I, too, am an artist

Linda Nochlin

  • 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.

In later years, Maar totally rejected Picasso’s view of her. ‘All his portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar,’ she exclaimed after their break-up. When James Lord, her interlocutor, attempted to point out that her portraits are hung in museums throughout the world and have been published in numerous art-books, and that as a result she would never be forgotten, she retorted acerbically: ‘Do you think I care? Does Madame Cézanne care? Does Saskia Rembrandt care? Remember that I, too, am an artist. I, too, am familiar with the auspices of posterity.’

It is to redress the balance, to remind us with compelling visual evidence that Dora Maar – with and without Picasso – was an artist and a creative figure of independent value, that Caws has produced this lavishly illustrated and elegantly designed biography. Certainly, Maar’s achievement as a photographer, much of her work produced in conjunction with the Surrealist group (of which she was a rather marginal but nevertheless recognised member), is impressive. Even the early works, in which she sometimes collaborated with her studio partner, Pierre Kéfer, are remarkably innovative and effective, clearly enlivened by what might be called ‘the effects of Surrealism’. Especially striking is her portrait of Christian (‘Bébé’) Bérard as a jovial latter-day John the Baptist, his head neatly suspended at the edge of a round pool as though on a tray. There are also distinctive fashion photographs, like the one of a model in a bathing-suit superimposed on a pattern of sun-dappled water; or another of a tiny sailing ship floating on a sea of golden hair in meticulous close-up.

Equally impressive is Maar’s street photography – a popular mode at the time – which, as Caws points out, ‘combines a strong sense of social justice with an eye for the uncanny’ and for inadvertent humour, as in Barcelona, her photograph of a battered façade, covered with peeling posters – one of them banning posters – overlooked by an armless mannequin displaying underwear. In another, two little girls are depicted climbing up a wall of posters to peek at some forbidden object or event on the other side. And in still another, a street boy with a fallen sock and a strikingly nonchalant slouch leans against a rugged wall beneath a sign saying ‘rue de Genets’. Specificity of place and texture is admirably juxtaposed with formal elegance in these images, which consistently make an analogy between the city wall and the plain surface of the paper on which they appear.

Maar’s portraits of members of the Surrealist circle are equally accomplished, especially those of Surrealist wives. Her image of the pensive Jacqueline Lamba, wife of André Breton and inspiration for his L’Amour fou, is particularly striking. Lamba is framed by a window, a small note of poignant loveliness set off by rough stone and burgeoning foliage. The series of photos of Maar’s friend, Nusch Eluard, wife of Paul Eluard, the poet and friend of Picasso, is brilliant, if more premeditated. In one shot, entitled The Years Lie in Wait for You (c.1932-34), the fragile beauty of Nusch’s head is veiled by a spider’s web. Maar’s portraits of the male Surrealists – Georges Hugnet, Yves Tanguy and René Crevel – are more conventional, but she really pulls out all the stops in her ‘portraits’ of the Surrealist-affiliated painter Léonor Fini, which in some ways look forward to the Post-Modern imagery of Cindy Sherman at the same time as recalling the mid-19th-century photo-collaborative project of the Countess of Castiglione, who obsessively posed for the photographer Pierson in a startling range of self-chosen costumes and attitudes. In an image reminiscent of Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Fini poses melodramatically in the shadowy recesses of a bed with her black-stockinged legs prominently on display; in another, she emerges confrontationally from a curtain, displaying her breasts, with a black cat between her legs; and in a third, she lies on the floor surrounded by strewn clothing, including a high-heeled shoe and what looks like a feather boa, enacting the role of a classy rape victim. These photographs of Fini must certainly be counted as collaborative efforts, for her own image was central to Fini’s highly erotic and theatrical artistic project, and one suspects that she played a large part in the choice of clothing, pose and décor.

Most daring of all are the overtly Surrealist photographs Maar created when in contact with the group. Although the best known of these date from 1935-36, Caws points out that as early as 1933 she was playing with the uncanny and the strange. In an untitled but highly evocative photomontage of 1933-34, a manicured hand emerges from a shell in front of a cloud-torn vista, while Legs I and II, rear views of a bending woman, are as ‘anatomically frank and strikingly erotic’ as anything the male Surrealists ever produced. In another photomontage, Forbidden Games of 1935, a preposterous satire on bourgeois respectability, a mixed-gender monster sits astride a patient male partner, as a little boy looks up, astounded, from under a desk. I find the more mainstream Surrealist works such as 29 rue d’Astorg of around 1936, her most famous work according to Caws, more conventional and derivative, mixing tropes from Picasso, Ernst and de Chirico in a visually effective but psychically banal composition. When she abandons Surrealist ‘effects’, however, and goes straight for lurid distortion, Maar’s images are unforgettable. Grotesque, a gelatin silver print (c.1935) of a nightmare face with huge lipstick mouth and protruding teeth, bulging cheeks and hand-drawn hair is a triumph of the perverse, as is her ‘monstrous, blind and yet somehow imploring’ Portrait of Ubu of 1936. This is a close-up of an armadillo foetus, rich in the mystery and ‘hallucinatory power’ that made it an icon of Surrealism.

If Maar’s photography deserves a place in the annals of the French vanguard of the 1930s, her painting is more problematic. Except for the remarkable series of photographs of Guernica which she undertook as the painting took shape in May to June 1937, and photographs of Picasso himself, she more or less abandoned photography for painting when she became Picasso’s mistress – and continued to paint after their break-up. Caws makes a case for the originality of her painting: the portraits she did of Picasso in 1936-37; the reappropriated Weeping Woman she created in c.1937; the abstract Cubist Face of c.1939 or the Man and Pink Tree of the same year. To me, however, they seem incontrovertibly second-rate and derivative, pathetic in their effort to vie with, or even incorporate the inventions of the master. Far more interesting, and original, are the series of landscapes she executed in the 1950s and 1960s, when she was living as a recluse, inspired by the desolate hills around her house in the village of Ménerbes in Provence (a gift from Picasso). In their austere simplicity, these canvases are indeed, as John Richardson has observed, ‘sad, romantic … slashed on with the palette knife.’

Caws is right to seek a place in art history for Dora Maar, the practising photographer and painter. History has been unjust to her, as to so many of the women ‘companions’ of the male artists of the French vanguard. It is interesting to compare the far more active role of Russian women in the 1910s and 1920s, artists who assumed a position of equality with their male colleagues. Looking at the production, and the fate, of the women Surrealists, recently redeemed by the art historian Whitney Chadwick in her penetrating study, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985), one sees why Simone de Beauvoir had to write what and when she did. The French intellectual and artistic world, the Surrealists above all, was particularly rejecting of women’s creative efforts. Or rather, the male leaders of the movement put the women of their circle – physically attractive ones, to be sure – in a double bind. They had to play their role of childlike muse, femme fatale or goddess, while at the same time being denied any serious position of authority. Chadwick makes clear why de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, held up ‘the image of the mirror as the key to the feminine condition’. ‘Women concern themselves,’ de Beauvoir says, ‘with their own image … men with the enlarged self-image provided by their reflection in a woman.’

Dora Maar was more self-willed and assertive than most of the women in her circle, in some ways more than a match for Picasso. And yet, she was far more obsessed by her artist-lover than by her own work. Ultimately, despite Caws’s best efforts, one is convinced that her major role was neither that of an artist nor a subject for Picasso’s paintings, but rather that of an unaccountably vivid, complex, seductive and self-contradictory human being – impossible, in short. This sense of Maar the larger-than-life personality cannot be achieved within the constraints of academic objectivity. It is conveyed most effectively by James Lord’s memorable account of his three-way romance with Maar and Picasso in Picasso and Dora: A Memoir (1993). But then Lord was deeply involved with Maar, who played him like a skilful deep-sea fisherwoman. In Lord’s account of true love – mutually exploitative and essentially unconsummated – Maar shines out like a star with her piercing blue glance, her birdlike voice, her sibylline pronouncements. It was as a person, not as a creative artist, that she flourished in the Surrealists’ female auxiliary. It is worth remembering that it was not until the artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington got to Mexico, away from the stifling embrace of the Surrealist phallocracy, that they produced their most original work.

Several questions remain to be asked at the end of Caws’s provocative study. One concerns the status of the portrait as a source of information. Although in theory portraiture involves an interchange between sitter and painter – as opposed to the relation between model and painter – it is, I think, a mistake to feel one has gathered any valid psychological or biographical information about Dora Maar from Picasso’s portraits of her. The subject ‘Dora Maar’ is admittedly recognisable in the more realistic representations, but in the more abstract, manipulated ones we know her only through a series of signs – hat, fingernails, dark hair – deployed as the artist wishes, for aesthetic and psychic ends of his own. Picasso was not just a genius at painting, but also at the art of humiliation, of gratuitous cruelty: this, too, plays a role in many of the most striking images of his mistress.

The other question raised by the book concerns the dubious advantages bestowed by a powerful male mentor-lover on a woman artist. When things are going well, it can be helpful to have such an authority behind one. The relationship between Georgia O’Keeffe and Steiglitz demonstrates the usefulness of the husband acting as publicity agent for an ambitious woman artist. Although there are signs of inequality even in this instance – O’Keeffe never painted a series of Steiglitz in the nude as a token of her affection, whereas he photographed her naked body obsessively in whole and in part – in terms of continuing popular appeal, it is O’Keeffe the painter rather than Steiglitz the promoter who comes in ahead. It is doubtful whether any of Picasso’s wives or ‘companions’ turned to him for mentoring or professional encouragement: there were other reasons for consenting to be maîtresse en titre of the most famous artist in the world.

Traditionally, women have sought advantage contingently, by being connected to powerful artists, writers or intellectuals, rather than assuming these roles for themselves. Even de Beauvoir, author of the most influential text on women’s oppression of its time, depended for her authority on a male companion. Caws’s biography makes it clear that Dora Maar’s dilemma, far from being unique or aberrant was, on the contrary, shared by many talented and ambitious women of her time and milieu.