Obituary: Dora Maar

Michael Peppiat
Saturday 02 August 1997 00:02 BST

Dora Maar, who has died within months of her 90th birthday, will be remembered as the most poignant of Pablo Picasso's mistresses.

When she came into Picasso's life, early in 1936, she was 28 and he 54. Picasso noticed her at a nearby table at the Cafe Les Deux Magots in Paris and was immediately drawn to her dark beauty. Although it was public knowledge in Saint-Germain-des-Pres that Picasso had left his wife Olga to live with Marie-Therese Walter, many young women in the quartier were at pains to attract his attention. Dora was wearing black gloves embroidered with pink flowers. Under Picasso's fascinated stare, she peeled off the gloves and began a game stabbing a knife rhythmically between her fingers. Every now and then, she came too close and drew a little blood.

This incident accurately foreshadowed the stormy and tortured love affair between them which began in the summer of that year when they met at a friend's house near Saint-Tropez. Although generally reserved and self- willed, Dora had nothing of the innocent about her. She had trained as a painter, come into contact with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, and her career as a photographer who had done experimental work as well as reportage was already well under way. As the mistress of the dissident Surrealist writer Georges Bataille she was familiar not only with the avant-garde circles of Paris but also with the further limits of sexual exploration.

Born in 1907 in Tours to a French mother and a Croatian father whose work as an architect involved long stays abroad, Dora had been brought up partly in Argentina. When she returned to Paris, she spoke fluent Spanish (a skill Picasso especially prized) and felt socially and morally freer than her French contemporaries. In keeping with her cosmopolitan modernity and her ambition as an artist, she decided to shorten her given name of Henriette Theodora Markovitch to Dora Maar.

But nothing could have prepared her adequately for the impact of an extended relationship with Picasso. From the start, her need to commit to an absolute belief, already heralded in a deep interest in religion, clashed with the Spaniard's mercurial and wilful temperament. Her independence and the coolness of her intellectual judgment came as a challenge to Picasso, who had begun to tire of Marie-Therese's soothing passivity. With Maar, he was able to discuss the complexities of his work and, under her guidance, he even experimented with a technique using the shadows of objects thrown on to sensitised paper.

She also proved helpful in more practical matters, finding Picasso the legendary studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins where he painted Guernica. As the work progressed, Maar photographed each of its key stages, thus providing an invaluable record of its development. These photographs were included in the special issue on Picasso which the magazine Cahiers d'art brought out later in 1937.

Maar also made a durable impact on Picasso's political attitudes, which became more radical under her influence. But their liaison was plagued by outbursts of jealousy and violence from the start. Picasso, whose relationship with Marie-Therese had continued as before, could not resist pushing the delicate situation to its limits. He fanned the animosity between the two women with an almost female sense of their vulnerability, portraying the one in the other's favourite clothes, dividing to conquer down to the last detail. At one point the two women literally came to blows in the studio, while Picasso went about his work as if nothing were amiss.

The constant shifts of emotion in their turbulent affair fuelled the brilliant and frequently cruel portraits which Picasso began to produce of Dora immediately after meeting her. She first appears, in a drawing that reflects Picasso's awareness of the age gap between them, opening a door to find a bearded patriarch in wait for her on the other side. There are tender sketches that catch the distant, quizzical charm of her face, and the whimsical portraits showing her as a bird or sporting the cigarette holder she liked to brandish between her elegant fingers. Her presence in Guernica is unmistakable, and the image of the woman in tears she inspired there was explored with a more personal, caustic intent in the famous Weeping Woman series which Picasso started to paint a few months thereafter.

Once war had broken out and their love had been soured by too many unforgiving fights, Picasso's paintings of Maar grew in savage distortion, with formal brilliance degenerating at times into crude venom. No doubt there was an obdurate, unyielding side to Maar's nature which whipped the domineering artist into a fury when he gave free rein to his feelings on canvas. Although he was clearly motivated by a range of other sensations and impulses when he portrayed her, Picasso nevertheless came to regard Dora above all as an object of suffering. "For me she's the weeping woman," he confided to Francoise Gilot. "For years I've painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either . . ."

By 1945, their affair was completely over, with Gilot having replaced Maar as Picasso's model and the mistress en titre. Just as nothing had prepared Maar for life with Picasso, nothing prepared her for the greater shock of life without him.

Prone to mood swings at the best of times, she sank into a depression for which she was treated first with electroshock in a hospital and then, at the insistence of her friend and admirer Paul Eluard, by the psychoanalyst most reputed in the Parisian avant-garde, Jacques Lacan.

Maar survived, but her life was drastically changed. She began going out less frequently and concentrated herself with admirable single-mindedness on her own painting. After producing numerous still lives redolent of the grim simplicity that touched much post-war painting in Paris, she embarked on a series of large abstract compositions.

Maar also grow increasingly devout, leading a near- monastic existence in her flat in the rue de Savoie, just round the corner from the studio she had found for Picasso. Later she began spending longer periods of time in the house the artist had bought her in Menerbes, the fortified hill-village in Provence. Living alone in the comfortless gloom of this large house, she continued to paint with undiminished confidence in her own talent, but she made it virtually impossible for anyone to see her work, let alone exhibit it. Consequently, although she longed for recognition, neither her paintings nor her photographs have ever been adequately shown.

With age, Dora Maar became a virtual recluse and a mystery even to the villagers of Menerbes, who knew of her past but rarely caught a glimpse of her except on her way to Mass.

Henriette Theodora Markovitch (Dora Maar), artist and photographer: born Tours, France 22 November 1907; died 16 July 1997.

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