I, too, am an artist
- Dora Maar with and without Picasso: A Biography by Mary Ann Caws
Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £24.95, October 2000, ISBN 0 500 51009 1
Most people, if they think of Dora Maar at all, remember her as the subject of one of Picasso’s most persistent and variegated portrait series. There is Dora Maar the elegant woman of the world in Femme à la résille (Woman with a Snood) of 1938, one of a group of brightly coloured portraits of the sitter done in that year in which she is wearing bizarre headgear. This Dora Maar is fashionable, Parisian, resolutely anti-archetypal, confronting the viewer with a sinister perkiness. In addition to the multicoloured cone-shaped hat, she sports an up to the moment snood, a jacket with epaulets and a boldly figured blouse. Her eyelashes and pupils are red, her face patterned with colour to indicate the presence of make-up. Yet in the series of ‘Weeping Women’ created the year before, a series related to Picasso’s many studies for Guernica, Dora figures as the incarnation of universal anguish, tears piercing her cheeks, her fingernails sharp as knives, her mouth contorted in an angry howl in one version. In another image from the series, the artist combines the chic Parisienne with the icon of pain: in Weeping Woman of 1937 she wears a complicated red hat topped with a flower but her features are twisted into a mask of suffering and she thrusts her fingers into her mouth as though stifling a scream.
And then there is the Neoclassical Dora, heavy-eyed, reflective and ravishingly beautiful, as she appears in a drawing of 28 January 1937; the naked Dora who waits in voluptuous anticipation for the thrust of the sovereign minotaur (Dora and the Minotaur, 5 September 1936), not to speak of the openly erotic Dora, represented in a seductive pose, arms behind her head, knees splayed, buttocks emphatic, body-hair, both pubic and underarm, deployed with Matisse-like relish in the punningly titled Adora of 1938.
More sinister and threatening are some of the ‘Doras’ of the war years: the fleshless, colourless and grotesque Head of a Woman (Dora) of 1940; or the gigantic full-figure nude, Woman Dressing Her Hair (Dora) of the same year, in which the sitter’s face is bisected with particularly savage grotesquerie and the body served up in disjunctive, bulging, meat-like slabs, an image which is, in Mary Ann Caws’s words, ‘a supreme evocation of the sheer naked violence of war’. More ambiguous, in terms of Dora Maar’s persona, is Portrait of Dora in a Garden of 10 December 1938, a full-scale formal portrait in which the sitter is, in Caws’s words, ‘trapped by zigzagging branches and the angular forms of a wicker chair’. Caws sees Dora in this picture as ‘composed, beautiful, identifiable’. Certainly, the hat perched on the top of her head and the swag of dark hair identifies the figure as Dora, but the net effect is anything but composed or beautiful: ‘entrapped, fragmented, terrifying’ seems closer to the mark in describing the impact of one of Picasso’s many attempts to contain the dark powers of feminine sexuality by means of a kind of pictorial voodoo. In short, while the many images of or related to Dora Maar constitute a remarkable sample of Picasso’s achievement during the years they were together, they can in no sense be said to present a coherent, let alone an objective picture of the sitter herself.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.