Art Review: Dora Maar, Tate Modern, ‘Brilliant, but Also Unbearably Sad’


Towards the end of this exhibition, in one of the last galleries, hangs a self-portrait Dora completed in 1945. It is a haunting, arresting image. Close cropped, Dora’s face is robbed of any context. Her eyes sunken with heavy circles underneath almost pleading for a release from an unspoken pain. It is unbearably sad. It is also a defining painting in terms of this show and its attempt to centralise and celebrate Dora’s work.

You see, in 1945, Dora’s famed and notorious relationship with Pablo Picasso was in its last, volatile and violent, days. The great misogynist had found a new muse in the form of a young art student named Françoise Gilot, a woman half Dora’s age. And this was after, from Dora’s perspective, seeing off the last of Picasso’s young girls, Marie-Thérèse Walter, (also half her age) only a few years before. (Picasso relished seeing Dora and Marie-Thérèse literally fight for him – a confrontation hinted at in Dora’s marvellous painting, The Conversation, shown below.)

Picasso was a brutal, selfish man but Dora loved him and the final breakup shattered her to the point where she was put under psychiatric care in 1945, when the self-portrait was completed.

Dora was never the same after this experience, either personally or professionally. In the years that followed, as this Tate retrospective shows, Dora withdrew from society, shunning her passion for social documentary and political observation for private exploration of photo marking, scraping and disturbing the darkroom process to produce ambiguous and often rather lifeless works.

Yet compare this to the extraordinary verve, independence and voracious appetite for surrealism in the works from the younger, pre-Picasso Dora that fill the vast majority of the Tate’s exhibition galleries.

These paintings, photos, and montages are stunning, demonstrating brilliantly the tiny tragedy of Dora’s meeting with Picasso. Sure, the two had a period of intense artistic collaboration, most notably with Dora’s highly influential role in the creation and recording of Guernica. But, in the process, she lost herself.

Photography was Dora’s main outlet despite being a talented painter. This isn’t that much of a surprise; many women artists in the 20th century found photography a better way to make a career for themselves that art given both the discriminatory power structures in the art world (photography, being a relatively new medium, didn’t suffer as much in comparison) and with beauty ads and magazines to fill, there was always the likelihood of commissions.

But what is special about Dora’s photography was her surrealist eye. Fashion ads in anyone else’s hands were more conservative and staid; but here was Dora placing bikini clad models in swimming pools, replacing the head of a model wearing a ballgown with a giant star, and covering the face of a woman in a skincare ad with a spider weaving a web.

This was Dora exploring the limits of this newfound freedom and marking her work out in comparison with her peers. (And, certainly, Dora could afford to do this more than others as she did not come from a poor background). But this also reflects Dora as an artist. This was Dora fascinated by the fabled ‘the camera never lies’, cutting up images and transposing objects onto prints to create fantastical scenes.

However, as the 1930s came, so did the Great Depression and violent political upheavals, most notably in Dora’s homeland of Spain which was ripped apart by the Civil War. Dora was heavily political, and as the decade progressed, she became even more so. She turned her hand to social documentary works, particularly in Spain, France and the UK. Her images of posh beggars, homeless women and children playing in dirty streets are another part of her overlooked oeuvre and it’s well represented here.

In fact, the Tate has made great effort to wrestle with Dora Maar and her representation. After all, this is a woman whose personal life is extremely hard to separate from her professional as they were so deeply entwined. In 1935, she and Picasso were introduced at Les Deux Magots in Paris and the rest, as they say…

What is commendable is the extent to which the Tate has framed her relationship with Picasso as her influence on him, rather than the other way around – there is a great photo of the piles of Dora Maar/Weeping Women portraits in Picasso’s studio included in the display – but there’s no escaping the imbalance between Dora’s work pre-Picasso versus post. It very much is a career of, if only.


Tate Modern, London, to March 15, 2020.

Admission: £13.

Image Credits:

Dora Maar, Untitled (Fashion photograph) c. 1935. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 300 x 200 mm. Collection Therond © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Dora Maar, The years lie in wait for you c. 1935. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 355 × 254 mm. The William Talbott Hillman Collection © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Dora Maar, The Conversation 1937. Oil on canvas 162 x 130 cm. Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, Madrid © FABA Photo : Marc Domage © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

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