Few artists boast a style and subject matter so singular that three separate specialists would use the same word to describe them: “strange.” Yet that’s exactly what happened when Smithsonian magazine asked a trio of scholars about Dora Maar, a 20th-century French photographer and painter whose oeuvre in many ways defies explanation. Almost all of her artworks capture a certain uncanniness in their surroundings, bringing to light the strange in the mundane.
One of Maar’s most famous works—the 1936 photograph Père Ubu—is a perfect example of this phenomenon. It’s the kind of art that requires repeat viewings, all of which yield something new. There’s something inscrutable about the subject’s scaly body, its one slightly open eye, its barely outstretched claws and its ear flaps clouded by shadows. The viewer is left to question whether the figure is alien or something found in nature; they want to know more, but at the same time, they’re slightly disgusted, says Andrea Nelson, an associate curator at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. Donors gifted a print of the Surrealist image to the museum in 2021.
“It’s compelling but repellent at the same time,” Nelson says. “You don’t quite know what it is, and you’re trying to figure it out. It’s surprising, it’s mysterious, it’s completely bizarre and it’s grotesque. It still maintains that power.”
The same could be said of Maar herself. Born Henrietta Théodora Markovitch in Paris in 1907, the artist split her childhood between Argentina and France. From a young age, she was determined to be an artist, studying everything from decorative arts to painting to photography and attending prominent Paris schools like the Académie Julian and the École Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographie (Technical School for Photography and Cinematography). At one point, Maar even trained with French Cubist painter André Lhote.
As her abilities grew, Maar began a career as a commercial photographer and later a painter, winning renown in her own right. Today, however, most mentions of the artist reference her mainly in relation to her most famous lover: Pablo Picasso, who featured her in the 1937 portrait series Weeping Woman. Her “career and accomplishments were overshadowed during her lifetime by the details of her affair” with Picasso, notes Encyclopedia Britannica.
Maar’s own work was both influenced by and had a real influence on Surrealism, a cultural movement that rejected rationalism in favor of art and literature informed by dreams and the unconscious mind. In fact, Père Ubu is “one of the most iconic artworks of the movement,” Nelson says. But it doesn’t really resemble prominent Surrealist works, nor does it look like Maar’s other art. The artist’s photographs tend to be either beautiful in an almost supernatural way or heartbreakingly realistic, capturing the realities of poverty. As the Morgan Library and Museum points out, Père Ubu stands out from the rest of Maar’s work precisely because of its “repellent qualities.”
Even when the portrait was displayed at the “London International Surrealist Exhibition” in 1936, it stood out from the stylized world of Maar’s fellow Surrealists.
“Ubu … would have acted as a small, sharp puncture in the exhibition’s exuberant display of the Surrealist imaginary, asserting its connection with the world beyond the gallery,” writes photographic historian Ian Walker in the catalog for a 2019 Maar retrospective co-organized by Paris’ Centre Pompidou, London’s Tate Modern and Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum. “For these images were based in the documentary nature of photography while also exploiting the medium’s Surrealist potential.”
What adds meaning to the snapshot is its title, which references Alfred Jarry’s 1896 Absurdist play, Ubu Roi. The drama’s main character, Père Ubu, is a greedy figure who does whatever it takes—including killing members of the Polish royal family—to achieve his goals. But Maar’s Père Ubu is hard to reconcile with that description. Is this an innocent creature or one primed to commit harm? With a “sagging belly and bulbous nose” that mirror the distasteful appearance of the play’s title character, the portrait conveys the “vulgarity and slothfulness” of its namesake, according to Walker.
Jarry’s creation is “savage and malicious, truly threatening as well as ridiculous,” the historian adds. “Maar’s Ubu lacks that overt savagery, but in its place is an ominous stillness, as we are pitilessly observed by the creature’s black, depthless eye, like that of a shark or reptile, while its claws … might also be about to metamorphose into Ubu’s sinister ‘nearole-incisors.’”
The photograph raises a more pressing surface-level question, too: What exactly does it depict? The subject is hypothesized to be an armadillo fetus, but definitive proof is hard to come by, as Maar would never confirm its identity.
Interestingly, the catalog for a Paris Surrealist exhibition where the image was displayed classifies it as an “interpreted found object.”
“It is evidently the thing that is depicted in the photograph that is the [‘object’]: a neutral term that serves to disguise whatever was its original nature,” Walker writes. “It is also significant that it is described not simply as ‘found’ but also ‘interpreted’—an acknowledgment perhaps that Maar’s photograph not only documents the thing but also re-presents and transforms it.”
Emma Lewis, a former assistant curator at Tate Modern, offers a more concrete answer, citing a visitor to the major Maar retrospective, which she co-curated. The individual was so interested in the photo that they asked a senior veterinarian from the London Zoo about the creature. The vet identified the subject as an infant or fetal armadillo based on its claws and underdeveloped osteoderms, or bony deposits. Exactly where the artist would have encountered this animal is unknown.
From Ubu’s otherworldly likeness to 29 rue d’Astorg, in which a glamorously dressed, nearly headless figure sits in a cavernous room, to a snapshot of a model with a cutout star covering her head, Maar’s art evokes a sense of uneasiness, strangeness even, amid beauty.
Yet the word “strange” carries a certain connotation that doesn’t fully reflect the scope of Maar’s work. Rather than being whimsical or fanciful, the artist’s photographs are tinged with darkness, Lewis says, a Gothic quality often characterized by stylistic experimentation.
“She contributed to making the everyday strange,” the curator adds.
Maar’s commercial work helped her craft this unusual style. In 1931, she opened a photography studio with set designer Pierre Kéfer, working on commission for fashion houses like Chanel and designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin. She often employed a collage technique, overlaying images “from her own work, including both street and landscape photography,” instead of using newspapers or magazines, per Tate Modern.
“These commissions had good budgets a lot of the time. They had good circulation, and they reached interesting audiences,” Lewis says. “Every image that we see by Maar is either about her pushing what she can do with staging, light and composition or her taking the components of the image and cutting and pasting and reworking that within her studio.”
A key example of Maar’s collage technique is a 1935 photo titled The Years Lie in Wait for You. In it, a woman clasps the bottom half of her face with her manicured hands, which are visible but almost hidden behind a superimposed image of a spiderweb. Thought to be a face cream advertisement, the work was never published, notes Lewis in Photography, A Feminist History: Gender Rights and Gender Roles on Both Sides of the Camera.
Maar enjoyed great commercial success with her studio, adding an experimental lens to many of her commissions. She could, “at roughly the same time, produce high-end fashion photographs, artful advertising pictures, flattering studio portraits, figure studies, soft-core pornography, … gritty street scenes, documentary shots, politically inflected images, rigorous formal compositions, and the complex, disturbing, and beautifully crafted Surrealist photomontages that are her most memorable creations,” wrote art critic Richard Kalina for Art in America in 2020.
Though the vision of independent womanhood conveyed by 1920s and ’30s advertisements was “largely an alluring commercial fiction … Maar and her friends actually lived such lives,” Kalina added. “And they put their exceptional autonomy to use” by documenting social inequality and advocating for political reform. Maar was a left-wing political activist involved with revolutionary groups, and her politics were “inextricable from her work as an artist,” Lewis says.
Today, Maar’s work is often referenced only or primarily in connection with Picasso, whom she met in the mid-1930s, when she was in her late 20s and the famed Cubist painter was in his mid-50s.
“So often the first sentence you read about [muses] is that they were the muse of Pablo Picasso” or a similarly prominent man, says Nelson. “But in the case of Dora Maar, she was a really successful and interesting photographer for years and years before she … even met Pablo Picasso.”
Aside from her collage work, Maar was known for using the camera to document reality and capture street life. Through her style and gaze, she was able to transform what she saw into something altogether different.
Many of Maar’s snapshots have never or rarely been seen by the public. The 2019 retrospective, which featured more than 200 works by the artist, highlighted some of these little-known photographs. And earlier this year, Paris auction house Artcurial placed roughly 750 photographs from Maar’s estate, the majority of which had previously been unpublished, up for sale.
Spanning the late 1920s to the end of the 1940s, the images included uncharacteristically informal photos of Picasso, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of his 1937 painting Guernica and self-portraits of Maar, as well as vignettes from major European cities, like a bookseller in Paris, a series of blind musicians in Barcelona and beggars in London.
“We have essentially retained from [Maar] to this day the strangeness of some of her compositions or collages, which bring their own score to the Surrealist movement,” says Bruno Jaubert, director of Artcurial’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department. “But it is also, to another extent, her way of capturing reality that goes beyond Surrealist aesthetics.”
While Maar’s work did not experience a major stylistic shift in the collection’s roughly 30-year span, Jaubert says her eye became more trained and refined.
“[The cache] shows a maturity in the look that immediately reveals a scene, a presence without seeking decorative effect,” he notes.
Throughout her life, Maar found herself caught between painting and photography, never able to choose just one. For years, particularly during her relationship with Picasso, she focused on painting, in love with the art form she had first taken up as a teenager. It was only toward the end of her life that she inhabited fully once more the world of photography.
“We don’t know that she ever stopped photographing, per se, but certainly in her later years, she returned to darkroom experimentation,” Lewis says. Maar died in 1997 at age 89.
The artist’s shift from painting to photography and back again wasn’t unusual for the time. As Nelson argued in the 2021 NGA exhibition “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” photography became a way for women to make money and express themselves creatively during the 20th century. Many followed a path like Maar’s, studying art in a traditional setting before pursuing photography in the 1920s and ’30s, as the medium was growing and changing.
For Maar, photography was a way to carve her own path in a business sense. She certainly wasn’t alone in that.
“For some women, photography was a very viable career where you could actually see yourself making your own money, earning your own income and becoming independent,” Nelson says.
When Nelson curated the NGA exhibition, she knew she wanted to include Père Ubu. Yet she had a difficult time determining where to place the photograph. It was such a strong composition, so different from the other pieces in the exhibition’s “Avant-Garde Experiments” room, that it didn’t quite work next to anything else.
Eventually, Nelson came up with a compromise: putting the photograph next to the room’s wall text. There, it wouldn’t overshadow other works but rather help start a conversation. It could only exist as Maar likely intended it to—on its own.