Seven Things to Know: Dora Maar

Explore the extraordinary life and career of this painter and photographer

Black and white photograph of the artist Dora Maar standing by an easel

Cecil Beaton Dora Maar behind one of her works, in her studio at 6 rue de Savoie, Paris 1944 Musée Picasso (Paris, France) © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Dora Maar was an artist who lived for almost all the twentieth century. Today, she is mainly known for being the muse for Picasso’s Weeping Woman. However, Maar’s work was radical, political and innovative in its own right. She inspired photographers, the surrealists and Picasso himself.

Explore seven things to know about this artist ...

1. She was a successful painter and photographer

Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907, the artist was raised between Argentina and France. Educated, well-travelled and supported by her family, Maar was able to pursue a career in the arts. She initially studied applied arts and painting at one of Paris’s most progressive art schools. She later went on to study photography. Disciplined and talented, Maar soon mastered the medium. She decided to pursue commercial photography, perhaps because this was a more reliable and financially stable career choice.

Maar quickly made a name for herself, taking fashion and advertising commissions. She also travelled to document harsh social conditions and made inventive photographs and photomontages that were included in the major surrealist exhibitions.

By the end of the decade, she had returned to painting. She devoted herself to this medium for the rest of her life, trying out many different styles and techniques. In the 1980s, she returned to photography, but was more interested in making abstract images than capturing real life. In 1994, she stated:

The street has changed so much, don’t you think? It’s more extravagant … but at the same time it’s not interesting anymore, it’s banal

2. She challenged the idea of the 'modern woman'

Black and white photograph of a women in a swimsuit with her arms in the air overlaid with the texture of water

Dora Maar Model in Swimsuit 1936 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © Estate of Dora Maar / DACS 2019, All Rights Reserved

In 1931, she opened a photographic studio with set designer Pierre Kéfer under the name ‘Kéfer -Dora Maar’. Specialising in portraits, nudes, fashion and advertising, the studio was hugely successful.

During the 1930s, female photographers gained commissions that had historically been awarded to men. Maar’s commercial photographs were innovative and experimental. She used dramatic lighting and shadows as well as techniques like collage and photomontage that blend fantasy and fiction. This seems to acknowledge that the ideal of the ‘modern woman’ was aspirational and did not represent the reality experienced by most women.

3. She was a street photographer

It is impossible to separate Maar’s work and career from the political times she lived through. Following the 1929 economic crisis, social conditions worsened in Europe and the US. The number of unemployed and people living in poverty grew considerably. Like many photographers of her generation, Maar felt driven to observe and record the most disadvantaged members of society. She took her camera on to the streets of London, Paris and in the Costa Brava, in the Catalonian region of Spain. Recurring subjects for Maar were the blind, the homeless, mothers with babes in arms, and children playing. Maar shot with a Rolleiflex camera. This allowed her to photograph scenes quickly.

4. She influenced Picasso

In late 1935 or early 1936, Maar met Pablo Picasso. They became lovers soon afterwards. She was at the height of her career, while he was emerging from what he described as ‘the worst time of my life’. He had not sculpted or painted for months.

Their relationship had a huge affect on both their careers. Maar documented the creation of Picasso’s most political work, Guernica 1937, encouraged his political awareness and educated him in photography. Specifically, Maar taught Picasso the cliché verre technique – a complex method combining photography and printmaking.

Picasso painted Maar in numerous portraits, including Weeping Woman 1937. However, Maar explained that she felt this wasn't a portrait of her. Instead it was a metaphor for the tragedy of the Spanish people. Picasso also encouraged Maar to return to painting. The flattened features and bold outlines of the cubist-style portraits Maar made at this time suggest Picasso’s influence. By 1940 her passport listed her profession as ‘photographer-painter’.

5. She was close to the surrealists

Maar became involved with the surrealists from 1933 and was one of the few artists – and even fewer women – to be included in the surrealists' exhibitions. She became close to the group because of their shared left-wing politics at a time of social and civil unrest in France.

Maar's photography and photomontages explore surrealist themes such as eroticism, sleep, the unconscious and the relationship between art and reality. Cropped frames, dramatic angles, unexpected juxtapositions and extreme close-ups are used to create surreal images. Contrasting with the idea of a photograph as a factual record, Maar's scenes disorientate the viewer and create new worlds altogether.

6. She was experimental

When Maar began her career, the illustrated press was expanding quickly. This created a growing market for experimental photography. Maar embraced this opportunity, exploring the creative potential of staged images, darkroom experiments, collage and photomontage.

Most of Maar’s work had one thing in common: an uncanny atmosphere. Her connection to the surrealists led her to create fantastical images. This included using photomontage to bring together contrasting images and reflect the workings of the unconscious mind.

Unlike many other photomontage creators of this time, Maar did not use photographs taken from illustrated newspapers or magazines. Instead the images often came from her own work, including both street and landscape photography. This experimentation and obvious construction became a defining feature of Maar's work.

7. She never stopped creating

Image of thin, black, wavy lines on a white surface

Dora Maar Untitled c.1980 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © Estate of Dora Maar / DACS 2019, All Rights Reserved

The 1940s brought a series of traumas. Maar's father left Paris for Argentina, her mother and best friend Nusch Eluard both died suddenly, her relationship with Picasso ended, and friends went into exile. The difficulty of this time is reflected in some of her work from this period.

Maar was included in many group and solo exhibitions in the 1940s and 1950s. In the mid-1940s she began to spend more time in rural surroundings of Ménerbes in the south of France. Here she regained her confidence as a painter and developed her own style of abstract landscapes. Exhibited across Europe, this work received very positive reviews.

In the 1980s, Maar returned to photography. However, she was no longer interested in photographing life on the street. Instead, Maar was interested in what she could create in the darkroom and experimented with hundreds of photograms (camera-less photographs).

Dora Maar died on July 16, 1997, at 89 years old. Throughout her life she created a vast and varied range of work, much of which was only discovered after her death.

We recommend