Dora Maar

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Although best known as the lover and muse of Picasso, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was notable creative figure in her own right. Respected as a fashion photographer, Surrealist artist and creator of collages, Maar produced art throughout her life. A new exhibition (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July 2019; Tate Modern, London, 19 November 2019-15 March 2020; Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020), reviewed from the catalogue, takes an overview of her art.

Born in Paris Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, to a French mother and Croatian father, Dora pursued art from childhood supported by her parents. She studied art at the school of decorative arts and the cinegraphic technical school in Paris and painting under André Lhote (who taught, among others, Tamara de Lempicka). She first published photography as “Dora Markovitch” in 1930. By 1932 she had adopted the name Dora Maar as her professional moniker. She worked as a commercial photographer, providing images for advertisers and journals. Common subjects included fashion, beauty shots, architecture, interiors and nature. She also photographed street scenes, a common practice at the time.

She also produced erotic photography for Parisian journals ranging from the respectable to the trashy. She adopted styles that included the conventional and experimental. A frequent model for Maar was the Ukrainian-born model Assia Granatouroff (1911-1982), who the most successful nude model of the 1930s in Paris. She was noted for her athleticism, beauty and grace. The short hair and fit physique made her Granatouroff (publicly known as “Assia”) the epitome of the post-flapper sun- and sea-worshipper in the era of organised nudism. She modelled for many artists, including Maillol, Derain, Gromaire, Valadon and van Dongen.

The authors fail to note what seems to be a nude photograph of Maar herself (left figure, plate 45), published in Beautés magazine, January 1937. Maar did occasionally model nude but those photographs are rarely seen. Only a few have been published. No others are included in this catalogue.

At this stage she was developing strong formal concerns in both her commercial and private work, toying with Cubism and Expressionism. In this production of photography for commercial and artistic ends, Maar was in a similar position to Man Ray and Lee Miller. From the start of her career, Maar was inventive about combining elements.

In 1933 Maar photographed street life in Barcelona. This combined her political engagement (Spain was at this time a socialist republic) and artistic affiliation to Surrealism, with Spain (like Mexico) being seen as the quintessential Surrealist country.  In 1933 Maar was introduced to Surrealism and found a philosophical and political outlook that chimed with her pre-existing sympathy for the strange, buttressing her detachment from conventional aesthetics.

It was difficult for the women within Surrealism. Although encouraged to be free spirits, this often meant little more than modelling nude and submitting to the sexual advances of the male Surrealists. Musehood seemed to entail a fair amount of old-fashioned unliberated submission of the sexual variety. There were opportunities, however, and we can count more prominent women creators within the Surrealist movement than within any other pre-war art movement. Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Toyen, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Remedios Varo and Maar – not to mention the creative influencers who did not leave bodies of work themselves, such as Gala Éluard (Dalí), Jacqueline Lamba (Breton), Nusch Éluard, Alice (Kiki de Montparnasse) Prin and others – all left a significant mark upon the Surrealist movement.

In documentary photographs taken around Paris in the mid-1930s, Maar used extreme close-ups of elements within their normal context, juxtaposing the distortion and oppressive size of an element contrasted with the apparent normality of the surroundings. This induces a sense of strangeness regarding our common surroundings. The irreverence towards public statuary is apparent in the close-up view of the detail of a Pont Alexandre III of a female statue’s hand holding a torch. The extreme cropping turns the civic symbolism of virtue bringing enlightenment into an explicit sexual image of the female hand manipulating a phallus. The departing ships in the Seine are the shed issue drifting away. Pont Mirabeau (1935) shows a female statue as if in peril suspended over a fall into the river. The angle of the shot and the animation of the allegorical figure’s face give the impression of a woman desperate to save herself from drowning. Thus a banal Belle Époque adornment becomes expressive of the hidden reality in a person’s life – an eruption of honest anxiety unperceived by the multitudes which pass by daily.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Untitled (1935), photomontage, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Repro © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Georges Meguerditchian]

Between 1934 and 1938 Maar produced and published 20 montages which are her best known works. Le Simulateur (1935) turns the curving barrel ceiling of the Orangerie into an inverted tunnel – part sewer, part race track – which is animated by a boy curved into an arch of hysteria. 29, rue d’Astorg (1935) has a kitsch ornament which is missing its head placed in a distorted arcade. Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska points that Maar’s montages bear a striking resemblance to a montage by Breton, Éluard and Suzanne Muzard, published in 1931 (dated “1931-3” here). Whether or not Maar’s approach was inspired by this example, she made it her own. What are the characteristics of Maar’s montages? Dark tonality, oneiric quality, claustrophic atmosphere, poetic sentiment, absence of easy humour, internal consistency in terms of scale/lighting/perspective/placement. These were frequently elements which she had photographed specifically with an end in mind, largely eschewing found photographs that were a staple of Surrealist montages. The catalogue reproduces the montages with the constituent photographs and some mock-ups.

There is a powerfully sinister undercurrent to Maar’s art that one does not find in even the more provocative art. Only in Bellmer’s obsessive erotic graphics and Magritte’s 1925-1929 dark claustrophic paintings do we find something comparable to Maar’s emotional darkness. In Maar’s montages there are disorientating inversions and compressions of space, as well as suffocating hermetically sealed spaces. It is worth noting that Maar maintained good standing with both Breton’s official Surrealist group and Georges Bataille’s renegade Documents faction. She photographed subjects from both factions, was Bataille’s lover and was a member of the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque group, which Breton left after a falling out with Bataille. Bataille’s outlook was considerably darker than Breton’s, steeped in mysticism, paganism and violence.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Portrait of Ubu (1936), gelatin silver print, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Philippe Migeat]

Maar’s contact with Picasso from 1935 onwards (ending in 1946) caused her to resume painting and drawing, activity that would last for subsequent decades. Maar photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937) for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair. She even painted sections under Picasso’s direction. Most of the art was derivative of Picasso’s style and content of the time. She received some praise but frankly much of the art is, whilst being competent, lugubrious and dull. Tonally dark, favouring cool colours and dwelling upon the straitened circumstances of the Occupation, the pictures do not have the urgency, inventiveness or the sardonic humour of Picasso. Picasso was attracted to Maar due to the air of danger, elegance and neuroticism apparent in her behaviour. A severe nervous breakdown in 1946 (for which she was hospitalised) is seen a contributing factor in her self-imposed retreat from public life. It was not a lasting state but what became a persistent trait was diffidence regarding exposing her new and old art, much of which she destroyed.

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[Image: Dora Maar, La Cage (1943), oil on canvas, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Private collection, Yann Panier, Courtesy Galerie Brame
& Lorenceau]

In the late 1940s Maar became increasingly attached to religious observance and became semi-reclusive, living alone. Starting in the late 1950s, Maar began working in abstracts, using very simple processes and forms. By the 1980s that had developed into the overlapping fields of photographs, paintings and photographed paintings that were abstract, relatively sparse, most of them imaginary landscapes. They are much closer to Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting and Taschisme. In palette they are restrained. They are very engaging; they show an impressive detachment of ego and emotional and stylistic freedom. The only problem with appreciating these pieces is the fact that due to Maar’s practice of destroying art we lack large bodies of evolving work. The late abstracts here seem occasionally jerky or flighty, lacking the grounding in a larger legible corpus. The danger of this situation is that it pushes the viewer towards regarding these pieces as slight – always a potential response to lightly worked abstracts.

The best of Maar’s montages are as good as the best Surrealist art made in Paris in the 1930s. Her paintings and drawings of the 1930s to 1950s are occasionally atmospheric but ultimately derivative and second rate. The late abstract photographs are stimulating and more work is needed to exhibit and catalogue these works, establishing a chronology and assembling groups and themes. At her death, her studio contents were dispersed uncatalogued, which has made understanding her development – mostly secluded from public exposure – difficult. This catalogue contributes to Maar’s standing as a serious and inventive artist. Much critical work has still to be done but what is made clearer than before by this exhibition and catalogue is that Maar’s best art is strong and her output overall rewards attention.

 

Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, Karolina Ziebinska (eds.), Dora Maar, J. Paul Getty Museum, 7 January 2020, hardback, 208pp, 240 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 629 4

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams