Saturday, 29 August 2020


Tate Modern, London

”Nothing is as surreal as reality itself.”

Masks and Stars

Changing her name from the less memorable Henriette Markovitch, Dora Maar’s placed herself within the Surrealist inner circle with her photography. She was herself photographed by Man Ray (who told her she couldn’t become his assistant as there was nothing he could teach her), had Paul Eluard dedicate a poem to her, conducted an affair with Picasso… okay, the last one might not be terribly unusual.

But more pertinent to her work might be her sharing a darkroom with Surrealist photographer Brassai while working as an assistant to fashion photographer Harry Ossip Meerson. The fashion work, true, she took on for the cash. And the show doesn’t shy from explaining that this was an era of “body discipline”, where articles on fitness, health and hygiene predominated. Nevertheless, there didn’t follow the distinction between day job and dark room activity that you might think.

As both Surrealist and glamour images are unconcerned with realism, they’re not just composed - they’re ostentatiously arranged. Figures sport fixed and defined poses, with shadows placed so firmly they become part of the composition. In one (untitled, 1935, above) a glamorous model who seems about to take a curtain call, looking every inch a star, has her head replaced by an actual star.

In another (also 1935) a face-mask is held away to reveal precisely the same face beneath. It illustrates Wilde’s famous credo “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” We should stop seeing masks as hiding selves and start seeing them as instead creating selves.
But it’s more than motifs jumping across genres, there’s a strong accordance between the mood of Maar’s fashion and Surrealist work. They’re both glamorous, in the sense of associated with heightened states. (And we should remember that at the time the Surrealists thrilled to the ‘irrationality’ of Hollywood films and advertising art.)

Appealingly there’s one image, ’The Years Lie In Wait for You’ (c. 1935, above) which shows a spider’s web superimposed over a model. It’s thought this was commissioned work, to sell an anti-ageing cream. But no-one’s sure, and the story’s complicated by the model being Maar’s Surrealist compatriot Nusch Eluard.

While ’Untitled (Hand-Shell)’ (1934, above) not only retains elements from ’Untitled Element For Fashion Photograph’ (also above, from the same year) it keeps much of the glamour - a manicured hand displayed under perfectly arranged lighting. It’s a strong enough image to make it onto the show’s poster. The chief difference is that the hand isn’t left as a separate object but linked to the shell. And as the image somewhat resembles a snail, it takes us a second to realise the impossibility of it. It doesn’t shock, like so many Surrealist images, so much as subvert, sneak up on us.

The disembodied hand is something of a staple of horror films, often as a kind of negative window onto the soul. It’s associated with amoral grasping, what we’d do without head or heart to guide us. But that doesn’t seem to fit here at all. One reading would be to see this as a truncated timeline of evolution, that we crawled from the sea then came to paint our nails. But the image is ambiguous; even though the hand stretches from the shell, it’s still possible to read the timeline backwards.

The collage ’Untitled (Danger)’ (1936, above) borrows from Ernst’s montages taken from popular magazines. Though he would normally manipulate what he found, adding or over-pasting elements. Society figures would come to sport bird heads or bat wings, while still sitting smartly in their drawing room. Maar juxtaposes two figures merely by placing them against a new background, the full extent of her alterations. So, much like the hand shell, our initial reaction is to try and parse it as an integral image.

And even after we’ve given up on that, it’s easy enough to image either figure in the setting of their original pulp magazine. But set against the softly lapping shore their histrionic poses look absurd. (More so for the lack of interaction between them.) It’s similar to meeting someone in real life who behaved as though they were in some genre adventure story.

The Weight of Absence

A very early photo, ’Le Mont St. Michael’ (1931, above), of a monastery cloister and described as her “first significant commission”, establishes a theme taken up in much of her later work. And it’s, I kid not, absence. What’s going on in that photo, with its space so empty but for those ominous shadows?

It’s not that something is about to happen. If fact you could almost will for something to happen, just to break the overpowering spell. When horror films switch from the atmospheric set-up to actually revealing the monster, it can come as a relief. Something often even built into the film, the revelation we’re at least dealing with a specific, defined thing renders it part-way to being defeated. This image is more the sensing of absence as a presence, the way you can realise you’re not carrying something you should be.

Which is common in Surrealist art. Objects are sometimes arranged in order to convey a central absence. Perhaps it suggests that in the object-oriented world of the bourgeoisie the irrational needs no place to hide, in fact empty space is its natural habitat. Perhaps it combines with, and extends, child animism, to the point where even absence becomes a form of life. But ultimately trying to rationalise it is paradoxical, for it literally involves focusing on nothing. Which is perhaps the point.

And you can see the echo of this image in ’Silence’ (1935/6, above), a title which is of course also a form of absence. The figures don’t fill or dominate the tunnel, but are more littered along it, like punctuation to a missing sentence.

The Surreal Lies in the Streets

We then learn the industrious Maar had a third string to her bow, she was also taking street photography. Against the background of the Depression, this era saw frequent fights between left and right (yeah, hard to imagine today), making the street a contested zone. And like many Surrealists Maar was quite partisan in those struggles, involved in campaigns and attending rallies. Many of these photos are straightforward reportage. But others, despite being entirely unaltered snaps of things she saw, are definitely Surrealist.

Take ’Untitled (Man Looking Inside a Pavement Inspection Door)’ (1935, above). An entirely explicable image, it does also resemble the Surrealist motif of a hole opening up in reality. Smartly, the image is cropped so the background figure is also headless. But it’s perhaps too smart, too witty, too close to a gag to be thought fully Surreal. However, others are more lyrical, more suggestive…

’After the Rain’ (1933, above) evokes so transient a moment there’s almost something Impressionist about it. That long-shadowed late afternoon will soon dissolve into dusk, the glistening pavement will dry, and so on. But it’s more about the passing of a mood than of the moment. And this is conveyed by the figures. Partly, by passing… by already having passed through the scene they enhance the sense of transience. But not only is one a child, the shot is taken from a low angle, suggesting their perspective. And children are more receptive to such spirits of the moment.

The capitalist city is arterial, functional, built for passing through. It’s divided neatly into zones, with mechanisms to get people and other units between those zones, according to schedules. The tendency is to reject the city with the capitalist. However the Surrealists instead re-imagined it. The city wasn’t a way to get to work on time, but a forest of symbols, a creator of chance encounters. The many elements… flow of vehicles and people, different architectural styles, times of day, weather patterns… each combine into a unique combination, and then another which overwrites the last.

To drift through the city without aim, going where you’re taken, that was thought a Surrealist activity in itself. Cities are for our senses the gift that never stops giving, an unending accumulation of impressions. We’ve stopped ourselves up so we didn’t have to notice any more. We need our eyes opening again, and this is what Surrealism is for.

The point isn’t to make art, or even change the nature of art. It’s to cure us from that affliction, by any means necessary. Louis Aragon insisted “our cities are peopled with unrecognised sphinxes which will never stop the passing dreamer and ask him mortal questions unless he first projects his meditation, his absence of mind, towards them.”

If we were to see the show as a Venn diagram, this is the point everything overlaps and we see Maar at her highest concentrate. There’s the immediacy of the verité street scenes but at the same time the enticing allure of the glamour images and the rich strangeness of the Surrealist collages. The show speaks of photography’s “precarious relationship to reality”, which allows it to “render the familiar strange.” Ben Luke in the Standard is more succinct: “She makes real life uncanny.”

Cause to Weep

Then in the winter of 1935 she met Picasso. At which point the show seems to be blown as much off course as was she, as if his domineering ego is exerting itself from beyond the grave. We’re shown her photos of working versions of ’Guernica’, interesting in themselves but about Picasso rather than her. We’re proudly told she was the model for his ’Weeping Woman’. But that’s not the same thing as it being a portrait of her. It’s a Picasso picture, and its true subject is Picasso. (There’s a detail of their relationship which seems telling. Having grown up in South America, Maar spoke perfect Spanish. But, despite living so long in Paris, Picasso spoke only poor French.)

After she’d guided him over a rare impasse in his art, he encouraged her to return to painting. A rare case of Picasso doing something for a woman’s creativity. The only problem being, he gave wholly the wrong advice. Her painting, in the main, just shows you what a great photographer she’d been. Worse, it’s generally imitative of his style from the period, the combination of classicism and primitivism.

However, while I may simply be hopefully imagining it, ’Portrait of a Woman’ (1939) exaggerates his tropes to the point they become exposed, like pushing an argument to its logical conclusion. The female elements placed on a table, in contrast to the neat vertical strokes of the background, seem to emphasise the artificiality of phrases like ‘putting on your face’, to the point we see "woman" as a construction. Sporting its own eyes and full lips, the table itself seems feminised, as if the two have morphed together. Notably, in French the word ‘table’ is given a feminine pronoun.

Their inevitable break triggered a depression in her. (Equally inevitably caused by him finding another woman. Or, more accurately another another woman.) Which was exacerbated by a flurry of ill winds, including the death of her mother, of Nush Eluard and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Against this background she painted ’Still Life With Jar and Cup’ (1945, above). There’s a running joke that every contemporary art show has at least one work described as “an interrogation of ‘the real’”, a piece of boilerplate post-modern bollocks. No-one says it here, and it’s one time you could justifiably apply it. We associate such solid outlines with sharply delineated objects but, particularly with the bottle, they sport the paraphernalia of three dimensions while actually looking flat and iconic. 

The blurry paint and the narrow chromatic range make these objects look neither solid nor intangible, but some strange ghost form which slips between the two. There’s a similarity to the work of Giorgo Morandi.

Around now, Maar is supposed to have reverted to Catholicism. But there is something Zen, in the strict sense of the term, about these still lives. As they seem to question reality they’re unsettling, but at the same time they’re simple and calm, perhaps even serene. They seem to be telling us that nothing in the world is as we think it is. But never mind, you’ll get over it.

In later life, she created ‘photograms’ - photo negatives painted on, corroded or otherwise manipulated. The works are fine, if perhaps a throwback to work produced in the inter-war years. But two details stand out. She showed them to few, so few they were effectively discovered after her death in 1997. And she made a point of saying she no longer found the street inspiring; it was “more extravagant” but at the same time “banal”. Creating art purely within her own darkroom suggests she’d retreated to an insular world and, knowing it, didn’t consider it worthwhile to show her work to a world it had no connection with. It had become like dreams in the more conventional sense, incubated in private and without significance to others.

Overall, her images have none of the standard sub-Dalian paraphernalia the style is normally littered with, and are all the stranger for it. People too readily associate Surrealism with the fantastical, with the depiction of impossible things. But it’s less concerned with conjuring up unexpected sights, with simulating hallucinations, and more with challenging our existing ways of looking. As Michael Richardson has said “Surrealism neither aims to subvert realism… not does it try to transcend it. It looks for entirely different means by which to explore reality itself.” Or, to jump back to Wilde, he insisted “the mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”.

But, while perhaps the Tate have been spoiling us, overall Maar couldn’t match the impact of Dorothea Tanning or Wifredo Lam. True the high points of the show, the Surrealist collages and Parisian street scenes, are high indeed. But like that late afternoon street she shot, they seemed to arrive too soon and pass too quickly.

But perhaps hers is more the story of Surrealism. The irony is that war, through the First World War then the Spanish Civil War, did so much to stir up the movement. Then it was war, through World War Two, which slew it. Modern art no longer seemed a transformative medium, political radicalism lay dead, the once-inspiring Soviet Union exposed as crushingly repressive, unconscious forces now nothing but tools with which ad men could manipulate us. The dream, as someone once said, was over.

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