@ Tate Modern, London, until 15 March 2020


Dora Maar (born Henrietta Markovitch) is perhaps best known as “Picasso’s girlfriend”. However, what has been too often overlooked is that she also created a large and impressive body of work on her own terms.

From a bourgeois background, Maar attended progressive Parisian art schools and, after moving away from painting, established her first photographic studio in 1932. As well as achieving commercial success in her fashion photography and advertising career, she went on to document social history from a leftist perspective and then made a significant contribution to the surrealist movement, before returning to painting, her first love, in the late 1930s.

You don’t see many men in a knitted one-piece swimsuit these days, do you?

Untitled fashion photograph, 1936

A re-imagining of the classical nude, featuring popular life model Assia Granatouroff (1911-82).

Maar took to the streets to document the economic depression sweeping across Europe in the 1930s. In 1933-34 she travelled to Spain and to the UK, and she also recorded life on the streets of Paris and participated in the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque (Counter-attack) movement.

Untitled (Disabled war veteran begging beside miniature boat), London, 1934

Her political beliefs brought her into close proximity with the burgeoning surrealist movement, which began to influence her work. She produced cropped and disorientating images, in a dramatic contrast to her earlier, realist work, to “evoke the immediacy of the chance encounter so prized by the surrealists” (Tate exhibition booklet). The imagery that particularly appealed to her – of eroticism, the sea, dreams, eyes – was a natural fit with the surrealist movement, and Maar was among a small number of photographers to be included in the major surrealist exhibitions of the 1930s.

Untitled (Villa for sale), 1936

“It’s a real animal but I don’t want to say which one” (Maar, 1994)

(but now thought to be an armadillo foetus)

Portrait of Ubu, 1936

Maar met Picasso when her career was at its peak, during the winter of 1935-6, and she was something of a muse for him, inspiring a period of new creative intensity, after months of inactivity. Picasso also encouraged Maar to take up painting once again. Their relationship endured until 1945, after which she fell into a period of severe depression. However, since, Picasso first met Maar in a Parisian cafe as she “repeatedly stabbed a knife between her black-gloved fingers, occasionally drawing blood“, her mood disorder was unlikely to be solely attributable to her break-up.

Although Maar remained creative throughout her life, with traditional landscape painting as well as a move towards abstraction, for me it is her photographs that hold the most fascination. The quality of the work that came after her relationship with Picasso does not even begin to reach her earlier heights, whether due to her breakdown, or whether she simply preferred to focus (contentedly?) on other areas of creative output.

It is to be hoped that this fascinating exhibition may serve to correct to some degree the imbalance in the artistic reputations of Maar and Picasso.

Untitled oil painting, 1950s

Join the Conversation


    1. It’s a great exhibition. I was given a copy of Maria Abramovich’s autobiography a few years ago, which I think I ended up donating to a book sale without reading beyond the first chapter, in one of my regular attempts to deal with the ever-increasing pile of books in the house. I now wish I’d kept hold of it!

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