Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso by Louise Baring

Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso by Louise Baring is a fresh look at the life  and photography of Dora Maar, a photographer, intellectual and artist whose personal life and legacy is often overshadowed by her years-long love affair with Pablo Picasso.

Despite being a prominent figure in her own right, Maar's imprint on contemporary photography and her involvement in the intellectual and Surrealist movement of the 1930s and 40s has been all but forgotten; Maar has, for the most part, become a backdrop in the story of Pablo Picasso, a shadow of a woman behind a famous painter. She is Picasso's muse, Picasso's lover, but never Dora Maar the photographer, Dora Maar the intellectual, whose path and career was forever altered when she began a relationship with Picasso.

Baring's book begins by exploring the 1998 art auctions which occurred after Maar's death at the age of 89. The auctions, which saw much of Dora Maar's personal collection sold to the highest bidder, revealed a vast trove of Picasso mementos that Maar had clung to in an obsessive fashion that Baring likens to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. But the 'Maar' auctions also revealed a wider collection of her photography work that had been kept from public view--and out of the public mind--for decades. It is this photography work that makes up the heart of the book, which reclaims an important part of Maar's legacy.

Her photography career began in earnest in the 1930s, when she began working with Harry Meerson, a photographer for Paris Magazine. Maar's work gained the notice of various magazines and advertisers, who began commissioning her for work. These early fashion and advertising photos are an intriguing look at Maar's ability to blend unusual avant-garde art styles with commercial photography meant for public consumption. My favorite is one of Maar's study photographs for a Petrole Hahn hair lotion advertising campaign, which consists solely of a close up of soft, carefully lit waves of hair with a tiny ship, complete with sails, resting gently on top.

Maar's commercial projects allowed her time to develop her personal photography, which was  featured in articles, journals, or exhibitions. Maar began to travel, and her photographs from these international adventures are some of the most intriguing in the book. In a photograph taken in London in 1934, a young boy gazes directly at Maar while holding a docile looking cat in a cloth; his gaze makes him appear as if he's almost challenging Maar, and the end result--like many of Maar's traveling photographs from this era--is an image that, forgive the cliche, makes you think. Who was the boy? Why was he holding the cat? Did he want to be photographed?

Most of Maar's personal Surrealist photography was taken between 1934 and 1936, when she began working at her own studio--an apartment that her father rented, which allowed her to avoid having to work for a commercial studio company. These Surrealist works combine various montage techniques, with the end result being photomontages that are unusual, often striking, and sometimes (such as in the case of 'Le Simulateur/The Faker') even haunting.

credit: © Dora Maar by Louise Baring, Rizzoli New York, 2017; Photography © Dora Maar.

Maar was not simply a spectator. She was a mainstay in the artistic movement in her own right and her involvement led to associations with famous contemporaries such as Man Ray, Georges Bataille, and of course, Picasso. It may have been her relationship with Picasso which led to her giving up photography in favor of painting, despite her personal and commercial success. Michèle Chomette, who catalogued the photographs for the famous 1998 auction, believes that after her work on his 'Guernica,' Picasso  "wanted her to photograph only his work." Picasso himself was quoted as saying that "Inside Dora Maar the photographer was a painter trying to get out."

Their relationship began deteriorating significantly during WWII, and was further complicated by  Picasso's exhausting behavior; he delighted in pitting Maar and his wife against each other to remind each woman that they were each not the sole object of his affection, he often swung between kindness and compassion and cold rejection, and in 1943 he began a relationship with a much younger woman who began to supplant Maar's place as his muse. Maar's somber emotional state is gloomily reflected in a self-portrait she took in a mirror during the early 1940s, where she gazs sadly, almost without energy, into the mirror. A poem found after her death, undated, reveals despair: "In a mirror facing me I ask/For the night to come/Let the time pass/Let me withdraw/Let the mirror be empty/for always."

In May of 1945, the situation had finally deteriorated to a breaking point. Maar arrived late to a lunch with Picasso and declared "I've had enough, I can't stay. I'm going." Maar's erratic emotional state in the days that followed led to shock treatments, and Picasso decided to end their affair.

In the years that followed, Maar was able to find renewed energy. "Everyone expected me to commit suicide after he left me," she once said. "Even Picasso expected it, and the main reason I didn't kill myself was not to give him the pleasure." Maar began practicing Roman Catholicism, continued painting, and actively participated in the Parisian social circle for a few years. She dabbled in photographer occasionally over the years--even creating some new images in the early 1980s using her old negatives from the 30s--but mostly avoided talking about her past as a photographer. Towards the end of her life, she became reclusive, rarely venturing out and most often only leaving her home for mass and religious services. She died in July of 1997 after collapsing on the street.

Louise Baring does an excellent job of bringing the mysterious Dora Maar into the light in this new publication. No longer is she Dora Maar, Picasso's mistress, but a human being--an artist, a photographer, and an intellectual--in her own right. Baring carefully uses quotes from contemporaries and historians to help provide an intimate and rounded view of her life, as well as quotes from Maar herself, and even several snippets of her poetry. The book is filled with photographs and images, mostly by Maar, which are reproduced in high quality. Many of the images have never been published before and are a true delight to see in print.

I heartily recommend Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso to anyone with an interest in learning more about Maar than her role as Picasso's muse; the long overdue look at the engaging, surreal and memorable photography of Dora Maar is particularly worthwhile to students of photography and art as a whole.

[A review copy was provided by the publisher.]

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