Here is one of the many poetic eulogies Picasso wrote to his lover, Dora Maar.

Her great thighs
her hips
her buttocks
her arms
her calves
her hands
her eyes
her cheeks
her hair
her nose
her throat
her tears
the planets the side curtains drawn and the transparent sky
hidden behind the grill –
the oil lamps and the little hidden bells of the sugared
canaries between the figs
the milk bowl of feathers, snatched from every laugh
undressing the nude
from the weight of the arms taken away from the blooms
of the vegetable garden
so many dead games hung from the branches of the meadow
of the school pearled with song –
lake lured with blood and thistles
hollyhock played at gaming
needles of liquid shadow and bouquets of crystal algae
open to dance steps
the moving colours shakers at the bottom of the spilled-
out glass –
to the lilac mask dressed with rain

Early in 1936 Dora Maar made a sensational entrance into the life of Pablo Picasso. While the great painter and his friend the poet Paul Eluard were seated at a table in the Café Les Deux Magots, their attention was drawn to Dora Maar, seated nearby. According to Françoise Gilot, another of Picasso’s lovers, Maar

…was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéd on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her out-stretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself. From time to time she missed by a tiny fraction of an inch and before she stopped playing with the knife, her hand was covered with blood.

Picasso was transfixed. He later confided to Gilot that it was this act that decided him to take up with Dora. He asked Eluard (a mutual friend) to introduce them. Although he addressed her in French he was delighted when she replied in fluent Spanish. At the end of their conversation, he asked her for her gloves which he kept as mementos in a glass display case. They became lovers for the next nine years.

Dora’s Background

Henriette Theodora Markovitch had a Croatian father and a French mother. Born in France in 1907, she was raised in Argentina. She told her old friend, American art critic James Lord, that her childhood had been less than ideal. Her father had struggled to make a living in Buenos Aires as an architect and her parents’ relationship was strained. Shy, dreamy and bookish, she had been given very little privacy. One wall of her bedroom consisted of glass panes covered by only a flimsy curtain, so her parents could spy on her at any time and she was never wholly alone. Arriving in Paris in 1926 at nineteen with her family, Dora studied photography and later entered the Académie Julian, where she received tuition in painting.

Becoming a Photographer

Dora was encouraged by mentors, who recognised her talent, to pursue photography over painting. From the end of the twenties and into the thirties, she supported herself as a commercial photographer in fashion and advertising. She approached her craft with care, developing her technical expertise and a network of contacts. The Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï was starting out at the same time and they shared a darkroom in Montparnasse. He later recalled Dora in a long white coat, circling her subjects like prey, hunting for the telling detail.

Beautiful, spirited and sexually liberated, Dora took a lover, Louis Chavance, a friend of the Surrealists. Surrealism was in its heyday. Its doctrine of freedom from constraints and conventions appealed to the anarchist in her and while frequenting the cafes in Montparnasse, she was soon acquainted with the main artists and writers of the time. She became friends with Man Ray and his then lover Lee Miller; he gave her advice and immortalised her in a series of photographic portraits, including the one in the postcard above.

In 1931 she formed a professional partnership with a filmset designer Pierre Kéfer and they opened a studio. At the opening she debuted her new name, changing it from Henriette Markovitch to the chic Dora Maar. Kéfer and Maar introduced playful elements of Surrealism into some of their commercial work: a tiny ship on a sea of hair used in an advertisement for hair oil, or the fashion shot of a model whose head is replaced by a large glittering star. The compelling image of the spider web superimposed on a woman’s face in the postcard above is Les années vous guettent (The years lie in wait for you). Dora took the shot in 1935 of her close friend, Nusch Eluard, which she used in an advertisement for anti-ageing cream. The advertising concepts of Kéfer and Maar blended fiction and fantasy. Dora, who did all the photography, used innovative, avant-garde techniques, creating shots that are full of movement and shadow. Soon they were winning commissions from Chanel, Lanvin and Schiaparelli.

In trying to capture an expanding women’s market, the advertising industry was pushing an ideal of the ‘modern woman’ as independent, athletic and adventurous. While this was not the case for the average French woman in the thirties, Maar and her network of friends associated with the Surrealist circle (Jacqueline Lamba, Nusch Eluard, Claude Cahun, Rogi André, Lee Miller and Lise Deharme) were among the few who were actually living adventurous lives.

Dora was a vivid, fiercely intelligent, subversive figure, with a weakness for the hats of Elsa Schiaparelli. She made the most of her freedom, taking her Rolleiflex camera around Paris and on her travels to Spain and London. Her street photography documented the harsh social conditions of the depression era, her eyes drawn to outsiders or those on the margins: the blind and the lame, beggars and urchins. The stark images reflected her social and political convictions. Fascism was on the rise in Europe, and she was engaged in leftist activist groups such as Appel à la lute (Call to the struggle) and Breton and Bataille’s Contre-Attaque.

Maar became a master of her craft, experimenting with photomontages, double exposing and layering images from her landscape and street photography. A woman’s manicured hand slithers from a snail shell; cloisters are upturned to resemble sewers and populated with mysterious beings; a topless woman rides a man like a donkey. They are ambiguous, hybrid, dream-like and sometimes macabre, created in the spirit of Louis Aragon’s assertion that ‘for each person there is one image to find that will disturb the whole universe.’ The work shines with her taste for drama, her fearlessness in the face of extremes, and her dark humour. In 1994 Cartier-Bresson, with whom she had worked early in her career, described her as a ‘remarkable photographer’, adding there was always something ‘mysterious’ or ‘striking’ in her photographs.

Along the way Maar became the mistress of the Surrealist Georges Bataille, a charming leading intellectual who was highly respected in Parisian circles. Bataille was obsessed with sexual eroticism, especially pornography and carnal desire. He lived the Surrealist creed that sexual inhibition was taboo, which meant that Dora would have experienced a comprehensive tutelage. Their affair sparked endless gossip among the avant-garde.

Surrealism

Dora was never an official member of the group of Surrealists headed by André Breton, but she was a powerful influence. Breton said her photomontages embodied ‘the dizzying descent into ourselves…the perceptual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory’. And sending her news of the success of an exhibition in Prague, he wrote: ‘the Surrealists send you their respect, admiration and affection’. Dora’s photograph Père Ubu, (1936), a bizarre image of an armadillo foetus (her take on the bestial nature of man), was one of the few photographs to appear in the landmark International Surrealist Exhibition in London. The Surrealists adopted it as their emblem and widely distributed the image as a postcard. It appealed to their taste for what Brian Dillon calls ‘all things larval and grotesquely about-to-be’.

Picasso

It was inevitable that Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso would cross paths at some stage, as they danced around the same circles. Dora was fascinated by him and engineered a plan, possibly with the help of their mutual friend Paul Eluard. On the day of the famous café meeting fifty-four-year old Picasso, wearing his standard worn suit, baggy trousers, Basque beret and long scarf, was accompanied by Eluard in full view of Dora’s dramatic game.

Journalist Jean-Paul Crespelle was seated at a table nearby and recalled Dora’s ‘serious face, lit up by pale blue eyes which looked all the paler because of her thick eyebrows; a sensitive uneasy face, with light and shade passing alternately over it,’ while she plunged the knife between her splayed fingers. The elements of the knife, the fingers, the gloves are like a Surrealist still life. Picasso, with his attraction to danger and the bloody violence of the bullfight, was hooked.

At that time, Picasso was separated from his first wife Olga Khokhlova. Though wishing to divorce her he feared becoming embroiled in a legal battle and losing half his wealth, including his body of work.

The year before he had suffered a crisis. Having worked at his art like a whirling dervish since his youth, he had stopped painting altogether. His friend Gertrude Stein believed that over the course of a few years he had lost his unique vision and it was necessary to cease the work for a while to purge himself of a way of seeing that was not his own. It was an uneasy, and difficult time which he later described as the worst period of his life. He took up writing poetry, an example of which is featured above. Stein gives it a withering assessment in her own inimitable style:

…this writing was never his writing. After all the egoism of a painter is not at all the egoism of a writer, there is nothing to say about it, it is not. No.

In the year he stopped painting, Picasso had fathered a daughter, Maya, by his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, a former athlete nearly thirty years his junior. He continued his affair with her throughout his involvement with Dora. Marie-Thérèse was his private lover, Dora the public one. This arrangement suited Picasso as both women fed his artistic drives.

Entering the Kingdom of the Ageing God

Shortly after the café encounter, Picasso and Dora had a honeymoon period in Mougins in the South of France. She first appears in one of his art works on 1st August, 1936, a china ink drawing called Dora Maar and Antique Figure. A young woman wearing a trench coat carries a suitcase and holds a key in her hand. She is moving toward an older man sitting on a throne, petting a dog on his lap. Dora is entering the kingdom of this ageing god. While newly in love and familiarising himself with the contours of her face, Picasso’s depictions of her are flattering and naturalistic. He shows her in constant transformation, turning her into a bird, a water nymph, adding her features to flowers or giving her horns. But there would be another, less flattering, transformation.

A Creative Partnership

Once Picasso took up with Dora, his creative impulse returned and he began producing works at his usual breakneck speed. During his years with her, Picasso reinvented himself as an artist not only in painting, drawing and printmaking, but also jewellery-making, etching and photography. They formed a significant artistic partnership that stretched Picasso and he achieved new depths of dramatic intensity in his work. For the first time he had a lover who was also an artist, and one he respected: ‘A photographic genius,’ he told a friend.

Early in 1937 Dora found a new studio for Picasso on the Grands-Augustins, around the corner from her apartment. Working in close proximity, they pushed each other in new creative directions. Maar showed him the darkroom process and taught him a complex technique of combining printmaking and photography that had interested him for years.

The Spanish Civil War

Picasso had never been overtly political but he could not ignore the outbreak of Civil War in his native country. In April 1937 Nazis in support of Franco bombed the Basque town of Guernica, razing it to the ground. The world was shocked by the press photographs and descriptions of sobbing Basque soldiers collecting the charred bodies of women and children. Devastated by the reportage, Picasso responded with poetry:

Cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of wood and of stones cries of bricks cries of furniture of beds of chairs of curtains of casseroles of cats and paper cries of smells that claw themselves of smoke that gnaws the neck of cries that boil in cauldron and the rain of birds that floods the sea that eats into bone and breaks the teeth biting the cotton that the sun wipes on its plate that bourse and bank hide in the footprint left embedded in the rock…

Dora, who was strongly anti-war, persuaded Picasso to make a political statement with his art. He had been commissioned to produce a mural for the Paris Exhibition and he turned the canvas into a declaration of his outrage by painting the massacre, showing Spain being plunged ‘into an ocean of misery and death’. Critics generally agree that Guernica is the most powerful and moving anti-war painting in history. Dora documented the creation of this iconic work over the course of just three weeks from start to finish, acting both as witness and political accomplice. He built her into the work, lending her features to the woman who holds the lamp.

These were to be her last photographs while she was with Picasso. He deemed photography an inferior medium. ‘Inside every photographer is a painter trying to get out,’ he said. Picasso’s art flourished from his relationship with Dora, but hers did not. She refocused her energy on painting but the flat, drab, cubist- style landscapes and still life studies she created were not her best works.

Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937) is based on an image of a woman holding her dead child from Guernica. Here, Dora’s head is brutally cut up and transfigured, distraught and lamenting the slaughter of innocents. Weeping Woman became the first of a series of thirty paintings which Dora was proud to have inspired. The way she saw it, she allowed her features to be contorted and deconstructed into harsh ugliness to convey despair and anguish, in a way that resonated with events of the era.

These powerful portraits paved the way for a new kind of art. Brigitte Leal describes it:

the fascination that the image of this admirable, but suffering and alienated, face exerts on us incontestably ensues from its coinciding with our modern ambiguity, and monstrosity.

There is no doubt that by signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of a terrible and tragic beauty, the fruit of our contemporary history.

Yet these portraits did not end with the series of Weeping Women. After the Second World War broke out, Picasso increasingly portrayed Dora as a sacrificial victim, which might or might not be interpreted as a symbol of his own grief at the horrors and brutality of war. He told Françoise Gilot they were inevitable. Although he had laughed more with Dora than with almost anyone else,

I just couldn’t get a portrait of her while she was laughing … for years I painted her with tortured shapes. This was not because of sadism, but not because of any particular pleasure either. I was simply obeying a profound vision that had imposed itself on me. A profound reality.

The Yin and the Yang

Picasso’s relationships with six of his most significant ‘muses’ were formative. As the critic Susan Greub says,

They sparked a process of creation, each new love setting free a novel canon of shapes and colour and allowing Picasso to redefine the laws of painting, mirroring his constant strive for renewal.

He also thrived on friction, using the glaring differences in the temperaments of Marie-Thérése and Dora to feed his creative spark. Marie-Thérèse, maternal, soft, yielding, somewhat naive, in need of protection, was yin. Dora: infertile (according to Picasso), haughty, fearless, intelligent, articulate, was yang. He used a different visual language accordingly to portray them.

Portraits of Marie-Thérèse show his womanly ideal: dreamy, curvy, painted in a choice of cool pastel blues, greens, and mauves. She wears a crown of daffodils, a jaunty beret, a sweet straw hat.

Although Picasso also made tender portraits of Dora, her strong streak of independence seemed to provoke rages in him. His portraits of her increasingly seeemed to express his shadow side: his misogyny and rage. They are all sharp, splintered angles, long red fingernails, thick black outlines, impassive staring eyes, and acid colours. She wears veils, nets, spiky hats, the wings of voracious insects.

The Second World War

While Picasso was responding to the rise of Fascism, he could not ignore what was happening in Germany. Hitler (a failed artist) exalted heroic art and a return to the classical canons of beauty, in opposition to what he termed degenerate art. In July 1937 a large exhibition of art went on display in Munich to denounce avant-garde artists. The catalogue defined degenerate art as:

The general decadence of the new aesthetic values that display a disdain for basic artistic technique in their distortion of bodies and objects and use of a garish and arbitrary palette.

All the major movements of the twentieth century were represented: Cubism, Dada, Futurism, Expressionism. Joining Kirchner, Nolde, Chagall and Matisse were works by Picasso, who was widely considered the leader of the avant-garde. This placed him in a highly precarious position in the tense, dark wartime years. Yet during the German occupation both Dora and Picasso refused to leave Paris. There are rumours that Dora Maar’s father was Jewish. When French police began rounding up Jews and sending them to Drancy, the French concentration camp, her father disappeared to Argentina. No one gave her away but Dora must have been fearful. Once a Nazi officer visited Picasso’s studio. Looking at a photograph of Picasso standing in front of Guernica he asked, ‘Did you do that?’ Picasso is said to have replied: ‘No, you did.’

Conflict at Home

While Picasso’s art reflected the violent and twisted energy of war, so too did his life. Dora’s existence was known to Marie-Thérèse but for quite a while Picasso was able to account for her presence in his studio thanks to her photography. But Marie-Thérèse soon discovered the truth. In a radio interview she gave in April 1974 she said:

The monster made us wear the same dresses from [Jacques] Heim…As there had been a mistake in the delivery of slips in pale pink silk and blouses from Nina Ricci, I had called Pablo and it was Ines, the chambermaid, who replied that sir was not there…The address on the package I had was 6, rue de Savoie where Dora lived. I went there.

A tense exchange ensued. There were accusations and counter accusations and the situation descended into farce. Picasso presumably lurked in the adjacent room but did not appear. Later that day, Marie-Thérèse went to Picasso’s studio to try to clear the air.

While she was there Dora arrived and Picasso, feeling uneasy, let her in. “Do you love me? Do you love me?” Dora asked him. Taking Marie-Thérèse by the neck, he replied: ‘Dora Maar, you know that the only person I love is Marie-Thérèse Walter and that’s all there is to it. She is the one. We understand each other.’ At that, Marie-Thérèse took the opportunity to push Dora out of the door, but she knew full well her action would not change a thing.

Both women were intensely miserable to be shared, and yet Picasso insisted this was the way it would be. He often had them pose in the same position and once, in a reclining position at different times of the same day.

But it was Dora he spent the most time with. His biographer William Rubin believes this had

less to do with passion for Dora than the fact that, as an artist and an intellectually absorbing woman, she fit easily into the painter’s circle of friends, and, moreover, challenged the artist in psychological and practical ways. Meanwhile, Marie-Thérèse (and Maya, to whom Picasso was deeply attached) remained the centre of the secret private world she had always embodied for him.

Maar’s presence enabled Picasso to live a double life. With Marie-Thérèse and their young daughter Maya, he could be affable and gentle but he inflicted brutal treatment on Dora, humiliating her and playing games of domination that she tolerated.

Jim Lord, a young American soldier and aspiring novelist, recounted a painful story about one of Picasso’s games. Lord first met Dora when he joined Picasso at a restaurant in Paris during the war. Dora had lost a cigarette lighter so was unable to satisfy Picasso’s request for a light. In response Picasso

began berating her explosively, speaking in Spanish, rapping his knuckles so loudly on the table that people turned to stare. But he appeared supremely indifferent to everyone but Dora, whose own indifference to Picasso and his tirade was evidently absolute, as she simply sat there, the unlit cigarette immobile in front of her face.

It turned out that Picasso had a box of matches in his pocket that he had known about all along.

As a man who required complete psychological control over his women, Dora’s tears inspired in him a predatory tenderness. Sadness brought out the best in him, whereas joy and happiness were not useful to his art. His cruelty and destructiveness are present in his paintings. He sometimes told Dora, ‘The worse I make them, the more people like them.’

Every day he demanded from his women proof of their desire and affection. His appetite was insatiable. As a child in Malaga he had been surrounded by devoted women. To his mother, sisters, and aunts he was their child king. They lavished him with affection, but he did not recognise that the love could be returned. This pampered boy had been forgiven all misdemeanours and shortcomings because of his genius as an artist. And so it continued for the rest of his life.

A New Woman

In May 1943 Picasso met the promising painter Françoise Gilot in a restaurant near his studio. She was forty years his junior and Picasso became obsessed with her. Whenever a new woman entered his life, Picasso would take his time to end his relationship with the previous one. The overlap with Dora was nearly three years. Her friends warned her that she should protect herself from what they called her ‘demon lover’. But she had her pride.

In November 1946, Dora suffered a terrible loss. Just after she had been talking with one of her closest friends Nusch Eluard on the phone, she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died.

In her biography, Françoise Gilot recalled being with Picasso when they encountered Dora at an exhibition. They all went to lunch together and Dora ordered caviar: ‘You don’t mind if I order the most expensive thing on the menu do you? I suppose I still have the right to a little luxury, for the time being?’ she asked. Over the meal, Picasso told her how wonderful Françoise was, ‘What a mind! I’ve really discovered somebody, haven’t I?’ Dora spoke wittily but Picasso saved all his laughter for Gilot.

She appears in one last painting by Picasso. Nu et femme Assise, dated April 15, 1944 shows Dora, diminished and imprisoned in a wicker chair. To the left above her is a huge cupboard, its door ajar, which sends a triangular shape of light over the standing figure of a naked woman. It is a composition Picasso had used before, with Dora standing and Marie-Therese seated. Now a new woman occupied the dominant position, one who would herald a new era.

When Picasso ended his affair with Dora she was distraught: ‘He used me until he felt there was nothing left of me’. The last time she saw Picasso she told him,

People are going to think I’m a poor unfortunate creature, but you are the misfortune, and I’m leaving it with you.

Dora’s mental heath deteriorated. She began to experience hallucinations. On one occasion she was found naked on the stairs to her apartment, and on another she was escorted from a cinema after making a disturbance. Friends feared she might commit suicide or go mad. She experienced an episode of hysteria that led to psychiatric hospitalisation and electroshock treatment.

Far from wondering whether he might have done things differently with Dora, Picasso blamed her collapse on her association with the Surrealists:

It’s like a fire that smoulders for a long time and then, when the wind picks it up, begins to rage. Don’t forget that the leading surrealists, the ones who survived the heyday of the movement – Breton, Eluard, Aragon – have very strong characters. The weaker ones who trailed after them haven’t always fared as well: Crevel committed suicide, Artaud went mad, and there are plenty of other cases. As an ideology, it sowed disaster pretty generally. The sources of Surrealism are a rather dubious mixture. It’s not strange that with a hodgepodge like that, so many lost their way.

The number of Picasso’s affairs continued. Well into his seventies, his dark, penetrating and sometimes disturbing gaze could still mesmerise young women. He had a way with words and initially could appear shy, but his predilections were for what would cut and hurt. His art needed women and even when he painted political works like Geurnica, it was the female forms that gave it drama. As the grandson of Picasso and Marie-Thérèse, Olivier Widmaier-Picasso, observed:

Picasso loved, loved like a madman, furiously seeking the woman who would feed his art, his life, his dream of eternity. He made each new companion undergo an initiation, an emotional and artistic test, to seduce, reassure, and restrain her, to draw from her inspiration and creativity, which he exhausted before ineluctably abandoning her and recommencing the same game with another woman – and then another. Very few could withstand it.

Marie-Thérèse committed suicide four years after Picasso’s death. Dora survived and lived to old age. Although he continued to cast a long shadow, there was always more to her life than Picasso. We will take up her story again in the South of France.

Music

Ginastera (arr. João Luiz Rezende Lopes): Danzas argentinas, Op. 2 No. 2 Danza de la Moza Donosa Aquarelle Guitar Quartet Aspects

This piece was composed in 1937, the same year that Picasso completed Guernica. Danzas Argentinas (Argentine Dances) is a set of three dances for solo piano written by Alberto Ginastera, one of the leading Latin American Composers of the twentieth century. Danza de la Moza (Dance of the Donosa Girl) weaves dissonance and melody together in a sinuous, tense and haunting dance. The piece comes from Ginastera’s earlier work drawing on folk themes. It ends on an uncertain atonal note that seems perfectly to reflect the relationship between Dora and Picasso. I particularly like this version with guitars but this Daniel Barnboim’s live piano version is wonderful too.

Notes

Dora Maar’s photography and painting have until recently been little known and for the most part she was lumbered with the reputation of being Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’. But a full-scale exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in the summer of 2019, that travelled to London’s Tate Modern and the Getty Centre in Los Angeles, has brought her work to the attention of a wide audience. The exhibition featured well over four hundred photographs, paintings and documents, showcasing a multi-faceted and impressive body of work.

I saw the show at the Centre Pompidou. The sheer volume and variety of the work felt a little overwhelming but I found it by turns compelling, odd, at times menacing. There were sparks of fun and humour, especially in her street photography, where she made use of odd angles and judicious cropping to highlight chance encounters. And some of the portraits and street photography seemed like precursors to the dark portraiture of Diane Arbus: Woman sitting in profile, the bust dressed in a blouse made of tatoo patterns drawn on the photograph (1930) and Blind Street Peddler, Barcelona (1933). I was not surprised to discover later that Maar had indeed been an important influence on Arbus.

Café Deux Magots, the scene of Dora’s dramatic meeting with Picasso, has been a lair for artists, writers, poets, musicians and philosophers since it opened in 1884. Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Françoise Sagan, Juliette Gréco, Giacometti, Richard Wright and James Baldwin to mention just a few, have charmed, seduced, worked, fought, flirted or put the world to rights at its tables and those of its neighbour, the Café de Flore.

For a while it was favoured by the Surrealists who were famously argumentative and always having spats. Janet Flanner, the American correspondent for The New Yorker Magazine recalled that in the mid twenties,

…the Surrealists had their own club table facing the door, from which vantage point a seated Surrealist could insult any newcomer with whom he happened to be feuding.

The Café Deux Magots has a fine view of the gothic Church St. Germain-des Prés, which in some shape or form has presided over this neighbourhood for more than 1,450 years, since the times of the first kings of France. And in a little garden in the shadow of this church sits Picasso’s bronze of Dora Maar (Tête de femme). It was chosen as a monument to Picasso’s friend, the great poet, partisan of modern artists and bon vivant, Guillaume Apollinaire. Weakened from a head wound sustained during active combat in the First World War, he died two years later, on Armistice Day aged 38. A decade after his death, Apollinaire’s widow and friends asked Picasso to create a suitable monument to honour him. It became a protracted process as they rejected many of his proposals until finally accepting this bust in 1941. The doleful, rather bland depiction seems a strange choice to me.

Picasso’s former studio at 7 rue des Grands Augustins is six blocks from the café and church, heading towards the river Seine, but still within the boundaries of the 6th arrondissement. He took the attic at the top of this elegant 17th century mansion at Dora’s suggestion. It was once home to the Dukes of Savoy. Honoré de Balzac had used the attic as the fictional location for the painter Frenhofer, in his short story ‘Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu’ (The Unknown Masterpiece). The story recounts how Frenhofer, the greatest painter of his time, becomes obsessed with mastering the absolute in paint, a process that takes many years for him to complete. His picture becomes less and less recognisable with the passing years and is mocked by his friends as the work of a madman. Eventually, Frenhofer destroys the painting and dies. Picasso found this resonant as, like Frenhofer, he locked himself away in the same studio to create his masterpiece Guernicaalthough of course in his case it brought him accolades and recognition. The attic was well known to Dora because she had attended meetings there for the October Group, a radical collective of writers and actors. Although she had done so much to inspire his work, she could never just turn up to visit Picasso here unannounced; she had to make an appointment.

Dora’s former apartment at 6 rue de Savoie is in a smaller street that intersects with the rue des Grands Augustins. Her building is more modest and there is no plaque to commemorate her by the front door as there is for Picasso. A man who lived opposite asked why I was taking such an interest. He had never heard of Dora Maar and was most surprised when I told him that a major retrospective of her work was in full swing at the Pompidou. Story of her life, I thought. As I wandered between Dora’s apartment and Picasso’s studio, taking shots of interest, I reflected on how it must have pained her to learn that Picasso had given her replacement, Françoise Gilot, twenty years her junior, permission to turn up at his studio any time she pleased. How that must have hurt!

Weblinks

Interview with Damarice Amao Co – Curator of the Dora Maar Retrospective at The Pompidou Centre.

A Guardian review of the exhibition of Dora Maar’s work at Tate Modern in 2019.

This clip from a documentary about Picasso’s life focuses on the time when he pitted Marie-Thérèse and Dora against each other. His daughter Maya talks about how he used these women’s feelings and their anguish as fuel for his work.

A Vanity Fair feature on Marie-Thérèse Walter’s story.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the events surrounding Picasso’s Guernica and the impact of the work in this episode of In Our Time.

A clip from a documentary about photographers associated with the Surrealists, Here, Man Ray, Dora’s friend talks about the process of solarisation which he used for his portrait of Dora Maar (1936).

Janet Flanner recounts some wonderfully gossipy memories about Paris in the twenties and thirties.

Sources:

Baring, Louise. Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Cocteau and Picasso, Rizzoli

Caws, Mary Ann. Dora Maar With and Without Picasso: A Biography, Thames & Hudson, 2000

Dillon, Brian. ‘The Voraciousness and Oddity of Dora Maar’s Pictures’, The New Yorker, 21 May, 2019

Flanner, Janet, ‘The Greatest Refreshment’, The New Yorker, 4 March, 1972

Kalina, Richard. ‘Dora Maar’s Surrealist Photography Eclipses her Reputation as a Modernist Muse’, Art in America, February 11, 2020

Léal, B. ‘For Charming Dora: Portraits of Dora Maar’, in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), William Rubin, Ed. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1996-97

Lord, James. Picasso and Dora: a Personal Memoir, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993

Richardson, John. A life of Picasso Volume III The Triumphant Years 1917-1932 Jonathan Cape 2007

Stein, Gertrude. Picasso, Dover Publications, 1984

Widmaier-Picasso, Olivier. Picasso: The Real Family Story, Prestel Verlig, 2002

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  1. Melanie on

    I hung onto every word. I was mesmerized. How you decide who will be the subject in your blogs and then the process whereby you research (made all the more rich and compelling by your location visits and photos) and capture it all in your writings is remarkable. A joy to read and learn every time. This did not make me any more a fan of Picasso…but another great write focusing on interesting, avant- guarde and largely unknown women.

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  2. Jo Wing on

    So delighted you enjoyed this Melanie. It was interesting to see how little air play the Pompidou gave Picasso in the booklet about Dora Maar’s exhibition. They also failed to use the muse word. She’d be pleased about that I think.

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  3. Doug on

    Your deep adventure into the brutal but artistic world of Picasso and its context and setting in France highlighted for me that there is a serious cultural gap in my experience due to spending my life with children and family demands. My brother saw this and entreated me to open up my life but accepted that I was a blinkered lost cause. Your article has opened my eyes. Thankyou.

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    • Jo Wing on

      Hi Doug, It was quite an adventure alright. I’d heard Picasso had a cruel streak but it was more than just a streak – quite an eye opener. I’d never say you were blinkered and certainly not a lost cause. You forget to mention your many other skills, interests and fine qualities here!

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  4. paula ashworth on

    I settled down to this today – and will probably return to it tomorrow, as there’s so much to take in. Today I went to the video links on Picasso. Fascinating and, I have to say, what a rather unpleasant man… and it seems he became so egotistical that he actually stated that that he could do no wrong and that, whatever, his paintings would still be admired…. I’ve always been a tad iffy myself (!) and was amazed when I saw some of his earlier work (I believe it was in Nice) which was more my “sort of thing”, i.e. beautiful. Have always had a problem with any form of art which is ugly…. and in his case it was invariably cruel, too. As for Dora…. tragic and painful. (Jacqueline had moved beyond my radar and that story is fascinating, too).

    As always, your ‘photos are terrific!!! Thank you.

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    • Jo Wing on

      It’s lovely that you’ll go back to it. I kept finding so much interesting material with this story that I couldn’t resist adding more. Yes, his behaviour could be disturbingly abusive. If you’re interested, I’ve come across an article by Claudia Moscovi who examined Picasso’s traits and behaviour in light of Francoise Gilo’ts written account of her partnership with him, and argues that it fits a psychopathic profile:https://fineartebooks.wordpress.com/tag/picasso-as-psychopath/ The thing is he was extraordinarily prolific. He left behind more that 45,000 works and they are so diverse there’s bound to be something all of us will like. I find the violence connected to women in his paintings most difficult to take. What he did to Dora was terrible but she lived to the ripe old age of ninety. And she stayed curious, kept making art and went back to her photography, so she was a survivor – I’ll feature a story about that soon. Thank you for being so engaged, Paula

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