Pablo Picasso's Weeping Woman at the NGV. 1937 oil on canvas, featuring Dora Maar as the model (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

A life in miniature

‘Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life’ is Brigitte Benkemoun’s discovery of the provenance of the address book and what it told her about the owner’s life

Brigitte Benkemoun, French journalist and author, bought a vintage Hermès pocket diary through eBay for €70. It was a replacement for a lost diary. When she opened it, she found it was made in 1951 and the address portion was intact and used. She saw a startling list of contacts: Cocteau, Lacan, Balthus, Chagall, Giacometti and Breton. There was no name in the diary but Benkemoun realised this diary had belonged to someone at the heart of post-war Parisian art and intellectual circles. Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life is Benkemoun’s discovery of the provenance of the address book and what it told her about the owner’s life.

Brigitte Benkemoun, Jody Gladding (trans.), Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life, Getty Publications, 2020, paperback, 216pp, £24.95.

It seemed clear the owner was someone with ties to Paris but it was the mention of Ménerbes, Southern France which tipped off Benkemoun. Dora Maar had moved to the town in the 1940s. It was not clear how the book had come to be sold but research proved that this was Maar’s address book. Benkemoun consulted Picasso’s son, John Richardson and other Picasso scholars to piece together Maar’s connections with the people listed in her diary.

Before this year if you had heard of Dora Maar (1907-1997) then it would have been in connection with Picasso. She was Picasso’s lover and muse from 1935 to 1943 and subject of classic portraits, including Weeping Woman (1937). She photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937), which she assisted by painting in some of the parts outlined by Picasso.

However, last year a touring exhibition of Maar’s photography and painting opened at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, reaching Tate Modern earlier this year. The industry of reclaiming peripheral women artists is big business for curators, publishers and academics. While this attention is sometimes deserved, more often foolishly grand claims are made for creative women who are undistinguished. Dora Maar is both a serious artist and seriously overestimated.

Henriette Theodora Markovitch chose the pseudonym Dora Maar while studying photography and painting in Paris. After graduating, she worked as a fashion photographer and mingled in high society but was more engaged by the revolutionary ethos of Surrealism. She worked with Brassaï, Man Ray and the Surrealists in the 1930s, making some remarkable photographs and montages, which were published and exhibited at the time. André Breton was a supporter and friend. She was admired for her artistic abilities, her sharp intelligence and her beauty. The emotional darkness and claustrophobia visible in her early art was an indication of the tendencies that would soon overtake and destabilise her.

Her relationship with Picasso was tumultuous. Picasso was attracted to her because of her looks and also the sense of danger. Her neurotic character made her highly strung. Weeping Woman was Picasso’s embodiment of the emotional volatility and distress that he detected in Maar. In 1943 Maar and Picasso split up, messily, but stayed in contact until 1946. During the uncertainty and suspicion of the Occupation of France, Maar’s mental health deteriorated. In 1945 she was committed to an institution for electro-convulsive therapy. One name in her address book is Jacques Lacan, who analysed her following her hospitalisation.

Maar’s fervent anti-Communism separated her from post-war Parisian intellectuals and artists

She retreated from Paris in the late 1940s, to live in Ménerbes, in a house Picasso gave her. At this time, she turned away from photography to painting. Her paintings are forceful, gloomy and unremarkable examples of post-war School of Paris painting. Much of it is derivative of Picasso. She returned to Paris but was reclusive and depressed, becoming deeply involved in Catholicism and other religions. Her fervent anti-Communism separated her from post-war Parisian intellectuals and artists. (She even flirted with admiring Nazism, though only after it had been safely defeated.)

In her last decades, she began to produce abstract works that fused photography and painting. These are better than the oil paintings but they lack to the immediacy and strangeness of her early montages. She made art for the rest of her life but destroyed much of it. She did not marry and had no children, living alone. She obsessively tracked the auction prices of Picasso paintings and estimated the value of her own, including Picasso’s portraits of her. After she died, her art was dispersed largely undocumented; the auctioneers had eyes only for her Picassos. They made up the bulk of the €213M of her estate’s value.

The book is divided into short chapters focusing on the relationships Maar had with the individuals named in her address book. There are fascinating insights in Finding Dora Maar. Maar could not have children but she was very close to the infant niece of Jacqueline Lamba and the death of that infant (in August 1941) seems to have contributed to Maar’s breakdown. In 1942 her mother collapsed while arguing on the telephone with Maar. Due to the occupation curfew, Maar was only able to visit the following day; she found her mother dead.

The author is given to rather potent prose – exclamation marks intrude more than they should – but this conveys the excitement of discovery and the drama of Maar’s life. Benkemoun examines Maar’s life with sympathy but without false praise, showing us how prickly, contrary and thin-skinned her subject could be. We can forgive the author for her flights of romance when she plunges into the cultural ferment of Paris in 1952. This was the last time Paris was important on the world stage and the melancholy of France’s fall to mediocrity heightens the piquancy of this slice of history, personalised.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover