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Dora Maar “The years lie in wait for you” (c. 1935).
“The years lie in wait for you” (c. 1935). (Portrait of Nusch Eluard). Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 355 × 254 mmThe William Talbott Hillman Collection © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Why artist Dora Maar was much more than Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’

A new retrospective at London’s Tate Modern will elevate the surrealist photographer and painter beyond her romantic ties

Instead of being recognised as talented artists in their own right, too many women have had their places in art history minimised to mistress, muse, and model to their male counterparts. That certainly is the case of Dora Maar, a photographer who, for years, was remembered mostly as Picasso’s lover and “Weeping Woman” (1937) – as if tears were her most remarkable feature.

Maar was a leading artist of the 1930s whose poetic collages hung on gallery walls alongside art by the likes of Man Ray and Salvador Dalí. Like her surrealist contemporaries, she was inspired by eroticism, dreams, and the subconscious to create grotesque and otherworldly works. She was also a talented documentarian whose pictures of European cities after the 1929 economic meltdown would inspire generations of photographers to come – in particular, Diane Arbus, Berenice Abbott, and Lee Friedlander. But her curiosity was far-reaching: though she considered herself primarily a photographer, she collaborated with fellow surrealists on poetry books, drawings, gallery openings, and even helped run an agitprop theatre group. At 25, she founded a commercial studio where she made provocative advertising and editorials for glossy magazines.

Her career faltered during her relationship to Picasso, and never fully recovered after they split, leading her to have a mental breakdown. For decades, she was remembered as Picasso’s muse, but her legacy as an artist is finally being brought into the spotlight. Her work has been exhibited in Madrid, Venice, Paris, and, from 20 November, at London’s Tate Modern – more than 80 years after she first showed her work in Britain.

As the retrospective prepares to opens at London’s Tate Modern on Wednesday 20 November 2019, we celebrate Maar’s work as a professional, experimental photographer and painter.


Though she trained as a painter, Maar turned to photography as her medium of choice to make art. “Without explanations from the artist herself, scholars have had to speculate about much of Maar’s career, including what motivated her professional transformation,” says Amanda Maddox, associate curator, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “It is possible that she identified photography as a more viable pursuit than painting, with commercial photographic assignments providing a relatively reliable source of income. That said, like some of her contemporaries including Claude Cahun, Maar received financial support from her family. In other words, her occupation probably developed less from necessity than from aspiration.”

Maar’s surrealist photomontages incorporated objects with an amusing lack of logic between them. Among her most famous, “The Simulator”, a picture of a boy with an arched back, his body becoming one with a warped stone wall (visibly, this is a picture of a vaulted ceiling turned upside down). The photographer also scratched the boy’s eyes out, making the character even more enigmatic.

This image, along with two others were shown at London’s International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, a year that marked the peak of Maar’s celebrity. Another work was “Père Ubu (Portrait of Ubu)” (1936), an emblem of surrealism, which depicts a mysterious being that Maar refused to identify. Visitors and critics have described it as a fetus, a root, even a baby, but the consensus today is that it is an armadillo preserved in a jar. Maar’s photographs were eye-catching, yet for the exhibition they hung scattered across a Mayfair gallery, below larger, more emphatic works by other, mostly male, artists.


Though Maar is considered one of the most important surrealist photographers, her career did not begin and end with surrealism. In 1932, she partnered with a set designer called Pierre Kéfer to open a studio and went on to produce fashion, advertising, architectural, even erotic photographs for magazines, books, and fashion houses.

Like Man Ray, who also straddled the worlds of commercial and experimental photography, Maar’s commissioned work featured surrealist themes and aesthetics. In one advertisement for Petrole Hahn hair products, an oil bottle lays on its side, but instead of oil, it spills locks of curly hair.

Maar also produced many pictures for women’s magazines, representing, and challenging, the idea of the “modern woman”. One telling example is a series from 1936 that depicts female models posing besides cars. At the time, advertising often showed women at the wheel of an automobile, but few women held licenses to operate the vehicles in real life. Maar exposes that contradiction by making the editing obvious: the woman’s proportions do not match that of the car, ultimately revealing that the scene is a fabrication.


Though Maar came from a bourgeois family, she was very active in the fraught political climate of the 1930s. She was involved in several left-leaning political collectives, including the Groupe Octobre, an anti-fascist theatre troupe that performed in public spaces.

Her political interests are also marked in the social photography she produced during trips to Barcelona and London. In 1933, Maar travelled on her own to Costa Brava, in Spain, and sought to capture the life of the streets and the people in them. In Barcelona, she photographed the white-aproned saleswoman of La Boquería market and the children of the slums (a picture of a boy performing acrobatics would later be used in the photomontage, “The Simulator”). But unlike the dry directness of Brassai or Cartier-Bresson, Maar’s photos portray the poor and marginalised with humanity and care.

This is also visible in the shots Maar took in London in 1934. Seeking to photograph the effects of the economic crisis that followed the crash of 1929, she sometimes encountered ironic, even surrealist situations. In one of these, a woman is selling lottery tickets in front of Lloyds Bank, clutching her bag like it’s about to get stolen. Another sees an unemployed man selling matches dressed as impeccably as if he were a lord.

Maar’s photos of London were received positively. But her merits were often divided: her productions were stamped “Kéfer–Dora Maar”, leading people to think they were the fruits of collaboration, despite Maar alone having made them.


During a relationship with Picasso that lasted from 1936 through 1945, Maar progressively abandoned photography. In 1937, she documented the 36 days in which Picasso created “Guernica”, the mural-sized painting of Nazi bombings in the Basque town of the same name. She became the first photographer to record the creation of a modern artwork from start to finish. 

Picasso, who believed photography was a lower art form, urged Maar to turn to painting, which she did during the war. Her works from those years, mainly grey still-lifes and dreary landscapes, reflected the distress and disillusionment of a whole generation of artists living under Nazi occupation.

In 1946, Maar was a rising star of the Parisian art scene when she suddenly stopped showing her work. The photographer had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she received electric-shock treatment. Picasso, who she had met ten years before, had left her for Françoise Gilot, who was 40 years his junior. In his lifetime, the Spanish painter notoriously mistreated the women he claimed to love. But his behaviour has been disregarded in favour of the self-aware monster mythology and “separate art from the artist” spiel.

After the mental breakdown, through to the 1980s, Maar remained on the sidelines of the contemporary art world, experimenting with abstraction and reconciling with photography at her own pace. Picasso said Maar was “always a weeping woman”, but as interest in her work finally begins to grow globally – both as an imaginative, multifaceted photographer and understated painter – it’s clear there was a lot more than weeping to her life and legacy.

Dora Maar runs at London’s Tate Modern from 20 November 2019 – 15 March 2020