Dora Maar: Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” Revealed

Dora Maar, Shampooing (Shampoo), or Femme aux cheveux avec savon (Woman's Hair with Soap), 1934.

Collection Société Française de Photographie (coll. SFP)
© 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP,
Dora Maar, Shampooing (Shampoo), or Femme aux cheveux avec savon (Woman's Hair with Soap), 1934.
A vintage address book bought on eBay revived the life story of Dora Maar, a photographer and painter too often seen merely as a famous artist’s muse.

A vintage address book bought on eBay revived the life story of Dora Maar, a photographer and painter too often seen merely as a famous artist’s muse.

1926. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Digital image © CNAC/MNAM/Georges Meguerditchian/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Unknown maker, Untitled (Dora Maar Playing the Guitar on a Terrace with the Eiffel Tower in the Background), c. 1926.

“[Maar] told one of her friends (James Lord) that one day her work would be recognized. She was sure of that. Well … that time has come.”

Brigitte Benkemoun

Picture Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman, a Cubist oil on canvas painted in 1937 that depicts the shattered face of a crying woman. She was a figure he returned to in other paintings, prints, and drawings, a continuation, some critics say, of his protest against the Nazi bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica. But his model for the distorted figure was his mistress, Dora Maar, a woman whose own artistic legacy was so thoroughly sidelined by her fraught relationship with Picasso that when she died in 1997, it took ten days for an obituary to appear.

More than twenty years later, that is beginning to change, and her revival is due, at least in part, to a serendipitous discovery on eBay.

In 2016, Brigitte Benkemoun’s husband was scouring the internet auction site for a leather diary and happened to find one engraved with his initials, T.D., for seventy euros. It seemed like fate. When it arrived, the pair discovered “slipped into the inner pocket” of the vintage Hermes diary a tiny address book, filled with jotted names and numbers. It struck them immediately that many of the names belonged to famous poets and artists: Brassaï, Breton, Chagall, Cocteau!

Benkemoun, author of the fascinating book, Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life, described it as “twenty pages on which the greatest postwar artists were listed in alphabetical order … like a personal telephone directory for Surrealism and modern art.”

Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre de Création Industrielle, Paris. Purchase 1991 © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Digital image © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Philippe Migeat

Dora Maar, Untitled (Hand-Shell), 1934.

Its owner, however, was a mystery. As a journalist, Benkemoun knew this was a story worth chasing. Her first tip was a 1952 calendar at the back of the address book. The eBay seller had purchased it at auction in southwestern France in 2013, and the auctioneer wouldn’t offer any further information. So Benkemoun decided to decode the book “line by line and page by page,” uncovering not only mid-century artists but hairdressers and gallery owners, which she felt had narrowed down her suspects to a woman who painted; the scribbler’s haphazard spelling also suggested that she was either dyslexic or not French. In the end, the name of an architect proved the vital clue and led Benkemoun to the village of Ménerbes in southeastern France, where, in 1944, Picasso had purchased a house for Dora Maar.

“Dora Maar was almost a stranger to me,” said Benkemoun in a recent interview. “I knew her as a photographer, Picasso’s muse, and the ‘Weeping Woman.’ But, honestly, nothing else. I didn’t even know she used to live in Ménerbes, and I grew up in Arles, only 100 kilometers from her house!”

What came to light in the process of researching the address book was the depth of Maar’s artistic legacy when pulled out from under Picasso’s shadow. Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907 and raised largely in Argentina and France, Maar was educated, talented, and determined. She pursued photography, sharing a darkroom with Brassaï in 1930 and then opening her own studio in 1932. Her commercial assignments in advertising and fashion kept her busy, but she also experimented with form through photomontage and collage, innovations that placed her at the heart of the Surrealist movement.

In the winter of 1935-36, Maar met Picasso, twenty-six years her senior, a world-renowned artist in a slump, according to a Tate exhibition guide, but still burning with trademark machismo. They were drawn to one another, and, notably, Maar photographed the making of Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica in 1937. According to Benkemoun, it was Maar who brought the political topic to his attention in the first place, and, with her daily photographic documentation, helped him to envision the scope of the mural. Maar saw it as collaborative, Picasso did not. He felt that photography was a lesser artwork and encouraged her to paint instead.

Photo by Roxane Lagache. Courtesy of Éditions Stock

A page from Dora Maar's address book, purchased on eBay in 2016 by Brigitte Benkemoun.

Collection Thérond © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Digital mage © Centre Pompidou / Audrey Laurans

Dora Maar, Untitled (Fashion Photograph), 1936.

“If she didn’t decide around 1937 to become a painter, she could have become as famous as Dorothea Lange or Lee Miller,” Benkemoun said. “For women today (artists or not) she represents a kind of sacrifice which is no longer acceptable.”

Maar began painting abstract landscapes and still-lifes and later tried her hand at engraving and photograms, some of which surfaced only following her death. After her breakup with Picasso in 1945, which resulted in a breakdown and hospitalization, Maar became increasingly reclusive, religious, and right-wing. When she died, her Paris apartment revealed a stockpile of artwork, hers and Picasso’s, including one of his Weeping Woman oils that sold at auction for $6.6 million. Literally and figuratively, she had been holding on to it.

She had continued making art in those post-war years, obsessively some would say. It is this second era that needed to be reassessed, said Amanda Maddox, associate curator of photography at the Getty Museum and co-author of the exhibition catalogue that accompanies the traveling exhibition of Maar’s work slated to open at the Getty this fall. The exhibition debuted at Paris’s Centre Pompidou in the summer of 2019 and then opened at London’s Tate Modern the following fall.

“I’ve been fascinated by how Maar’s output during this period suggests an interest in exploring the fluidity between media—many of her works on paper (prints, photographs, and watercolors) seem to serve as studies of how different techniques can yield highly similar or interrelated compositions,” Maddox said.

Maddox, who began working on the Maar exhibition ten years ago, said each of the three venues chose different material and styles of presentation. “In Los Angeles, the exhibition will contextualize some of her relationships with other Surrealists and illuminate how that constellation of artists, writers, and intellectuals collaborated and inspired one another.” She added that while all three shows have incorporated a section that explores Maar’s artistic dialogue with Picasso, “this project is an examination and celebration of her career, not her biography.”

The address book is not on exhibit, although Benkemoun has put it on view in smaller galleries. “Each time I take it outside,” she said, “I’m afraid to lose it!”

Forever now entwined in Maar’s life, she has visited both the Paris and London installations and is planning to see LA’s too. “Three of the greatest museums in the world! [Maar] told one of her friends (James Lord) that one day her work would be recognized. She was sure of that. Well … that time has come.”

About the Author

Rebecca Rego Barry

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine.

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