Dora Maar, Tate Modern, review: the woman who was so much more than Picasso's mistress

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Imaginative: an untitled photograph from 1934 shows the surreal quality of Maar’s work
Imaginative: an untitled photograph from 1934 shows the surreal quality of Maar’s work Credit: Dora Maar 

Dora Maar, an artist whose life and reputation were overshadowed by her association with Pablo Picasso, did not start out as a painter. Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907, she studied under the cubist André Lhote in Paris. But she made a living through photography, and it was as a photographer that she began, in 1932, to use the name Dora Maar.

Maar was a stills photographer on the set of Jean Renoir’s film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange when she met Picasso. In 1936 they began a decade-long affair, during which he painted her over and over again, most famously in the guise of “weeping woman” – a series that would eventually comprise some 60 works. Picasso made clear that he thought photography to be the lesser medium; Maar began to paint again under his influence, thereby positioning herself, in the eyes of future critics, as his inferior.

The remarkable exhibition that opens today at Tate Modern is the first to examine her lifelong work as a photographer. It offers both a compelling view of a critical moment in 20th century artistic thought, and – through pictures alone – the powerful story of one woman’s life.

The range of Maar’s work was impressive: commercial assignments for fashion magazines, urban reportage on behalf of a left-wing political group, whimsical street photography under the influence of the Surrealists, and technical experiments, including collage.

Within her fashion work you can see Maar reaching for this last, more imaginative category: an ad for shampoo shows a woman washing her hair, turned sideways so that gravity looks like an electrocution in foam. In a sequence of experiments from 1936, a woman in profile is combined with other elements: circular objects left to make their photogrammed mark; chemical smears in place of clothing. These, plus a blurred and mottled nude, give an early indication of her interrupted personal practice.

An untitled photograph from 1933 Credit: Dora Maar

The most developed and haunting images in the show are Maar’s photomontages. Two in particular – a collage called “Dream” in which a boy carries another over his shoulder, overseen by a costumed lady from an earlier era, and “Silence”, in which figures are found lying in a strange tunnel – are as deft as anything by Max Ernst, and more troubling.

In a phrase that became a touchstone for the Surrealist movement, André Breton wrote, in 1928, of “convulsive beauty”: something “veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial”. This selection of Maar’s work shows that she enacted that idea in a far more intriguing and committed way than photographers, such as Man Ray or Hans Bellmer, who were more visibly associated with it.

In fact, a few women in the late Twenties and Thirties made photographic collages in this vein, including Maar’s friend Nusch Eluard in Paris and the Bauhaus follower Grete Stern in Germany. Considered together, they were doing something radical: using an idiom found in women’s magazines and making a surreal new language out of the one imposed on them. In the process, they turned beauty – in its manmade form – absurd, or slanted it towards horror.

By the time you’ve walked through the room at the Tate that documents Maar’s life with Picasso and entered the next, with its repetitive postwar swishes into abstraction, you understand: something has broken down. The images, in which Maar clearly attempts to burst out of what had bound her, amount to something like static interference. You can hear it even if you don’t know that she suffered a mental collapse in this period, and underwent electro-convulsive therapy before being treated by Jacques Lacan.

Untitled from 1935 Credit: Dora Maar

In her later years Maar became a recluse; the final room is like a blossoming. Large-format negatives – scratched, painted, smeared with chemicals – are projected in turn onto a giant screen. 40 of these were found in Maar’s collection after her death.

Combined with black and white photograms, they are thought to have been made in the Eighties, though they share some of her early experimental preoccupations. In their concern with automatism and chance, they are a bolder exploration of the Surrealists’ philosophy than what any of them were doing in the Thirties.

These last works show, as a finale, a woman once subdued returning to a medium she loved, and pushing it to the point of freedom.

Until March 15. Tickets: 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk