`I wasn't Picasso's mistress, he was just my master'

 

OF all the images of women painted by Picasso - Marie-Therese Walter in her flower personae, delicate, fashionable Nusch Eluard, healthy, sexy Francoise Gilot, melancholy Jacqueline Rocque - Dora Maar's is the face which most people remember, even if they do not know who she is. The Weeping Woman series from the late 1930s and early 1940s is vibrant, emotional, colourful, engaging, moving. Dora is depicted in a state of intense, tearful grief, yet we are struck by her presence and style, and the final effect of these pictures is one of satisfaction at a beautifully achieved image.

Dora Maar carried the Weeping Woman caption with her for the rest of her life. A long life (1907-1997), a career as a distinguished photographer and a painter of some note in her time, other famous lovers (Louis Chavance, Georges Bataille) were all subsumed into an image of grief which chimed with a particular time in the century, and echoed the century's most famous anti-war painting, Picasso's Guernica. Dora is, in fact, also the woman with the lamp in Guernica; an image of strength and hope in the surrounding horror. Picasso, when asked why he never painted her smiling or laughing, said he was obeying some fundamental principle in her, and this could be more true than perhaps we would like it to be.

She was born Theodora Markovitch, and spent most of her first 19 years in Buenos Aires, the only daughter of a Croatian architect. She returned to Paris in 1926, and studied photography and painting at the Academie Julian. She set up as a photographer in 1929, and quickly got work as a fashion photographer. She did not have to rely on her earnings to survive, as her father funded her to a considerable degree, and this meant she could pursue her interest in Surrealist and political photography. A trip to Barcelona in 1934 produced some challenging work on street children, and there are some interesting and disturbing collage images from the same period. She knew Brassai, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton and other Surrealists, and her work was valued by them.

In 1935, Dora Maar was on her way to becoming a serious photographer, was involved in some of the many left-wing groups active in Paris, and was known for her beauty and unorthodox clothes. Then she met Picasso, 54 years old, still involved with Marie-Therese Walter, with whom he had had a daughter, and very famous indeed. They began an affair which lasted nine years, during which time they never actually lived together. It was one of the most productive periods of Picasso's very productive life. Apart from all of the famous representations of Dora, he painted Guernica and Night Fishing at Antibes. She, on the other hand, gave up photography at his request, but only after she had photographed the painting of Guernica in daily detail, a marvellous record of the evolution of a seminal work of art.

Their relationship was tempestuous and far more useful to Picasso, who took a profoundly utilitarian view of his fellow human beings, than to Dora, who worshipped him with all the fervour of an acolyte. Having abandoned photography, she took up painting, producing a number of self-portraits which echo the Weeping Woman pictures. Picasso left her in 1946 for Francoise Gilot, 40 years his junior, and Dora had a nervous breakdown, for which she was treated by Jacques Lacan. Thereafter, she became more and more of a recluse, retreating to the house Picasso had left her in the Vaucluse, and taking refuge in semi-mystical Catholicism.

Mary Ann Caws has produced a lavishly and intelligently illustrated book on Dora Maar. Caws has a background in Surrealism, and locates Maar in her period and among her peers with accuracy. However, the very thoroughness of her illustrations serves to undermine her argument that Maar was a good painter in her own right; the placement of Maar's Weeping Woman pictures beside those of Picasso only illuminates how brilliant the latter's are, and how pale and sadly narcissistic the former's.

Picasso treated all of the women in his life badly; he was a monster of egotism and often gratuitously cruel. Dora Maar lost more than most of his other partners, sacrificing her best years and her developing career to him. Sadly, she seemed to know how unbalanced the relationship was; she remarked after it was over, "I wasn't Picasso's mistress, he was just my master".

Catriona Crowe is an archivist and critic