National Gallery of Victoria


Dora Maar
French 1907–1997
Portrait of Picasso
flexible negative
3.5 x 2.4 cm
Musée National Picasso, Paris (deposit MNAM) 205.N-DM
© Dora Maar/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2006


Les Deux Magots


Man Ray
Dora Maar
24 x 30 cm
© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2000. Lucien Treillard Collection, Paris


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Dora Maar front view
silver gelatin photograph from glass plate, state IV
30.0 x 24.0 cm
Collection Dora Maar, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 1998-333
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006

A Journey Through the Exhibition
Picasso and Dora Maar - A Mercurial Meeting of Minds

In the winter of 1935 Picasso became intimately involved with Dora Maar, a stunningly beautiful, passionate and acutely intelligent young woman. Dora's influence was to stimulate one of the most innovative periods of his career. His personal life was in turmoil when they met: he had broken up with his wife Olga Koklova, a ballet dancer with the Ballet Russes; and Marie-Thérèse Walter, his mistress since 1927, had given birth to their daughter, Maya. He felt incapable of painting and instead devoted his creative energy to writing poetry.

Picasso and Dora had a complex personal and artistic relationship that spanned the intense period from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War to the end of the Second World War.

In 1997 when the reclusive Dora Maar died, new light was shed on their creative partnership. The Director of the Musée Picasso, distinguished Picasso scholar Anne Baldassari, was granted access to her apartment in order to prepare a photographic inventory of the premises (at 6, rue de Savoie, in the 6th arrondissement of Paris).

She discovered that Dora Maar had kept everything connected to her relationship with Picasso, such as her Rolleiflex camera that was central to her commercial photographic practice, and therefore instrumental in Picasso's dynamic experiments with photography. Other objects included a fragment of stained paper labelled Picasso's blood, a magical sculpture of her beloved terrier torn from a napkin by her lover, and a copy of L'Humanite from 5 October 1944 announcing Picasso's allegiance to the French Communist Party. The personalised nature of these precious objects provided new and intriguing insights into Picasso's inventive art practice, as well as one of the most artistically inspiring relationships of the 20th century.

Dora Maar was already established in Paris as an acclaimed fashion and publicity photographer, before her involvement with Picasso. Aside from her commercial practice she was an innovative Surrealist photographer, painter, intellectual and political activist. It is easy to understand how the meeting of Dora and Picasso's inventive minds influenced their work and fed each other's creative potential.

Portrait of Ubu, created by Dora in 1936, became an icon of the Surrealist movement and was exhibited in an exhibition of Surrealist objects at Charles Ratton's Gallery that same year; then later at the 'International Surrealist Exhibition' in London. The work was named after Alfred Jarry's controversial play of 1896, in which the character of Ubu is based on the playwright's physics teacher who resembled a monstrous sea creature.

Dora adamantly refused to identify the image, which perpetuated its mystique. There was speculation that it was an armadillo foetus. The work exemplifies the Surrealists' fascination with exploring forbidden territory, where the exotic and grotesque mingle to create a disquieting yet exciting tension.

Dora and Picasso had many mutual friends among the politically charged intellectual circles in Paris, including Man Ray, Andre Bréton, the founder of the Surrealist Movement, and the poet Paul Eluard. It was inevitable that their paths would eventually cross. There are conflicting stories about their first meeting. The most intriguing story explains how Picasso was drawn to Dora by an incident at the Les Deux Magots café frequented by the Surrealists. While conversing with a friend he noticed her sitting alone absorbed in a strange ritual that involved stabbing a small penknife between her fingers and into the wooden table. Sometimes the knife caught her fingers and a drop of blood would appear between the roses embroidered on her black gloves. This surreal, audaciously elegant and edgy act embodied the qualities of this fascinating woman who Picasso found irresistible. He is supposed to have asked for her gloves as a memento of their meeting. As she had spent part of her childhood in Argentina she was able to converse with him in Spanish, his native tongue, an additional attraction that his other muses did not possess.

Shortly after their first meeting, in the winter of 1935/36, they began an artistic collaboration. Dora photographed Picasso in her studio at 29, rue d'Astorg. These early portraits are important records that capture Picasso, the guarded professional artist, as he gradually surrenders to the warmth and tenderness of a close relationship. Mysteriously, Dora developed some of these portraits but never printed them. It is almost as if the ethereal nature of the negatives had captured the soul of the man she loved, a secret she preferred to keep to herself.

Dora's photography and the experimental techniques she employed were a source of inspiration to Picasso. He began to take photographs of her that were the catalyst for a whole series of works that blended photography with printmaking in an entirely new manner. Using photographs of Dora as a starting point, Picasso painted several portraits on glass before exposing them over photographic paper to create unique and surprising photographic impressions. He extended the process by further scratching into the images on glass plates to create different effects. By placing lace, tissue and other fabrics between the glass plate and the photographic paper, Picasso was able to build up novel and unprecedented multi-layered compositions.

It is interesting to ponder whether Picasso would have made these unique, experimental works if he had not met Dora.

Questions for Further Discussion:

  1. In what ways were Dora Maar and Picasso highly innovative in the construction of their art works?
  2. How did Dora Maar and Picasso influence each other's practice? Select a work by each of them and discuss these influences.
  3. Consider artists in relationships, such as Rose Farrell and George Parkin, Lyndal Brown and Charles Green. How do they work together and how have they influenced each other?
  4. Find out about Cliché verre – the process of transferring a drawing or painting onto light-sensitive paper that Picasso experimented with. Discuss how you might incorporate this process into your own artwork.

 Other References (Journey Through the Exhibition)



NGV: Art like never before