Dora Maar (1907-1997)
She was born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907 in Tours to a French mother and a Serbian architect father. After a childhood spent growing up in Buenos Aries, Maar returned to France in the mid-1920s, settling in Paris and changing her name. In the early 1930s she opened a studio and was balancing lucrative commercial endeavors in fashion and advertising with portraits, street photography and her own creative work. Maar quickly becomes part of the Surrealist circle, where she was known for her imaginative and inventive imagery.
Maar was a subversive figure in 1930s Paris—intelligent and intense, talented and beautiful. She shared a darkroom with Brassaï, who wrote about the “grave, tense countenance of this girl with the light eyes, and that look that was so fixed and attentive it was sometimes unsettling.” She was also political when it was not easy for a woman to be political in France. In her book, Paris on the Brink: The 1930s Paris of Jean Renoir, Salvador Dalí, Simone de Beauvoir, André Gide, Sylvia Beach, Léon Blum, and Their Friends, Mary McAuliffe writes that, “there were feminists in France during this decade, but there was no strong feminist movement. The Napoleonic heritage of male supremacy was deep-seated, and throughout the 1930s, French women, as one historian put it, were ‘politically marginal’ and did not receive the vote until 1944.”
The 1930s were the heyday of Maar’s photography, and this is also the decade when she met Pablo Piccasso. He was taken with her intensity, both personally and artistically, but steered her toward painting and away from what he saw as the lesser medium of photography. Indeed, Maar took fewer and fewer photos in the late 1930s. In one important exception she served as Picasso’s official photographer during the 36-day period in which he painted Guernica, resulting in the first photographic record of the creation of a modern artwork from start to finish. These photos hang alongside the painting in the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid. For his part, Picasso portrays Maar again and again in portraits as she becomes his “Weeping Woman.”
After her tumultuous break-up with Picasso, Maar sought solace in Lacanian psychoanalysis and mystical Catholicism. She became more reclusive than she had been before but continued to pursue painting. She never returned to the photography that marked her earlier time in Paris. Maar died in 1997, just shy of her 90th birthday. After her death the artwork and memorabilia—both hers and Picasso’s—that had filled her apartment for 50 years was put up for auction, drawing new attention to Maar and her work and bringing her back into her own. In fact, the largest retrospective of her work ever held in the United Kingdom was recently presented at the Tate Modern in London.
To learn more about the 1930s Paris that Dora Maar and others photographed, join us for a lecture by Paris on the Brink author Mary McAuliffe on April 10 at The Frick Art Museum. Registration information can be found here.
Header image: Dora Maar (1907–1997), Reflections, Store Window, 1935, Gelatin silver print.