchanting about Maar: how unapologetically — and freely — she united style and content, politics and innovation, glamour and guts.

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.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...