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Get to Know the Artist Dora Maar, Who Wasn’t Just Picasso’s Muse

May 6, 2017

In celebration of the release of a new book of photos by Dora Maar, here are four interesting things you should know about her life, and her complicated relationship with Picasso. By Kristen Cochrane. Main image: Dora Maar by Man Ray, 1936.

At the onset of cubism and surrealism in art, there was a paucity of female artists. When reflecting on that era during the early 20th century, many of us visually navigate to Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and maybe Man Ray and Georges Braque (especially if we’ve taken an Art History 101 course where our professor goes into minute detail over the differences between analytic and synthetic cubism). In the midst of these preoccupations with male artists of this era, our cultural memory seems to have overlooked Dora Maar (formerly Dora Markovic)—the photographer and painter who also happened to date Picasso from 1935-1944. She’s also earned the frequently gendered position as one of Picasso’s muses, but she was much more nuanced than that.

Born in 1907 in Paris to Croatian parents, Maar’s family left the 6th arrondissement of Paris and moved to Buenos Aires three years later. She would return to Paris with her in late adolescence, enrolling in the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Julian.

If you’re familiar with Picasso’s works, you may have already been acquainted with his interpretations of Maar, perhaps most famously in The Weeping Woman series. In the new Rizzoli book Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso, writer Louise Baring sheds light on the story of Dora Maar, a strange, unique, and talented woman.

Below are some things you should know about the artist, photographer, and painter.

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Dora Maar, “Assia,” (1934), gelatin silver print. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Courtesy of Rizzoli.

The Weird Story of How Dora and Pablo Met

Picasso and Maar had already met when she was a stills photographer on the set of Jean Renoir’s film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). It was Paul Éluard (a poet and founder of the Surrealist movement), who had introduced the twenty-eight-year-old Maar to Picasso when they were at a press screening for Renoir’s film. At a later date, In a very Surrealist-Meets-Goth meet cute, Maar was sitting at a table in Parisian café Les Deux Magots, a beloved hangout among Surrealists at the time. The story goes that Maar removed her black gloves, embroidered with pink flowers, and began to stab between her fingers with a long, sharp knife, subsequently drawing blood. Not totally unsurprising given his eccentrism, Picasso was moved. He then asked her for the gloves in question, adding it to a glass cabinet where he kept souvenirs.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 11.42.31 PMTwo portraits of Maar, by Picasso

Picasso left her for a younger woman, and Dora clung onto their memories

Maar’s post-breakup with Picasso transcends time and space. It recalls Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods being left for a “Jackie,” and Chris Kraus’s notion of Lonely Girl Phenomenology (a.k.a. being self-aware in chronicling your consciousness and experience as a woman who experiences loneliness—so, basically, all of us). Maar clung to the proverbial corpse of Picasso, as many of us are wont to do. Do you ever keep screenshots of texts in your phone and re-visit them in an act of masochism (or is this just me)? Maar did this, but 20th century style, Louise Baring explains in the book:

Like Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Dora Maar clung to the past, leaving untouched her mirrored, high-ceilinged apartment on the rue de Savoie, in the 6th arrondissement, after Picasso abandoned her for the cool-headed far-younger Françoise Gillot in 1945. ‘Her apartment was full of ghosts; Dora never threw away anything connected to Picasso,’ recalled the late Myrtille Hugnet, the widow of Maar’s admirer Georges Hugnet, a Surrealist poet and graphic artist who remained a close friend until his death in 1974. ‘The walls and ceilings were full of cracks and holes. Dora never repainted where Picasso had drawn trompe l’oeil spiders, flies, and mosquitos.

In mahogany bookcases, Maar not only kept books, but Picasso’s drawings, letters, cutouts, and miniature sculptures, like metaphorical memento moris that likely reminded her of the death of their relationship.

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Dora Maar, man with his head in a manhole, London, (1934), gelatin silver print. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of Rizzoli.

Just like many of us, she straddled the line between commercial and personal work

If you think that selling out is a phenomenon of late capitalism, take a look back at Maar’s livelihood in the 1930s, where her photographic work was commissioned for the fashion and advertising industries when she actually wanted to be painter. While it’s a competitive field today, fashion and advertising was on a come up in the 1930s, where the weekly and monthly illustrated magazine industry was soaring. In her leisure time, Maar chose to work on portraiture, street photography, and other creative endeavors.

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Dora Maar, photomontage with model in swimsuit, (1936), gelatin silver print. Galerie 1900-2000, Paris. Courtesy of Rizzoli.

She was the one who came up with that famous Surrealist fuzzy teacup

You know the one—you might have looked at it in its glass case among throngs of tour bus habitués at the MoMA. Female surrealist artist Méret Oppenheim’s “Le Déjeuner en fourrure” a.k.a. “Fur Breakfast” was arguably from the mind of Dora Maar. While hanging out in a Paris cafe, Picasso was into Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet. Picasso noted that you could cover anything in fur, really, to which Maar replied, “even this cup and saucer.” And sure, you can cover anything in fur, but it was Maar came up with the specific idea for one of the most iconic works of the surrealist era.

Rizzoli’s Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso is out now.

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.  

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