Art made by women is gaining the space it deserves in international museums and galleries. Tate Modern receiving this Dora Maar exhibition is a high point in this attempt to unearth treasures from some of the world’s greatest artists, until now too often overshadowed by art history. It also stands as a mesmerising voyage across artistic periods of the 20th century.
This exhibition has been long anticipated and is the largest retrospective of Surrealist artist Dora Maar ever held in the UK, after a first showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in summer 2019. Known for her intense relationship with Pablo Picasso, having inspired some of his most famous colourful cubist portraits including ‘The Weeping Woman’, Henriette Theodora Markovitch (daughter of Croatian architect Joseph Markovitch, 1874–1969 who took his family to Argentina in 1910) was a talented photographer, painter, experimenter and an early activist, close to the Surrealists’ circle. One of her closest friends was the artist Nusch Eluard, married to the celebrated French poet Paul, author of the poem ‘Liberty’ among many other unforgettable texts of the deeply troubled 1930s and 40s. Dora Maar, which became her pseudonym after her first years working as an acclaimed fashion and advertisement photographer in Paris, produced some of her first strong personal work by photographing Nusch and experimenting with superimposition and collage, as seen in the second room of the exhibition.
Tate Modern here highlights how vast, rich and varied Maar’s work was, over five decades, in striking curatorial choices. It powerfully repairs an injustice in the history of art. Moving chronologically from her first photographs to her experimental return to the dark room, the exhibition displays different phases of a sublime career, kick-started in an iconic place and time: Paris in the 1930s within the Surrealist movement.
Maar’s first provocative photomontages naturally stand out, from her self-portraits to her pioneering advertising photographs. Her eye for the unusual becomes prominent in her next steps, when she embraced street photography in like Paris’ outskirts, war-torn Barcelona and impoverished parts of London. The fourth and fifth rooms are dedicated to Maar’s love for the “everyday strange” and plunge into Surrealism, at a time where her political consciousness grew deeply. Like most of the Surrealists she chose to focus her art on the subconscious power of the mind and its visual representation, through poetic montages and collages - of shells and hands, legs and city views, most of them untitled but inspired by theories on dreams and the unconscious.
Arriving in the room that explores her connections to Picasso, it is evident how much Maar’s work influenced Picasso as much as he influenced her, if not more so. Documenting the evolution of Picasso’s sketches for ‘Guernica’ in 1937, Maar directly inspired ideas for the composition of what became his first political piece. The last rooms focus on Maar’s painting and her late return to photography, through experimental manipulation of images away from the camera and the outside world, inside her own rich mind. The strength of her body of work and the scale of her career and its influence is undoubted.
One wonders how many other female artists remain in the shadows of history, a place designated not only art historians and curators but by their male peers also.