“One needs to know how to get lost in a city that masks, beneath its seeming uniformity, many secrets,” reads a review of a 1934 exhibition of photographs by Dora Maar. For the critic, Maar was an example of an artist who knew how to “get lost,” opening herself to chance encounters and turning her lens on habitually overlooked urban subjects.
The exhibition, at the Paris gallery Van den Berghe, presented pictures Maar had made on a recent trip to London, including a photograph of a woman on a street corner (c. 1934). The subject looks at the photographer with pursed lips and a scowl. Though dressed in a fur-trimmed jacket and hat, she carries an unwieldy pile of cloth that identifies her as a ragpicker, a frequent subject for Maar and contemporaries like Germaine Krull. The man on the left edge of the frame, in his tidy ensemble of vest, necktie, jacket, and cap, underscores the ragpicker’s existence on the margins of society. His seeming obliviousness to both women points to an affinity between subject and photographer: as one scours the city for refuse to be salvaged, sold, and reused to make new materials, the other seeks out the unexpected to capture and transform with her camera.
Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch to a Croatian architect father and a French mother, Maar grew up in Buenos Aires and received artistic training in Paris in the 1920s; for a time she studied at the studio of the painter André Lhote, where she met photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1932, Maar established a photographic studio with art director and set designer Pierre Kéfer, and published commercial advertising and fashion studies under the name “Kéfer-Dora Maar.” She befriended Jacqueline Lamba, then the wife of André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist group, and artists like Man Ray, for whom she also modeled.
Photographs such as Mannequin in Window (1935) reveal Maar’s Surrealist orientation. The head of a mannequin, startlingly lifelike, seems to gaze obliquely out the window. In the mirror, one might expect to catch a glimpse of the photographer, but it reflects only the empty street back at the viewer. Untitled (c. 1935) humorously blurs the line between the refined surface-level appearance of urban life and its hidden underground: a man dressed in a dark suit kneels on a sidewalk, his head plunged into an open manhole cover.
Pictures like this one, which seem to turn convention literally on its head, and representations of the socially marginalized, like the ragpicker, also reflect Maar’s leftist politics in the 1930s. Maar signed the antifascist tract Appel à la Lutte (Call to Struggle), which called for a general strike in the wake of far-right riots in Paris; the following spring she was included in an exhibition of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (AEAR), an organization established by members of the French Communist Party (PCF); that autumn she joined the group Contre-Attaque, organized by Breton and her one-time romantic partner Georges Bataille. Contre-Attaque called for a revolutionary offensive against fascism and criticized the bureaucratic maneuvers of politicians, including members of the PCF.
For many decades, Maar was remembered primarily for her romantic relationship with Pablo Picasso, which lasted from late 1935 to the early 1940s. As a model and muse, she inspired the figure known as the “Weeping Woman” in studies Picasso produced in response to the devastating impact of the Spanish Civil War. These were made in tandem with his monumental canvas, Guernica, the completion of which Maar meticulously documented as a kind of photographic collaborator. Picasso’s Head of a Woman No. 1, Portrait of Dora Maar, from 1939, depicts Maar with large, melancholy eyes and pursed lips, her lustrous black hair rendered in layers of azure, crimson, and mustard.
After the end of their often-tumultuous relationship, Maar rejected these portrayals: “All his portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar.” The true Maar was not only an incisive observer of the modern city through her camera lens but also a polyglot artist: producer of experimental collages, poet, printmaker, and painter.
Caitlin Ryan, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2022