Even after the publication of this illuminating and beautiful book, Dora Maar will likely continue to be remembered, first and foremost, as one of Pablo Picasso’s many lovers and muses. But despite her young age (more than two decades his junior) and what friends recall as her calculated seduction of the painter, Maar was no groupie. She was an accomplished artist in her own right by her mid-twenties, when she encountered Picasso. In the 1930s they began an affair that lasted more than a decade, documented by his famous paintings of her; notably “Weeping Woman” and “Dora Maar Seated.”
Louise Baring’s book, published this month by Rizzoli, illustrates Maar’s place in society (a tri-lingual jet-setter whose father suppoted her financially); in the professional world (a successful fashion and advertising photographer, an ace in the darkroom); and as an artist (she created some of the most indelible Surrealist images from the movement’s heyday without being exclusively associated with the group). Friends remember her as capable, intellectual and elegant.
Picasso was proud to have the accomplished, whip-smart Maar on his arm for gatherings at the famous cafes of the Left Bank and Montmartre, and on beach vacations on the Riviera. She was an ardent leftish who inspired the painter to become more politically outspoken, and she understood his work enough to photograph its evolution in creation, a rare privilege. Their personal life, however, was stormy, to the point of fistfights between her and the other women Picasso bedded. The book creates a 3-D image of the woman who embodied obvious strength and intelligence, yet suffered enormously in her relationship with Picasso. It was he who encouraged her to paint instead of take photographs—after which her career fizzled.
Almost a century later, her photography stands as starkly original. She was as adept at capturing a personality in a portrait as she was at assembling a dreamscape using double exposures, photo-montages, and scratched negatives.
For fans of Paris’s brilliant entre-guerre period, Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and Picasso is an succint and inviting document. Its straightforward essay text, which can be read in one long afternoon, transports you back, without hyperbole, to that fertile artistic period. The images, printed with Rizzoli’s usual luxury and finesse, may make you want to cut them out and frame them. Or better, inspire you to pick up a camera youself.