Dora Maar at TATE: Interview with Assistant Curator Emma Jones

Dora Maar 1

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As is quite often the case with much of the arts in contemporary circles, the often lopsided distribution of the public spotlight has in some instances meant that over the decades some work has played the forefront – whilst other notable works from the same artist (for some reason or another), have faded into obscurity under the widening shadow of time.

In many ways this rings true with Dora Maar. An accomplished painter, photographer and sometime poet that was pushing creativity to new limits for much of the 20th century… these days she is perhaps most renown for her relationship with Pablo Picasso. Most people today would associate Maar as Picasso’s muse for Weeping Woman. Some might even go so far as to mention her contributions to the Surrealist movement – the likes of which she was furiously active during the socially turbulent period of the 1930’s.

Indeed, this relationship between two groundbreaking artists in Maar and Picasso was to have a profound impact upon both of their lives – and consequentially their art too. Maar was at the height of her career, whilst Picasso was grappling with a particularly dark period of creative stagnancy. And yet, shortly after the two had crossed paths they soon wielded tremendous influence over each other’s work.

But what is to be said of Maar’s other bodies of work – from her black and white photos taken on the Rolleiflex, to her wartime landscape paintings in ink, oil and watercolour, or her slightly more abstract transitioning from the outside world to the inner, with her experimental work with light produced in the darkroom during the latter stage of her career?

L-R: Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, Lee Miller

This is indeed a widely ambitious and comprehensive collection assembled – with some work seen together for the first time. TATE Modern has encompassed everything from still photographs, portraits, photomontage and collage, to canvases and paintings (not only by Maar, but by Picasso too) utilising Maar as his ever-important and highly influential muse.

One can also expect to see a variety of relevant art publications, including London Bulletin and Cahiers d’art… as well as audio and video – most notably the creative process of Picasso’s 1937 anti-war masterpiece oil on canvas, Guernica, photographed by Maar in it’s various stages. 

Testament also to the wonderful cultural vibrancy of the period, this exhibition succeeds in highlighting the manifold of important artists that were regularly within Maar’s circle, including André Breton, Paul Éluard, Lee Miller, Man Ray, Georges Hugnet and Leonor Fini.

After the wonderfully insightful curator’s tour, Emma Jones was kind enough to take the time to share some of her own thoughts on this new exhibition at TATE, including some new bits of information she has picked up along the way…

Could you speak a little on the context of the society around the period that Dora Maar was most active, and how that may have served as inspiration for her work?

Throughout the 1930s, a really prolific decade for Maar, she was interested in the social and political conditions in which she was working.

Societally, this was a time of pronounced economic depression across Europe. There was substantial political unrest in France, as protests and counter protests led to changes in government. It was also a time where photographers, as well as filmmakers and writers, were really thinking about what it meant to bear witness to hardship, forming what would later be known as social documentary practise.

Marr travelled to Barcelona, London and Paris and photographed the people living there, doing so with an empathetic eye. Along with other artists and writers involved with surrealism, Maar was also very active in left-wing politics. It was Maar’s political leanings that first introduced her to poet and founder of the surrealist movement in Paris, André Breton – signing the political tract he wrote with the filmmaker Louis Chavance – Appel a la lute (Call to the battle). The close friendships with these artists and writers would cement Maar’s influence in surrealism, as their shared outlook was expressed in her most iconic photographs and photomontages.  

– Being that there is such diversity in the oeuvre being presented here, do you think that some of Maar’s work might have overshadowed her other work from the public eye as a result?

Maar had a career which spanned six decades, but it is really her photographic work and particularly her surrealist work for which she is most widely known. In part, this is because the works were so iconic within the movement and because surrealism continues to have such a lasting impact. However, there were other factors that also affected Maar’s legacy. We really wanted to move away from previous narratives that have positioned Maar as a recluse from the end of the 1930s, instead tracing her return to and success in painting.

Maar painted over four decades and we have shown the development of her style, from the claustrophobic still life works she made in Paris during the Occupation to the gestural, abstract works in watercolours and ink, inspired by the South of France landscape. Her painting practice shows the same interest in experimentation as her photographic work, leading to her friend Paul Éluard to describe her as a “painter of the outermost limits”.

– Is there anything new that you may have learnt about Dora Maar since curating this exhibition, or anything interesting that you might share with us?

I have learnt so much about Maar since working on this show.

One of my favourite pieces is a work Maar made with the writer André du Bouchet. Du Bouchet wrote a long form poem titled Sol de la Montagne (Mountain Soil) (1956) and Maar made four etchings to accompany the piece. The interest in mark-making and the techniques Maar is using in the etchings links with her late darkroom practice and the camera-less photographs she is making right at the end of her career. It also demonstrates how Maar continued to influence those around her: in the poem Du Bouchet mentions a woman on a motorbike, referencing Maar – who travelled by this method to the south of France into the hills to paint.

In this work, then, we see Maar’s continuing dedication to reinvention and experimentation, and the effect she had on the artistic circles in which she moved… really summing up her practice as an artist. 

Dora Maar at TATE Modern

20 November 2019 – 15 March 2020 

Written by Sonny Arifien of Privilege of Legends




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