Dora Maar, born Markovitch and sometimes called “the Weeping Woman,” has long been regarded as the most enigmatic of the women who were longtime mistresses or wives of Pablo Picasso. Until now, that is: the retrospective exhibition devoted to Maar, first in Munich, now in Marseille—showing her own photographs and paintings as well as portraits of her by Picasso—and several recent publications give a new sense of what an interesting and accomplished person she was. The richness of the exhibition, whose curator is the Barcelona critic Victoria Combalía, allows us to evaluate Maar’s own artistic work for the first time.

Maar and Picasso were together for about ten years, beginning in 1936, but to see her life and work solely in light of his biography and art is to do her an injustice. Before she met Picasso she worked as a professional photographer and moved in Surrealist circles, and she pursued a career as a painter for almost two decades after she broke up with him. Nevertheless, although she exhibited her paintings in the 1940s and 1950s, Maar was reluctant to draw attention to herself, and the details of her past seemed likely to be forgotten. Her last years, until her death at the age of eighty-nine in 1997, were spent alone, either in the seclusion of her Paris studio or in the house that Picasso had acquired for her in Ménerbes (the hill town in Provence made famous by Peter Mayle). Only after the sale of memorabilia and art-works from her estate in 1998–1999 did many aspects of the life she had kept secret become public.

The most informative of the new studies devoted to Maar is the forthcoming book (published in Spanish, French, and German) by the Argentinian writer Alicia Dujoune Ortiz. She unravels the many myths that surround Maar, and her research has turned up much new information about Markovich’s childhood in Argentina (her family changed the spelling of Markovitch to Markovich to avoid being thought of as Jews in Buenos Aires) and her schooling in both Buenos Aires and, from the age of thirteen, Paris. She writes with much originality and authority about Maar’s relationships with writers and artists, especially about her affair with Picasso.

Dujoune Ortiz also discusses Maar’s interest in mysticism, especially when she was involved with the Surrealists and during her later years, when she was a fervent Catholic. In her modest essay on Maar, the German journalist Tania Förster includes interviews with Maar’s friends, including Balthus, and she rightly questions the accuracy of many earlier accounts of Maar’s relationship with Picasso. In contrast to both of these, the lavishly presented book by Mary Ann Caws, a noted authority on Surrealism, is disappointing. While Caws provides insight into the work of literary Surrealism, including Maar’s own poetry, her analyses of Maar’s photographs and paintings are unconvincing (she attributes Maar’s “awkward” approach to form as a result of being left-handed) and the same can be said of her comments on works by Picasso.1 Caws glosses over Maar’s background and, unaware of some available documentation, she leaves many questions unanswered. For example, if, as she infers, the affair with Picasso did not begin until mid-August 1936 in the south of France, how do we account for his first depiction of Maar in a drawing dated August 1 and done in Paris of that year or the piece of newspaper (July 8, 1936) on which Picasso wrote her name over and over again: “Dora, Dora, Dora, Dora mía”? Moreover, Caws’s book has been especially badly served by the caption-writer.2 It is particularly unfortunate that Caws’s publishers, who have acquired picture rights for the Maar material for a period of three years, have restricted the distribution of other publications, notably Combalía’s informative catalog, which has not been sold outside the exhibition.

Dora Maar’s mother was French and her father was a Croatian-born architect who designed the Austro-Hungarian pavilion at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition. She was born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in 1907 in Paris, and went to Argentina when her father worked there. As a child she preferred Dora to Henriette and later shortened Markovitch to Maar. She started frequenting the Parisian art scene in the late 1920s, at a time when other talented young women were also establishing themselves as professional photographers in what had been a predominantly male world. After attending André Lhote’s art academy, where she was a fellow student of Henri Cartier-Bresson (photographs by the two classmates would appear in André Breton’s L’Amour fou in 1937), Maar entered the École de Photographie de la Ville de Paris, where she received a technical diploma, of which she was very proud even late in her life. Another acquaintance from the early days was the Hungarian photographer Brassaï, with whom she occasionally shared a darkroom in Montparnasse. Like Lee Miller before her, she asked Man Ray if she might work as his assistant, but, unlike Miller, who moved in with Man Ray, she was turned down. Nonetheless, Man Ray and Maar became good friends: she modeled for one of his celebrated solarized portraits, and his “rayograph” technique, exposing real objects directly onto photographic paper in the darkroom, influenced the work that she and Picasso would later do together.3


In 1931 Maar set up as a professional, working first with the young designer Pierre Kéfer, whose parents financed a photographic studio for him in the garden of their house in Neuilly. Kéfer, according to the journalist Jacques Guenne writing in L’Art Vivant in October 1934, “had the intelligence to realize there was no one better than Dora Markovitch to use the lights, screens and marvelous gadgets with which he has enriched his palace.” Working together on commercial commissions, including advertisements for Pétrole Hahn hair oil, she and Kéfer drew on Surrealist techniques such as photomontage in ways typical of the period. In one image wavy hair rather than oil pours out from the neck of a Pétrole Hahn bottle turned on its side. Some of Maar’s fashion photographs also incorporate surrealistic elements—in one image a huge, glittery star replaces the head of a model wearing a lamé evening gown. In his article on Maar and Kéfer, Guenne observed Maar’s deliberate, almost scientific approach, especially the way she worked with great concentration on her photographs of the celebrated blond model Assia, who came from the Ukraine. In one image, Assia, who was known for her beautifully proportioned body, appears naked but masked and is posed clasping a large ring hanging above her—emphasizing her naked breasts, as if she were performing some kind of erotic routine. Maar’s photographs of nudes, many of them tinged with subtle eroticism, were published with the credit “Kéfer– Dora Maar” in magazines such as Secrets de Paris, Le Figaro Illustré, and Beautés.

The retrospective exhibition includes a number of unfamiliar Kéfer-Maar commercial images, including fashion and advertising photographs, as well as a great deal of work that Maar did on her own. In the spring of 1934 she traveled alone to Spain and England, where she photographed the Catalan fishing village of Tossa de Mar and street life in both Barcelona and London. Combalía believes that the Spanish and English photographs establish Maar’s reputation as a serious photographer of modern life, especially in her images of street urchins, beggars, and blind men. To my mind, however, the photographs suggest that Maar was concerned primarily with the artistic qualities of her images rather than with social commentary. When Maar worked out of doors she took time to consider the different elements of a specific composition and was not so much concerned with capturing a fleeting or telling moment as with creating a strong, cohesive image. What fascinated her when she photographed children at play, for instance, were the patterns created by their feet or, when she took scenes of Tossa, the way figures disappeared into shadow alongside fishing boats beached on the sand.

Picasso once remarked that Maar’s photographs reminded him of early paintings by de Chirico, often showing objects “rather difficult to identify in the shadowy corridor between the lens and the light.” Another strong element in her photographic compositions is her use of the printed word. Fragments of posters or signs frequently figure in the overall composition as they might in a cubist collage—principally as another formal element—although in some cases, such as the close-up of the English Pearly King on parade on Empire Day (May 21, 1934), the posters and shop-fronts also provide information about place and date.

After her return to Paris in the summer of 1934, Maar set up her own studio at 29 rue d’Astorg on the right bank, with the financial backing of her parents, and it was there that she lived independently until 1942. Most of the people she knew at the time were associated with the Surrealists and politically left-wing groups, many of whom she photographed, including the philosopher and critic Georges Bataille and his wife the actress Sylvia Maklès, the poet Paul Eluard and his wife Maria Benz (known as Nusch), the painter Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton (whom Lamba would marry), the writers Jacques Prévert and René Crevel, and the actor Jean-Louis Barrault.

Maar’s reputation as a Surrealist in her own right was fixed with the exhibition of her now famous Portrait of Ubu at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. Although a photograph of an armadillo fetus, Maar’s Ubu appears like something derived from Bataille’s concept of the informe, a substance or form without fixed or recognizable boundaries, whose unexplained existence seems to emerge from the unconscious rather than from the natural world. Her photographic montage 29 rue d’Astorg (see illustration on page 28), which shows an amorphous Henry Moore–like figure seated in a strangely distorted church interior, was included in the 1937 Surrealist Objects and Poems exhibition in London and was selected by the writer (and future historian of Dada) Georges Hugnet for one of twenty-one Surrealist postcards that were issued in the same year. Breton also included Maar as one of the women whose names appeared on the front of his combined store and Surrealist gallery, GRADIVA (D for Dora), on the rue de la Seine in Paris, which opened in 1937.4


Several of the new studies of Maar concentrate on her relationship with Georges Bataille, who was famously obsessed with eroticism, wrote obscene novels under a pseudonym, and was a dominating figure in Surrealist circles. As with so many other aspects of her private life, Maar herself played down her liaison with Bataille, and uncovering the story of their affair has proved difficult. They are thought to have met in 1933 at a meeting of the ultra-left-wing political group Masses (which during its brief existence was open to Marxists and non-Marxists alike), while Bataille was still married to Sylvia Maklès. (They separated in the following year and Maklès married the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who later treated Maar when she had a nervous breakdown.) Bataille is supposed to have invited Maar to the cellar of his apartment, where he showed her his collection of erotic magazines. They were soon lovers.

The American writer James Lord, who supposedly based much of his information about Maar’s past on comments made to him by the art collector and friend of Maar’s Douglas Cooper, maintains that

being Bataille’s mistress must have entailed an extraordinary tutelage in the arcana of sexuality…. [His] erotic obsession and will to transgress naturally induced a concomitant reflex of guilt, an acknowledgement of the legacy of suf-fering, indeed, as the very genesis of desire, and a terror of death as the ultimate incentive to the act of love…. All this naturally added up to quite a heady education in the quirks of sexuality for a young woman not yet thirty.

Dujoune Ortiz, maintains, however, that there is little evidence to confirm what happened between Maar and Bataille. Bataille himself never wrote anything about their affair and only alludes to Maar in his self-referring novel Le Bleu du ciel (1935), in which she appears disguised as a “vaguely surrealist girl” called Xenie.

Picasso, on the other hand, later recorded in his drawings the passionate, sometimes violent, nature of his sexual relationship with Maar, as a recent exhibition of his erotic work has demonstrated.5 In the so-called Facteur Cheval sketchbook (August 1937), for instance, which Maar kept until she died, Picasso depicted the “mailman” as a huge horse-like creature mounting a kneeling woman on some pages, while on others he drew Maar’s genitals as seen from behind. Picasso also turned a drawing of the crucifixion (August 21, 1938) into a blasphemous scene by showing a naked female figure bent over backward with her genitals directed upward, as if to offer herself to the naked Christ. Picasso may well have been interested in Maar when he met her because, like others in Paris, he fantasized about her sex life with the notorious Bataille. As far as Maar herself was concerned, she later told Picasso’s nephew Javier Vilatò that it was Bataille “who had hurt her most.”6 She never said in what way.

Maar herself was also involved (probably platonically) with the film editor Louis Chavance, whom she had known since she was a student, and through her contacts with him and Jacques Prévert, she was hired in 1935 to do the stills for Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, in which Syl-via Maklès had a principal role and Georges Bataille made a brief appearance dressed as a seminarian. According to Prévert, Maar (whom he described as “volcanic”) and Chavance had quarreled early in 1936 just before the press showing of the film—the occasion when Eluard introduced her to Picasso.7

Sometime after this first meeting, Maar orchestrated another encounter with Picasso, this time at the Café des Deux Magots, where she knew he often dined. Years later he told Françoise Gilot that

she was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéed on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her outstretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself. From time to time she missed by a tiny fraction of an inch and before she stopped playing with the knife, her hand was covered with blood. Pablo told [Françoise Gilot] that was what made up his mind to interest himself in her…. He asked her to give him the gloves and he used to keep them in a vitrine at the Rue des Grands Augustins, along with other mementos.8

Caws suggests that this act of self-mutilation may have reminded him of the blood ritual in the bullfight. Certainly the element of self-sacrifice that she had demonstrated in order to please him would have attracted Picasso. It would have been characteristic of him to keep the gloves as if they were proof of her love and confirmed his belief in his power.

Picasso was also drawn to the beautiful Maar, who was sixteen years his junior, because she spoke Spanish and, as he later told Gilot, because of her intelligence. In the beginning he liked her independent, temperamental spirit, her range of interests and commitment to work, which he valued so much in his own life. Publicly they shared friendships with writers, among them Eluard and Prévert and some of the Surrealist artists, while privately their relationship was from the outset extremely intense, with episodes of fierce anger and mutual manipulation. Lord writes that Picasso gave Maar a ring that had belonged to one of her friends, who, at Maar’s urging, had persuaded Picasso to give her a watercolor in exchange for it:

A year or two later, when Dora and Picasso one day were strolling on the Pont Neuf, they had a bitter altercation in the course of which the artist reproached his mistress for having prevailed on him to give a work of art in exchange for a bauble, whereupon Dora took the ring from her finger and threw it into the Seine…. She later regretted having been so impulsive…. She kept at him until he created a ring of his own design for her. Too precious and fragile to wear, which of course was his revenge.

Maar did not move in with Picasso but kept her own place, while Picasso still lived in the rue la Boétie apartment where he had been since his marriage to Olga Khokhlova in 1918. He occasionally worked in Maar’s studio, doing photographic experiments and probably drawing; and it was there that in January 1941 he wrote his play, Le Désir attrapé par la queueDesire Caught by the Tail—whose main theme was the shortages and boredom of life during the war, with characters with names like Big Foot complaining at being stuck in the claustrophobic austerity of the time.9 This exercise in black humor was staged three years later in the apartment of the writer Michel Leiris and his wife Zette, with Camus, Beauvoir, Sartre, Maar, and others taking part. Picasso’s friends accepted Maar as his new companion, which had never been the case with his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he had kept hidden away. Although when Picasso met Maar he was separated from Olga, he still regularly continued to see Marie-Thérèse and their daughter, Maya, with whom he often spent his vacations. Nonetheless, he expected Maar to turn up to keep him amused, since he preferred her conversation to that of Marie-Thérèse, who was less able to hold her own in the company of his friends.

Maar fell desperately in love with Picasso, as she later recalled to John Richardson. She likened their relationship to a dog and his master, and referred to herself as his “affectionate little puppy.” The fact that Picasso would sometimes incorporate features of his Afghan hound, Kazbek, into portraits of Dora, as Richardson has pointed out, takes on new significance in this light. Although she was inclined to sudden outbursts of temper and anger, she would abjectly apologize for them and plead that she was willing to do anything he asked to preserve their love. As Picasso told Lord, “Never known anyone so—what can one say?—so convenient. She was anything you wanted, a dog, a mouse, a bird, an idea, a thunderstorm.” For her part, living with Picasso was, she said, “like living at the center of the universe, thrilling and frightening, exalting, humbling all at the same time.”

Once they were publicly known as a couple, Maar was determined to act as the artist’s “official” photographer. (It was not until she gave up photography that Brassaï, among others, resumed photographing Picasso and his work.) In 1937 she moved most of her equipment into his new studio on the rue des Grands Augustins (her black curtains later came in handy during wartime blackouts), where she not only photographed his sculptures but also recorded the different phases of the evolution of the painting Guernica, which Picasso executed for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Exhibition that year. Her memorable series of photographs reveals, among other things, that the centrally placed lightbulb in the composition, which functions symbolically as a kind of debased Spanish sun, was inspired by one of her photographic lamps, which stood in front of the canvas while Picasso worked.

Maar is one of several friends who is said to have found for Picasso the studio on the rue des Grands Augustins where Guernica was painted.10 The building at number 7 had already been made famous in Balzac’s novel Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu as the studio where the mad old painter Frenhofer worked obsessively on his “masterpiece.” Maar knew the top floor of the building as the “grenier Barrault,” where the actor lived and rehearsed in the mid-1930s. The studio had also become a meeting place for the anti-nationalistic, revolutionary Contre-Attaque group, which had succeeded Masses and was led for a time by Bataille and Breton. Maar signed one of the group’s manifestoes and was listed as a telephone contact in one of its early statements.11

In her conversations with Richardson, Maar spoke at length about Guernica and said that the weeping woman on the right of the painting was based on her, but that the other women were inspired by Marie-Thérèse. Picasso himself said that he had found it impossible to paint Maar laughing and that “for me she’s the weeping woman.” Maar also painted pictures resembling Picasso’s with that title. Unfortunately, the phrase “weeping woman” has stuck, leading most writers, especially those determined to demonize Picasso, to describe her as simply the artist’s suffering mistress. While she was, as it turned out, a deeply troubled woman, Picasso, I suspect, was talking about the “tortured forms” (his words) that he created rather than Maar’s feelings when he painted her. A comment made to the dealer Julien Levy bears on his portrayals of Maar, especially with regard to the disconcerting double profile that he used in so many paintings of her:

“Is this woman with one eye, or three eyes a development of cubism?” I asked Picasso. “Not at all,” he answered. “This double-profile, as it is called, is only that I keep my eyes always open. Every painter should keep his eyes always open. And how does that arrive at seeing truthfully, one eye or two eyes, you may ask? It is simply the face of my sweetheart, Dora Maar, when I kiss her.”12

Maar, it seems, could plausibly be seen both as the “weeping woman” and in close-up the “woman kissed.”

After completing the Guernica series, Maar gave up photography as a profession and, encouraged by Picasso, turned to painting. The retrospective exhibition includes a number of her canvases, which reveal two distinct tendencies. In work influenced by Picasso, her own sensibility is suppressed; her Portrait of Picasso (1938), for example, adapts the characteristically distorted form with a prominent nose that he so often used in his portrayals of her. Quite different are the works that draw on the sense of composition, light, and form of her early photography. Maar’s work of the 1940s included a series of boldly painted scenes of the Seine and several evocative large-scale still lifes. In these works she applied paint in huge sweeps of generally muted color, interspersed with strong structural elements, and her compositions were admired greatly by Douglas Cooper and other critics at the time. Combalía seems to me unconvincing when she suggests that Maar’s decision to give up photography in order to paint was a mistake for which Picasso was responsible. Maar’s painting builds on her photography, and that is what gives it its quality and strength.

“After she met me,” Picasso boasted, Maar “had a more constructive life than before. Her life became more concentrated. Photography didn’t satisfy her. She began to paint more and was making real progress. I built her up.” At the same time he could be cruel. When she moved into the rue de Savoie, around the corner from the Grands Augustins, to set up her own painting studio in 1942, Cocteau reported that Picasso proposed putting up a commemorative plaque on the building: “In this house Dora Maar died of boredom” (Dans cette maison Dora Maar mourut d’ennui). She told John Richardson that on another occasion Picasso said that “she reminded him of an insect, and he proceeded to paint trompe l’oeil insects on her dining room wall.” The final blow to what had become an increasingly deteriorating relationship was the appearance on the scene in 1943 of Françoise Gilot, for whom Picasso left Maar three years later.

Maar suffered a mental collapse in the spring of 1945. According to Lord,

Her friends thought she might go mad, commit suicide. One day she was found sitting naked in the stairway of her apartment building, to the consternation of a wedding party coming down from an upper floor. And then there was an appalling outburst of hysteria in a movie theater, the police were summoned.

A terrified Picasso, who abhorred illness, especially in women, reportedly contacted Jacques Lacan, who had her admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Dujoune Ortiz goes into detail about Lacan’s machinations in looking after Maar and the horrific shock treatments that were prescribed as part of her therapy. She also makes the perceptive observation that Picasso’s paintings of Maar as a weeping woman eerily anticipate the terror she must have suffered in the moments before the shock treatments were administered. Although Maar and Picasso would go on seeing each other for another year, he wanted a final break and, as if to underscore his determination to replace her, he took Gilot to stay in the house in Ménerbes that he had given Maar.

Some of Maar’s old friends remained close to her after she left Picasso. Gertrude Stein bought one of her landscapes just after the war, and after Stein’s death she stayed in touch with Alice Toklas, whose portrait she painted in 1952. (It now hangs in the Beinecke Library at Yale.) Maar was also close to Balthus, who encouraged her painting, something that irritated Picasso. James Lord, who was a GI in Paris at the time of the liberation, met Maar some months before Picasso left her. Many of the things he says about Maar reveal much about Picasso—or at least Lord’s obsession with Picasso. “Dora and I talked about Picasso every day,” Lord says, and he recorded much of what she said. When she criticized Picasso’s shortcomings as a father, and Lord objected to her speaking about him that way, she replied angrily, “I owe him nothing. In truth, it’s the other way around. He used me for his art.”

Maar attached great importance to having been painted by Picasso, and she knew that his images of her weeping or being kissed would remain even if the traces of her life were kept hidden. Nonetheless, she was ambivalent about the fact that so many of the works that referred to her were disturbing in their physical distortions. “There’s more of Picasso in them than of me,” she told Richardson. Over the years she sold some of the Picassos—principally the tortured images—that he had given her to support herself and locked up the rest in vaults or cases where they, like the memories of their life together, gathered dust in her dirty apartment. During the last twenty years of her life, Maar retreated into Catholic mysticism, becoming even more of a recluse than before.13 Although she later resented what she came to believe was the stupidity of the Surrealists’ attitude toward the Church, she returned, in her last years, to experimenting with her own photographic negatives that dated from the 1930s. Several of these, including a portrait of André Breton, which she altered using the rayograph technique of exposing actual objects (in this case, corn kernels) onto the photographic paper, are included in the retrospective exhibition.

A year or two before she died, Maar told Richardson that she had made a will leaving everything to a Parisian monastery, where she went to worship; but it appears that the priests whom she had designated as her heirs died before she did. At least this was the reason given for her having died intestate. (Maar’s apartment was apparently entered during the night following her death, and Dujoune Ortiz raises the possibility that her will may have been stolen.) Two of Maar’s distant relatives were traced by a genealogist who was appointed by the French authorities, and her entire collection, including her photographs, paintings, books, and intimate possessions were sold at auction.14 This event attracted dealers, art historians, biographers, and curiosity seekers. Everything was put on view without the least regard for their meaning and without any attempt to put them in intelligible order. The sudden dispersal of the things that had meant so much to her seemed to those who knew her a cruel violation of her carefully protected inner world. As a result of the sale, future students of art history lost not only a valuable archive but the possibility of recapturing the personal associations that linked her possessions and her memories.

This Issue

April 25, 2002