Behind the Muse - Dora Maar

 

On the walls of a gallery, maybe they’re worth only half a million. On the walls of Picasso’s mistress, they’re worth a premium, the premium of history.

- Dora Maar -

On the walls of a gallery, maybe they're worth half a million. On the walls of Picasso's mistress, they're worth a premium, the premium of history.

- Dora Maar -

Its time for another dramatic Behind The Muse and I am more than excited to be telling you all about the talented and unsung Dora Maar, muse behind my Poet scented candle!

Historical articles will lead you to believe that Dora Maar was simply a mistress & muse to Picasso. But the truth is that she was also a talented and innovative artist with an unhinged & wild imagination.

So sit tight and get ready for a journey of art, passion, tumult & tension…

FROM HENRIETTA TO DORA MAAR

On the 22nd November 1907 in Tours, France, a baby girl entered the world named ‘Henrietta Theodora Markovitch’. Her Croatian father was an architect, whilst her mother was French and brought up in the Catholic faith. Dora found her childhood to be quite lonely, and spent the majority of her earlier days in Buenos Aires, Argentina where her father worked on a number of projects.

Even in her infant years, it was clear that Dora was a very clever girl. She spent her time reading English and spoke both French and Spanish fluently. But as smart as she was, Dora also had a rebellious streak… Especially when it came to which hand she used for day-to-day life. Dora was born left-handed and in those days, it was frowned upon to be anything other than right-handed. It was said that her parents and teachers forced her to eat, write and carry out day-to-day tasks with her right hand. Dora begrudgingly complied, but when it came to creative activities such as painting and drawing, Dora rebelliously used her left-hand instead because it gave her more creative freedom. Well, aren’t we glad you did Dora…

Dora took her first step into the art world in 1925 when she began to study painting at Académie Julien, although she didn’t seem to take an initial shine to it like she thought she might. Not one to be deterred, Dora decided that she would explore photography instead. She would meander the streets of Paris for inspiration and quickly became recognisable for her beautiful exterior in the avant-garde social network of Paris. Wanting to capitalise on her star potential, it was then that Dora simplified her name to the more glamorous ‘Dora Maar’!

DORA'S EARLY WORKS

In 1930, a French set designer and photographer named Pierre Kefer was working in the same area as Dora and like many other Parisians, he recognised her charms and talents. One day he approached Dora and asked if she would like to share his studio in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, the West of Paris. With all of the gusto of a young & ambitious artist, Dora keenly accepted. The two of them began working together on portraits, advertising projects and fashion photography.

A prominent piece that the artistic duo produced was ‘Dora Maar & Pierre Kefer, Assia, Nude’. This bold & dramatic image depicts Dora standing nude, with the shadow of her figure projected on the wall behind her.

Dora took a liking to appearing nude in photographs for erotic publications (naughty!) This gave her the opportunity to pose for other artists such as the revered Man Ray. Dora’s subversive and often dark style of work was playful and intriguing. Her images nodded towards the surreal and to a future she was yet to discover.

Dora was quick to associate herself with some of the most outstanding artists and intellectuals in Europe at that time. After all, by now she considered herself to be one of them! ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’, a French humanist photographer, soon crossed her path and Dora seized the opportunity to work with him and build on her studies. Henri favoured a candid photography method which Dora channeled into her own work, and which would later influence her own street photography. Henri encouraged Dora to try working as a photojournalist, a challenge which Dora accepted with great enthusiasm.

Le Couple Fache, Rue De Lappe, Paris, Circa 1933, Brassai

Femme-Fruit (Transmutation)1935, Brassai

Gala Soiree at Maxims, Paris, 1949, Brassai

Whilst embarking on her photojournalist exploits, Dora delightedly met and mingled with other artists. It wasn’t long before she crossed paths with a Hungarian photographer named ‘Brassai’. Brassai was a journalist, but he also worked as a sculptor & photographer who captured dramatic images of typical Parisian life. One trait which Dora and Brassai shared, was a mutual love for the other's work, they were on the same wavelength when it came to their work too!

Dora was limitless in her approach. Boundaries were there to be broken and she thrived on producing imagery which was raw and often subversive. Dora was relentlessly passionate about her career & hobby and would strive to learn & improve. Sadly however, Kéfer-Maar’, the studio that she shared with Pierre Kefer closed down, so Dora decided that she would open her own. The time had come for her to fly solo.

ENTERING THE REALM OF SURREALISM...

Pére Ubu, Dora Maar, 1936

It was when she was working from her own studio in the 1930’s that Dora began to create some of her most prolific Surrealist photographs. Engrossing herself in the surrealist movement, she found herself earning the not-easily-given admiration of leading poets and artists of the time. Even Andre Breton became an admirer, and this notoriously sexist artist did not admire many or often!

A great deal of Dora’s work was unsettling and even disturbing. Her work played with the human form as well as with the limits of possibility.

You may have come across one of her famous works called ‘Pére Ubu’. This is Dora’s own monstrous interpretation of the Ubu in the form of a baby armadillo. The astonishing piece is unsettling & dark and became one of the most evocative surrealist photographs. The concept was inspired by Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi. Just like Dora’s photograph, the play was rather bizarre & slightly sinister too! Dora never did reveal how it was that she made the image. Her secrecy around her work only rendered her to be even more intriguing & appealing.

Throughout her working life, Dora remained close to Man Ray, and even worked with him in his studio as an assistant for a while. Thanks to her surrealist social circles, Dora soon became close friends with a French Philosopher named George Bataille. George often wrote about surrealism and it's pioneering artists (quite possibly what caught Dora’s interest!) The pair enjoyed a great friendship which soon turned into a love-affair. However this affair wasn’t to last, and the most famous romance of Dora’s life was yet to take place...

AND THEN, PICASSO...

Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar in Antibes in 1937. Photograph by Man Ray

Dora recalls the first time that she met Pablo Picasso, in 1935, Dora and Picasso were on a movie set together. Picasso claims that he didn’t actually remember the encounter… Maybe he was too focused on his work? Dora as we know, was a very, very creative lady. She was confident in her talents and all too aware of her outstanding beauty. So, she used this to her advantage… In 1936, Dora decided that she wanted to set up a meeting with Picasso, but she didn’t want to appear ‘too keen’. Instead, she devised an ‘accidental’ encounter in a cafe that she knew Picasso frequented.

Dora eagerly went to the cafe, knowing all too well that Picasso would be there. Low and behold, there he was, sitting at a table & talking art with his friend Paul Eluard. Dora sat herself down on a solo table and began to play a game by herself. The game was a little bit radical however… after all, rapidly stabbing a small knife in the crevices between your fingers is a sure fire way to get someone's attention!

Picasso watched Dora play the bizarre game by herself. Occasionally, she would poke her fingers with the knife and leave drops of blood on her lacey gloves. It may well have been due to his apparent ‘sadistic’ mindset, but watching Dora play this game entranced him. Dora’s plan worked. Yet unbeknown to her, the sadistic game set the tone for what would become of their passionate yet turbulent & toxic love affair...

The Weeping Woman, Picasso, 1937

In no time at all, Dora had become Picasso's full-time muse. She would model for the artist and in turn, he would create artwork that ‘resembled’ her. Forget Dora ever being famous for her incredibly striking photographs and works of surrealism… Instead she became famous for well, being Picasso's muse.

A famous Dora-inspired piece you might recognise, is the ‘Weeping Woman’. The work was created in 1937 and clearly depicts Dora crying. The dark hair mimics Dora’s own brunette waves, and it is also said that Picasso would frequently re-visit this piece of artwork because he became a little ‘obsessed’ with what he had created… Was he talking about the piece of art here or the broken-down real-life ‘Weeping Woman’? There are a few of Picasso’s works that showcase Dora in her lively states, but the majority of his work was twisted and distorted and maybe even a little bit tortured. It is known that Picasso did once say that he only ever remembered his muse ‘always being in tears’.

Picasso was a painter and Dora was a photographer, but in Picasso’s eyes, a photographer was far less superior to that of someone who created art with brush strokes instead of a lens. This was rather contradictory from Picasso’s side however, as he asked Dora to become his personal photographer whilst he was painting the infamous ‘Guernica’, now his most famous piece which took him 36 days to paint.

Guernica, Picasso, 1937

TWISTS, TURNS & TURBULANCE

Over time, Picasso made Dora feel demeaned for what she loved doing most - photography. This led to Dora quitting photography and turning instead to her paintbrush… Something which she hadn’t done for many years.

It seemed that perhaps Picasso even took pleasure in torturing his muse. His infamous painting ‘Dora Maar with Cat’ depicts Dora with kittens on her shoulder & lap. To the innocent onlooker, this image seems to display Dora as a regal figure, posing majestically in a throne. However, in a punitive twist the cat was actually painted onto her lap (and over her womb) as a cruel joke about her inability to have children. Quite the wicked stab from Picasso!

The mental health of poor Dora was completely deteriorating… as was her relationship with Picasso. During their relationship, he’d indulged in an affair and even had a child with a woman named Marie-Thérèse Walter. Yet in an unforeseen turn of events, Picasso eventually left them both for a painter named Francoise Gilot.

 

Dora Maar au Chat, Picasso, 1941

Dora spiralled into a pit of self-destruction and despair. This led to her admittance into a mental health hospital for electroshock treatment. Dora turned to the Roman Catholic religion after advice from her doctor in the hospital. She thought her mental health might improve if she could find something that would fill the empty void that she felt inside her. To much of her surprise, Dora did indeed stabilise! Although surprisingly, when she finally felt ready to return to art, it wasn’t the lens she reached for first… It was the paintbrush. Could she still hear Picasso's distain for photography ringing in her ears? Whatever the reason, Dora devoted all of her time to painting, mainly creating still-life’s and landscapes.

She shared her time between her home in Paris and the house which Picasso had bought for her. Dora was still utterly heartbroken by the outcome of their relationship so, thinking it might in someway bring her closer to him, she moved into the home that he had gifted to her. Dora never ventured outside much though - apparently she was only ever seen attending church services.

In 1990, the final exhibition of Dora’s work was held in Paris. Although her and Picasso no longer spoke, Dora was still fascinated by everything that her former lover created. She even became a dedicated trader of Picasso’s work, selling-off the paintings which she held in her possession. Whether it was strange, grim or valuable Dora kept it. These items included paintings, newspaper cuttings and small scraps of paper that Picasso had drawn on and even smeared his blood onto. The blood incidentally, was from the spike of a torturous ring that he had made for Dora after they separated, one of the last cruel jokes from the artist to his muse.

THE END OF THE LINE

At the age of 89, Dora sadly passed away on the 16th July 1997. Dora’s shrine to Picasso in the form of her peculiar items were sold at auction after her death for tens of millions of dollars. In a bizarre twist of fate, the money was passed on to very distant heirs as Dora never married and or had children.

Somewhat woefully and hugely unfairly, following her death, Dora was referred to as the ‘muse’, ‘mistress’, ‘victim’ and the ‘recluse’ of Picasso. Her name predominately lived on via Picasso's artwork rather than through her own astonishing works of art.

After reading this, hopefully you will agree that Dora was so much more than just a muse. She was a talented artist in her own right and deserved her place in history as an icon of the 20th century - as an artist, a poet, a surrealist, and most certainly, not just as a muse!

The Poet scented candle is my small way of showing gratitude towards this fearless and artistically bold woman. Here’s to you Dora. May you continue to be an example of limitless possibilities, both on and off the canvas!