Books

An Ebay Purchase That Revealed the Everyday Lives of French Surrealists

Reading between the lines of contact information for friends, graphologists, psychoanalysts, and plumbers, Brigitte Benkemoun’s Finding Dora Maar reveals a map of a bygone France.

Unknown maker, “Untitled (Dora Maar Playing the Guitar on a Terrace with the Eiffel Tower in the Background)” (c. 1926.), digital image (© 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, © CNAC/MNAM/Georges
Meguerditchian/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY; all images courtesy Getty Publications, unless otherwise stated)

Every so often you hear about someone buying a cheap painting at a garage sale, and discovering it’s a priceless masterpiece. With the popularity (and now, necessity) of online shopping, these tales have migrated to digital marketplaces like eBay — where French journalist Brigitte Benkemoun bought a vintage Hermès pocket diary a few years ago, to replace one her husband lost.

There are plus sides to buying something online, sight unseen. You might, for instance, inadvertently buy the 1951 address book of Surrealist photographer and painter Dora Maar. While a planner, not a painting, Benkemoun’s purchase revealed a treasure trove filled with handwritten names of great 20th century artists, such as André Breton, Marc Chagall, Brassaï, and Balthus.

The book wasn’t monogrammed or labeled, and the eBay seller wouldn’t explain its origin, but Benkemoun immediately understood that this leather-bound volume was a snapshot of a major cultural figure’s life. She just had to figure out who that person was, first. Benkemoun guessed, though, that it belonged to a woman (since it listed phone numbers for a favorite hairdresser and nail salon) who moved in some seriously artistic circles.

After scouring the list of names again and again, one in particular was key: “Architecte Ménerbes.” Whoever jotted down this shorthand description of an architect in the southern French town of Ménerbes must have owned a house there, and only two artists fit that bill — Nicolas de Staël (who was in the book, ruling him out) and Dora Maar. Comparing the handwriting in the address book to other samples confirmed it; the chic Hermes accessory once belonged to Maar.

Roxane Lagache, photograph of Dora Maar’s 1951 address book (image courtesy of Éditions Stock)

Benkemoun began deciphering the alphabetical entries, to determine how these people fit into Maar’s life and further unravel some of the book’s mysteries. One by one, she studied the index of names — a project that resulted in a very different kind of book, Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life (Getty Publications, 2020), which will be released in an English translation by Jody Gladding this month.

Benkemoun copied the names from Maar’s book to hers, turning a selection of entries into mini-chapters that flesh out the artist’s biography. In Finding Dora Maar the names have been jumbled out of their alphabetical order. They flow from one to the next in a narrative, the story of a life told by reading between lines of contact information for friends, graphologists, psychoanalysts, and plumbers.

“I was told this process would have amused Maar and her Surrealist friends,” Benkemoun writes in the book. “Playing with a found object, unspooling the phone numbers like threads, searching, following one’s intuition, asking questions, and—when there was no one left to answer them—imagining, conjecturing.”

Benkemoun’s research tools for this surreal project were likewise unconventional. She bought a hefty 1952 phone directory at a used book stall and cross-referenced it against Maar’s diary, ensuring that she’d identified the right Blondin, Trillat, or Micomex, for example. If Maar’s acquaintances weren’t in that phone book, Benkemoun checked others kept on microfiche at the Musée de la poste et des télécommunications. When a name still evaded her stubborn detective work, Benkemoun got permission to look at other address books in Maar’s privately held archive.

Identifying the cast of characters that populated Maar’s book helped Benkemoun piece together the artist’s social life: who she phoned regularly, who she had weekly lunch dates with, and who she hadn’t seen in years (but kept adding to new address books anyway, like screenwriter Louis Chavance, her first love).

By 1951, the year of this address book, Maar hadn’t been romantically involved with Picasso for six years and was establishing a life of her own. Yet she did keep some contacts pertinent to him for sentiment, even if she rarely saw people like Jean Cocteau, or Picasso’s nephew, Vilato.

Benkemoun’s resulting book also includes names that wouldn’t appear in scholarly tomes on the Surrealists, or even in most texts on Maar. A chapter is dedicated to Boudineau, the exclusive nail salon where Maar got her weekly manicures, and another highlights Dr. Pichon, the veterinarian Maar used for Moumoune — a tabby cat Picasso gave her when her dog disappeared in 1945.

The cover of Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life (Getty Publications, 2020), by Brigitte Benkemoun

Even with her relentless research, there were some entries that Benkemoun couldn’t identify. “A few names remain mysterious,” she explains. “I’m still curious about Madeleine, who she wrote without any family name. I still ignore someone called Branot, 84 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, one person in Santiago (Chili) [sic] S. Garcia Humdero, or Turond.” These enigmatic figures are few, but keep Benkemoun wondering as she occasionally flips through the book, stored in her Parisian apartment.

And of course, some entries didn’t make it into Finding Dora Maar, because they couldn’t be woven into the narrative. “There are so many entries I regret,” Benkemoun says. “Two main regrets are Giacometti and Braque. I like them so much, but both didn’t seem close enough to Dora to produce a good story.” She also left out Surrealist writer Lise Deharme, Argentinian artist Leonor Fini, and art entrepreneur Marie Cuttoli. “I had to make choices, not to complicate the narration.”

Finding Dora Maar is more than an address book, even though it does list phone numbers and street addresses. It’s not a novel, and it’s not a traditional biography. In some ways it’s a map of a bygone France, pinpointing the Parisian third floor studio on rue des Grands-Augustins where Maar had a plumber install a bathtub so that Picasso could live there comfortably, or Jacques Lacan’s chateau where Maar had psychoanalytic sessions in an office where Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” hid behind a painting by André Masson.

“Writing this book was like a trip in a foreign country,” Benkemoun describes. “From name to name, instead of cities.”

In Benkemoun’s version of art history we imagine the rooms where painters lived out their adventures, the colors of their fingernails, and the lunch special served at the café on the day Picasso dined with one mistress and met, for the first time, his next. Using a humble phone book as a starting point, Finding Dora Maar is a joyful reminder of the people behind some now-iconic names.

Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life (Getty, 2020) by Brigitte Benkemoun (translated into English by Jody Gladding) is available now via the Getty, and for pre-order on Bookshop

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