The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar

The life and influence of Dora Maar

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We talk to creative director and artist Quentin Jones and Tate Modern Curatorial Assistant Emma Jones about the life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar, her influence as a woman in Surrealism and the current exhibition at Tate Modern.

Dora Maar and the art of photomontage 

Dora Maar was the pseudonym chosen by Henriette Theodora Markovitch, a photographer, painter and occasional poet born in France and raised in Argentina. She came to the fore as a surrealist photographer in the 1930s, using collage, photomontage and superimposition. Though her work didn’t begin and end there – she was also a fashion and advertising photographer, a social documentarian, a left-wing activist and an accomplished painter later in life.

In her time, she associated with many well-known names, both within and outside of the art world. Those names include Jacqueline Lamba, Brassaī, whose darkroom she shared, and philosopher Georges Bataille.

In the mid-1930s, Maar met Picasso. The couple pushed each other into new creative territories. She taught him a complex printing technique, while he, in turn, encouraged her to return to painting. She also became his model – she was the inspiration for Weeping Woman in 1937. Maar documented the progression of Picasso’s work Guernica, creating a series documenting the metamorphoses of the painting, which was also the first full photographic record of a work in progress.

Emma Jones on Dora Maar

Maar is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Tate Modern, running until 15 March 2020. We decided to mark this exhibition by talking to Tate Modern Curatorial Assistant Emma Jones about how it came about, as well as her personal take on Dora Maar and how much of a lasting influence she has had. 

Did you know of Dora Maar and her work before the exhibition?

I knew of Maar’s surrealist photographs and photomontages. Le Simulateur (1935) for example, was widely exhibited at the time and remains an iconic image within the movement. However, it has been really exciting to learn more about the different facets of her practise, how she applied her eye for the unusual to the world around her, as well as her commercial commissions. I didn’t know her as a painter, either, and was really struck by the landscape paintings she made whilst living in Ménerbes in the South of France in the 1950s. The impact of the lightness and brightness of her palette and broad brushstrokes are these works that shift between meditation and movement.

Did you change anything from the exhibition’s earlier incarnation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris?

The structure of the exhibition is broadly the same at Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern and the J. Paul Getty Museum. However, we contracted the checklist to fit our space and, in some instances, we adapted the way in which we told the story in order to be suitable for Tate’s audiences. In the UK, we could not assume the same level of awareness of Maar’s work nor the social and political context in which Maar was working, for example. For this reason, we created a short montage of original 1930s news footage which makes clear the poverty experienced during the economic depression and the rise of the far-right. This was an important storytelling device in the room dedicated to Maar’s 1930s street photography.

We’ve also included an audio-visual station which features extracts from an interview that Tate Modern Director Frances Morris conducted in 1990 with Maar. In it, Maar speaks about Weeping Woman and Guernica. It felt important to bring Maar’s voice into the galleries, and for audiences to have the opportunity to listen to her interpretation of, and relationship to, these two works.

Do you think the role women played in surrealism has been overlooked?

Historically, women have tended to be mythologised as ‘muses’ to Surrealist artists and poets. It is only relatively recently that their own work has begun to be investigated. This is well demonstrated in the case of Jaqueline Lamba, an artist and close friend of Maar, who was married to André Breton. When her works were included in the first Surrealist exhibition (in Tenerife, 1934), they appeared without attribution.

It’s wonderful, therefore, to see the role women artists had within the movement being re-examined. One aspect of this is the working relationships and friendships these artists formed with each other (in the Tate show, for example, there are a series of portraits of Maar by British Surrealist Lee Miller), as an overlapping but distinct network.

Maar is described as working in both collage and photomontage – could you define the difference between the two?

Good question! In both instances, Maar utilises images from her own work, as well as images form early twentieth-century publications, photographs, or postcards. In terms of collage, these are assembled using cut-and-glue. With photomontage, the initial technique is similar, but the work is then re-photographed, to create a single smooth surface. Initially, this reinforces the sense that the image is a photograph documenting the reality from which it is a transfer. But, of course, we know that it is not, that it’s a creation or construction. In doing so, the photomontage agitates reality from within, demonstrating that it is fractured.

Do you see a consistent style running through her photographic work from the surrealist photomontages to her more political and commercial work?

Maar stated that she didn’t “make a difference between some types of works and others” and it’s interesting to see how her eye impacts the types of work she is making on commission and on the street. There’s a work called The years lie in wait for you (c.1935) which depicts Maar’s close friend Nusch Eluard, overlaid with a spiders web. The work is evocative and lends itself to a surrealist reading, but research suggests that it was likely an advert for an anti-aging cream. Similarly, her more playful street photography confronts the strangeness of the everyday and the notion of the chance encounter, something heralded by the Surrealists as a way to embody disconnected experience. By the time we reach the Surrealist section in the exhibition, we see how she brings all these different ideas and techniques together to create some extraordinary works.

Do you see her paintings as every bit as important as her photographic work?

Maar studied painting right at the beginning of her artistic education at the Union centrale des arts décoratifs, before taking classes at the Académie Julian and the studio of André Lhote until the late 1920s. Painting really was her first love and from around 1939 this is where she is channelling most of her energy.

Maar creates still-life works which meditate on life during the Occupation before moving into the light gestural brushstrokes which would typify her landscape paintings. Her paintings were exhibited throughout the 1950s to critical acclaim, with reviewers commenting on the strength and sensitivity of her observation. It was important to show how prolific she was in the post-war decades and how this interest in gestural mark-making would eventually inform her late darkroom practise of the 1980s.

Is it unusual for a surrealist artist to also be so overtly political?

Artists and writers associated with surrealism were very active in left-wing politics, writing tracts and manifestos, attending marches and conferences. They wanted their work to have a genuine impact, to be an act of liberation from what they saw as an oppressive system. It was Maar’s political leanings that first introduced her to poet and founder of the surrealist movement in Paris, André Breton – in fact she signed the political tract he wrote with the filmmaker Louis Chavance – Contre Attaque or Call to the Struggle.

Do you think Maar has been an influence on subsequent female artists, or had a wider legacy?

It’s interesting to think about the significance of Maar’s work today. In the context of contemporary UK civic life, we can see her street photography in new light. Maar was working at a time where photographers and filmmakers were really exploring what it meant for the camera to bear witness, something that is still incredibly relevant today. So too, in my mind, are the questions around what it meant to be a woman photographer working in the commercial industry. Maar was part of a growing number of women in France who were taking advantage of the interwar boom in advertising photography and the illustrated press. However, this was also coupled with an industry keen to capitalise on women’s bodies through all manner of products.

Where can we see her influence in today’s creative world?

In terms of her significance when considering contemporary artists today, I am struck by the work of Kelly Akashi (b.1983), whose sculptural works reflect on surrealist themes such as dream and the uncanny and, with her interest in hands, the gestural. One of her pieces Peeking (2019) also reminds me of Maar’s Untitled (Hand-Shell) (1934). Akashi was featured in the 2017 exhibition ‘Dreamers Awake’, curated by Susanna Grave, showing the lasting impact surrealism continues to have. 

Would you describe this as an important exhibition?

Absolutely. I would love audiences to come away from the show understanding the breadth of Maar’s practice. It really was an extraordinary career, which spanned much of the 20th Century and was characterised by experimentation and reinvention. It provides a close examination of the life and work of a remarkably modern artist, whose work continues to be relevant today.

Are you working on your next exhibition?

I’m currently working on an exhibition due to open next year, but it hasn’t been announced yet. Keep your eyes peeled!

Quentin Jones on Dora Maar

On the subject of continuing influence, we also talked to Quentin Jones, who, like Maar, is known for her work in both photomontage and paint.

Where do you find your artistic inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere – from films to exhibitions, to torn posters on the subway. But when I am actively seeking it, I like nothing better than to spend an hour in a good bookstore.

Are you drawn to surrealism?

As a child I was really drawn to all the big shooters of the surreal scene – mostly painters. And now I rather like the surreal in photography, photomontage and filmmaking. 

Were you aware of Dora Maar and, if so, how did you first come across her work?

Yes – in fact, there is an image of hers that I often reference for beauty projects – the one with the two sets of hands holding the head. I can’t remember when I first discovered her. Maybe when I was at Saint Martins, or maybe my dad showed me something as a child.

What are your thoughts on her work?

I love it – so simple and elegant. It’s feminine but strong and graphic. 

Do you see parallels in your lives – the focus on both painting and photography, combining commercial work with purely artistic work?

Yes, possibly – in that she approached her commercial work as she would her personal art projects. In that way, all of our work is our art whether it’s for a beauty ad or a collaged photo in our sketchbooks. I think having a personal practise and love for an approach with your personal work allows you to enjoy branded commissions more.

Will you be seeing the exhibition?

I hope so, if I am back in London while it is on!

Are your own photomontages inspired by the work of surrealist photographers?

Not really, actually. It’s more of an instinctive response to the imagery I am cutting into and the other images I play with to create a connection or juxtaposition with it. It is entirely accidental until you recognise something special has occurred.

Images shown provided by the Tate.

  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar
  • The life of Surrealist artist Dora Maar