- Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and PicassoBy Louise Baring
- Dora Maar: With and Without PicassoBy Mary Ann Caws
Important Art by Dora Maar
After the Rain
In the early 1930s Maar traveled to various places in Europe working as a photojournalist, but she also began taking her own pictures. Tending toward street scenes and glimpses of the isolated nature of city life, these works are often melancholy, quietly piquant, and effortlessly framed. In After the Rain a mother and a child walk along a slick sidewalk next to a lofty wall, their backs to the camera. Maar frames the shot in a sharp diagonal - the sidewalk stretches into the back of the image and the figures are almost at its end. Shadows of slender, leafy trees are projected on the wall, and puddles of rainwater gleam. The overall poetry and romance conjured by the scene is reminiscent of photographs by the artist's friend and colleague, Brassai.
Indeed, during the 1930s many French photographers turned to the long boulevards and arcades of Paris to capture the mystery and ambiguity of the city. Maar had a keen eye for what critic Jacques Guenne deemed "la comédie humaine," the panorama of human life within the urban milieu. After the Rain is not just a straightforward image of either the city or of its denizens; rather, it is a comment on the beguiling and sometimes isolating nature of the person in the city. The severe diagonals, the figures fading into the distance, and the pervasiveness of the shadows create a sense of disquiet, of the strange but familiar juxtaposition between the harsh built environment and the fragile humans and trees living alongside. As critic Donald Goddard notes, "[Maar] knew that there was far more within every image, every person and place, than could possibly be described, that 'interior vision' is more than matched by what is outside ourselves."
Study for Petrole Hahn hair products
Maar's earliest photographs were born out of her experience working both as a photojournalist and as a commercial photographer. As an example of the latter, she crafted advertisements such as one for 'Petrole Hahn' hair products. These images stand as apposite examples of how any picture by Maar was rarely ever straightforward and utilitarian, but instead typically injected with a Surrealist bent. Here a pink bottle of hair oil tips over on its side, emptying its contents. Instead of oil billowing out however, luscious thick locks of hair stream out and billow in the void. The bottle is the only pop of color on an otherwise black and white backdrop. Hair is a classic repeated motif for women Surrealists; unruly it can represent fear at the power of female sexuality, removed it can signify punishment, and to cut hair can speak of separation and loss in love.
This particular photomontage works as an advertisement; the hair is sensuous and full and thus attracts the consumer's desire, however, it also functions as a Surrealist image abound with allusion to the female body, fetish, and unconscious desire. As the hair is unattached to an actual female body it attains distance and mystique; in this way it bears resemblance to how Meret Oppenheim discussed her famous work of art, Object (1936) that also used hair in an uncanny way - "the image of femininity imprinted in the minds of men and projected on to women." The hair in the advertisement is shorn from reality, functioning as a simulacra and a critique of the conflation of consumerism and desire. It also looks forward to Maar's disappointing experience in love; both Frida Kahlo and Mimi Parent presented their hair as separate from themselves when they had been saddened and betrayed by matters of the heart.
In one of Maar's earliest photomontages, she creates an uncanny and mesmeric image of a woman's hand in a shell; it is unclear if the hand is crawling out or pulling itself back inside. It is though it is living in there, sheltered like a hermit crab or other armored creature. The shell rests on the sand with a rolling sky looming ominously, over and above in the background. The hand has long, tapered fingers and perfectly manicured nails, and the shell is similarly aesthetically pleasing with its ringed and repeated pattern. A bright but eerie light illuminates the hand and, in places, violently breaks through the clouds.
It is certainly tempting to read into Maar's works in terms of biography: Lauren Greenwald writes, "[Untitled] seems almost prescient, as the artist would eventually retreat into her own self-contained world." Maar may or may not have been thinking about various aspects of her psyche with this work, but it is clear that she was thoroughly versed in the power of Surrealist imagery. The hand was a common motif, referring to fetishes, sadomasochistic pain and pleasure, and the evocation of a primitive past contrasted with the mechanized present. Dalí depicted hands being swarmed by ants, amputated, or sensuously kissed; de Chirico painted a limp, smooth white glove in The Song of Love (1914); and Magritte's L'aube a Cayenne (1926) featured two intertwined marmoreal hands with a disturbing red spider-like creature clutching the fingers. Indeed, it was through a performance with her own hand that Maar first met Picasso. Like the works of her Surrealist peers, and her own coinciding imaginary musings, the image is highly erotic, intensely dreamlike, and suggestive of deep latent desires.
Gelatin silver print - Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
Pére Ubu is one of the most iconic photographs of the Surrealist movement, attaining its fame after its inclusion at London's International Surrealist Exhibition. The image consists of a bizarre, disquieting figure that takes up the entire plane. It appears to be an animal of sorts, consisting of a flat, angular head; two long, elephantine ears; curved limbs with tapered finger-like appendages, and glimpses of a scaly, rough torso. One heavily lidded eye is visible on the far left side of the head. The general consensus is that this is a photograph of an armadillo fetus (interestingly another shelled creature that would curl up for protection similar to the 'hand crab'), but Maar would never confirm this and therefore kept the mystery intact.
The image was made into a postcard as it was supposed to personify the monstrous title character from Alfred Jarry's controversial 1896 play, Ubu Roi. In many ways, the difficult to identify creature exemplifies many of the concerns of the Surrealists. It is stated by the research team at the Australian National Gallery of Victoria, that the group had "fascination with exploring forbidden territory, where the exotic and grotesque mingle to create a disquieting yet exciting tension." While Jarry's stage version of Ubu was a simplified woodcut (that nevertheless emphasized the body's scatological function), Maar's depiction is more animalistic. This references, as critic Julie L'Enfant notes, "the theme of man as beast, a frequent element of Dada and Surrealist humor" and "the animality of the supposedly higher species."
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
While this photomontage is named after the location of her Paris studio, there is very little that resembles that space. The scene is a barrel-vaulted, capacious corridor; there is a small door far in the distance with a diminutive figure near it. A female figure perched on a heavy bench takes up most of the foreground, and she is immediately disconcerting with her thick, doughy limbs; disheveled drapery; and, most uncomfortably, her disproportionately small and extremely simplified head atop an elongated neck. Facial features are almost nonexistent, as if a child fashioned a head out of clay and merely drew eyes on either side and a small triangle for a nose/mouth. Both the figure and the dreamlike landscape in which she has been placed strongly recall the work of the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico, a profound originating force and influence on all of the Surrealists.
The vision is also idiosyncratic, and thus in some respects entirely unknowable. Nevertheless, it is clear that Maar is engaging in as critic Louise Baring writes, "a dizzying descent into ourselves... the perceptual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory." Rue d'Astorg is a dream - a horrifying dream - because it simply cannot exist in real life. The surreal figure, the distorted perspective, the simultaneously claustrophobic and overwhelming interior space insists on making the viewer exceedingly uncomfortable. Critic Rosalind Krauss saw Surrealist photography as exemplifying George Bataille's à-cephale, or the headless corpse - the symbol of anti-hierarchy, anti-Platonism, and anti-reason. The figure in Rue isn't completely headless but she is almost.
Gelatin silver print
Le Simulateur (The Simulator)
Le Simulateur is a disorienting, impossible photomontage of a curved crypt-like space with blacked-out windows and a young boy curving his body back into the wall. His facial expression is unclear, especially as his eyes are scratched out, but he seems in a state of unfettered abandonment. Gloomy shadows press in upon the corridor as if about to swallow up the space and the boy within. Maar created the space by turning a picture of a seventeenth-century barrel vault upside down, but the image still defies comprehension because even if the viewer looked at the vault with the proper orientation, the boy would still be suspended from the ceiling. The work gives the viewer a glimpse into an interior world that is venturing out of control, most likely that of the artist herself. The curvature of a feminine womb-like space is not here comforting, but instead dizzying and more like a nightmare.
Like Maar's other Surrealist photomontages, Le Simulateur deliberately unsettles. The boy's behavior is "inexplicable," critic Rick Poyner writes, wondering, "Are we witnessing a game, a self-elected ordeal, or an involuntary posture of madness? The architecture is like a centrifuge, its lines of force rotating unstoppably toward him, and he submits to their energy, arching his body to rhyme or become one with the chamber, as though the space is a projection of an impulse inside him." The title of the work also obfuscates any potential meaning - is the boy a simulation? Of whom? Is it the space that is a simulation, perhaps of a dream or of a real place viewed through the distortions of the mind? Le Simulateur is uncomfortable because there is enough that is convincing about it to push the viewer to ponder what the boy is experiencing in the chamber. Critic Rosalind Krauss noted that Surrealist photography's manipulation of the medium's putative "deposit of the real itself" creates a paradox: "...the paradox of reality constituted as a sign - or presence transformed into absence, into representation, into spacing, into writing."
Gelatin silver print
After Picasso encouraged Maar to give up photography she turned exclusively to painting, and even after she and Picasso were no longer involved she remained working in this medium. She preferred still lifes and landscapes, the latter becoming increasingly abstract. In Paysage ("landscape") the subject is barely defined; only the gently curving, horizontally oriented brushstrokes suggesting a mountain and the serene blue background suggesting sky manifest the title. Maar's colors are rustic, with the mountain rendered in ochres, browns, forest greens, and soft black. A few tenuous highlights of white paint sweep across the top of the mountain, perhaps indicating snow or smooth rocks.
By the time Maar was creating these landscapes, she was almost totally withdrawn from the art world. She rarely spoke of her paintings, "insisting that they speak for themselves." English art critic John Russell, who befriended Maar in the 1950s, explained, "[Her paintings] represent, beyond question, a solitary's view of the world." As there is no human presence, the image takes on a meditative quality. The landscape as depicted here is private, existing primarily in Maar's mental space rather than in the real world. It may be modeled on a particular vista but it is filtered through her personal understanding of the world as a place with which she rarely wished to engage. Whilst in these landscapes there are some hints of illuminating color, her still lifes from the same period were typically even more blackened and hopeless.
Oil on canvas