Photographer and painter Dora Maar (1907-97), who was Picasso’s lover for eight years, beginning in 1936 (“I wasn’t his mistress,” she once said, “he was my master”), is probably best known today as “The Weeping Woman” in Picasso’s portraits of her. Not the way most of us would wish to be remembered. Now, the Centre Pompidou is attempting to rehabilitate the legacy of this once-upon-a-time independent artist and career woman with the exhibition “Dora Maar.”
The exhibition starts out with the young Maar’s active career as a fashion and advertising photographer. The images presented here show plenty of talent and imagination but not genius. The same is true of her politically engaged street photography, which showed the effects of the aftermath of the Great Depression in poor areas of such cities as Barcelona and Paris.
Her career as a photographer came to an end when Picasso pooh-poohed it and promoted painting instead. Maar followed the master’s wishes. She continued to paint for the rest of her life and only went back to photography later, but she kept her efforts in both realms to herself and rarely exhibited them.
The many paintings in this exhibition show that she did indeed make an effort, pursuing painting with seriousness, often experimenting with new styles and techniques. After first painting in the Cubist style (already passé) on the advice of Picasso, she later went her own way, doing landscapes and eventually abstract works. As with photography, she was talented but not brilliant. I quite liked some of the Morandi-like monochrome still lifes she did in the 1940s and the black-and-white abstract photograms, sometimes combined with manipulation of the negative or with painting, from 1980s.
In between the spirited, independent artist who mingled with the leading Surrealists and left-wing activists and the recluse who turned to Catholicism and refused to show her paintings, there was Picasso, who enjoyed setting her up against his other woman, the mother of his child, Marie-Therese Walter, and watching them fight over him. When Maar and Picasso split up, she had a serious breakdown, which required hospitalization and shock treatments under the supervision of none other than Jacques Lacan.
When Maar died, it was discovered that she had saved most of the paintings and every bauble and scrap of paper Picasso had given her, even table napkins, bottle caps and pebbles he had doodled on.
One wonders what would have become of Maar if she had never met Picasso. Would she have continued as a photographer? He made her famous, but he also seems to have destroyed her in a way. This exhibition allows her to be remembered as an artist in her own right who, no matter how Picasso may have portrayed her, manages to remain resolutely dry-eyed.