This was an excellent student-led OCA London study visit, ably organised by Richard Keys.
Dora Maar was as important as Man Ray in terms of pushing the boundaries of art and photography and yet she is hardly known. I am glad that Tate Modern has addressed this with a major show in nine rooms.
Born in 1907, Maar came of age as a photographer in the 1930s and built her practice through fashion and advertising assignments as well as self-directed documentary projects, eager to maximise the opportunities emerging post-WW1 and with the rise of the illustrated press. From the mid-1930s, with an established studio in Paris, she began to experiment through staging, collage and in the darkroom. At this time photos were replacing hand-drawn illustration and some of her work at this time was for the growing industry around fitness, health and hygiene – ‘body discipline’ for ‘la femme moderne’. Her images were used to accompany messages such as “The Years Lie in Wait for You.”
Maar had strong political convictions and was motivated to try to record the lives of the most disadvantaged people of the Depression era. Her politics brought her into the circle of Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and other surrealists and philosophers.
“the surrealist movement aimed to transform human experience. Refusing the constraints of modern society, artists and writers advocated for intellectual, as well as social, revolution. At the movement’s heart was a rejection of the rational in favour of a vision that embraced the power of the unconscious mind.”
Maar met Picasso in 1935 (at Les Deux Magots) when he was emerging from a difficult time of being unable to create work. They expanded each other’s artistic territories and Maar felt encouraged to return to painting. In 1942 her work took a new direction – traditional subject matter such as landscapes and still life, using a more sombre palette with a clear interest in composition and form.
This was a challenging period for Maar personally with a series of traumas as well as the anxiety related to living in an occupied city. She was soon to spend more time in the south of France collaborating with poet Andre Du Bouchet, with her work becoming impressionistic and abstract. Bored with street photography and documentary by the 80s, Maar spent much of her time experimenting in the darkroom with photograms, solarisation and other constructed-image techniques.
- Maar surrounded herself with creative people and big thinkers and used her network throughout her career.
- Brassai: “nothing is as surreal as reality itself” – inspired by Atget, photographers found potential for the marvellous, mythic and strange in Paris. There was also a drive to record parts of the city disappearing to modernisation. The surrealists exploited photography’s “precarious relationship to reality”.
- Use of crops and dramatic angles/shadows to create disorientating perspectives and evoke the immediacy of the chance encounter as well as recontextualising the render the familiar strange – “photomontages could create new worlds altogether.”
- “One much know how to get lost in a city that hides, beneath its apparent uniformity, so many secrets.”
- Themes: dislocation, vertigo, attention to overlooked details – objets trouves; sleep, eyes and the sea as well as the erotic.
- Le temps déborde (time overflows)
- Surrealists saw dreams as a revolutionary force to be acted upon in the conscious world to subvert the conventions of reality
- One of my favourite images was of a vaulted ceiling turned upside down to resemble an endless spiral with a very oppressive atmosphere. I seem to have not taken a photo of it but it is featured about halfway down this article.
- Tate Modern show guide