- Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and PicassoBy Louise Baring
- Dora Maar: With and Without PicassoBy Mary Ann Caws
Important Art by Dora Maar
In the early 1930s Maar traveled to various places in Europe working as a photojournalist, but she also began taking her own pictures. Tending toward street scenes and glimpses of the isolated nature of city life, these works are often melancholy, quietly piquant, and effortlessly framed. In After the Rain a mother and a child walk along a slick sidewalk next to a lofty wall, their backs to the camera. Maar frames the shot in a sharp diagonal - the sidewalk stretches into the back of the image and the figures are almost at its end. Shadows of slender, leafy trees are projected on the wall, and puddles of rainwater gleam. The overall poetry and romance conjured by the scene is reminiscent of photographs by the artist's friend and colleague, Brassai.
Indeed, during the 1930s many French photographers turned to the long boulevards and arcades of Paris to capture the mystery and ambiguity of the city. Maar had a keen eye for what critic Jacques Guenne deemed "la comédie humaine," the panorama of human life within the urban milieu. After the Rain is not just a straightforward image of either the city or of its denizens; rather, it is a comment on the beguiling and sometimes isolating nature of the person in the city. The severe diagonals, the figures fading into the distance, and the pervasiveness of the shadows create a sense of disquiet, of the strange but familiar juxtaposition between the harsh built environment and the fragile humans and trees living alongside. As critic Donald Goddard notes, "[Maar] knew that there was far more within every image, every person and place, than could possibly be described, that 'interior vision' is more than matched by what is outside ourselves."
Maar's earliest photographs were born out of her experience working both as a photojournalist and as a commercial photographer. As an example of the latter, she crafted advertisements such as one for 'Petrole Hahn' hair products. These images stand as apposite examples of how any picture by Maar was rarely ever straightforward and utilitarian, but instead typically injected with a Surrealist bent. Here a pink bottle of hair oil tips over on its side, emptying its contents. Instead of oil billowing out however, luscious thick locks of hair stream out and billow in the void. The bottle is the only pop of color on an otherwise black and white backdrop. Hair is a classic repeated motif for women Surrealists; unruly it can represent fear at the power of female sexuality, removed it can signify punishment, and to cut hair can speak of separation and loss in love.
This particular photomontage works as an advertisement; the hair is sensuous and full and thus attracts the consumer's desire, however, it also functions as a Surrealist image abound with allusion to the female body, fetish, and unconscious desire. As the hair is unattached to an actual female body it attains distance and mystique; in this way it bears resemblance to how Meret Oppenheim discussed her famous work of art, Object (1936) that also used hair in an uncanny way - "the image of femininity imprinted in the minds of men and projected on to women." The hair in the advertisement is shorn from reality, functioning as a simulacra and a critique of the conflation of consumerism and desire. It also looks forward to Maar's disappointing experience in love; both Frida Kahlo and Mimi Parent presented their hair as separate from themselves when they had been saddened and betrayed by matters of the heart.
In one of Maar's earliest photomontages, she creates an uncanny and mesmeric image of a woman's hand in a shell; it is unclear if the hand is crawling out or pulling itself back inside. It is though it is living in there, sheltered like a hermit crab or other armored creature. The shell rests on the sand with a rolling sky looming ominously, over and above in the background. The hand has long, tapered fingers and perfectly manicured nails, and the shell is similarly aesthetically pleasing with its ringed and repeated pattern. A bright but eerie light illuminates the hand and, in places, violently breaks through the clouds.
It is certainly tempting to read into Maar's works in terms of biography: Lauren Greenwald writes, "[Untitled] seems almost prescient, as the artist would eventually retreat into her own self-contained world." Maar may or may not have been thinking about various aspects of her psyche with this work, but it is clear that she was thoroughly versed in the power of Surrealist imagery. The hand was a common motif, referring to fetishes, sadomasochistic pain and pleasure, and the evocation of a primitive past contrasted with the mechanized present. Dalí depicted hands being swarmed by ants, amputated, or sensuously kissed; de Chirico painted a limp, smooth white glove in The Song of Love (1914); and Magritte's L'aube a Cayenne (1926) featured two intertwined marmoreal hands with a disturbing red spider-like creature clutching the fingers. Indeed, it was through a performance with her own hand that Maar first met Picasso. Like the works of her Surrealist peers, and her own coinciding imaginary musings, the image is highly erotic, intensely dreamlike, and suggestive of deep latent desires.