The first time Picasso set eyes on Dora Maar, in 1935, she was sitting at a neighbouring table in a Parisian café wearing black gloves embroidered with large pink flowers. When she saw him looking, she peeled off the gloves, spread one hand on the table and proceeded to stab rapidly between her fingers with a sharp knife. In the many portraits Picasso would paint of Maar over the years to come, her hands loom large: held up to her face, spread over the arms of a chair, clasping a handkerchief over her mouth, with nails brightly daubed in red, green or blue.
The two became lovers the night they met, and Maar joined the long list of women in history famous less for their own achievements than for their relationship with a great man. For a long time she was best known as Picasso’s “weeping woman” in his famous painting. But Maar was a radical artist in her own right: a photographer who used montages to make daring, disturbing images inspired by dreams and the subconscious. She was as much a pioneer of photographic surrealism as her more famous friend Man Ray and she also appeared in several of his photographs, her hands again featuring prominently.
In Maar’s photomontage “Untitled (Hand-Shell)” (1934) the hand with painted nails is a mannequin’s rather than the photographer’s own – look closely and you can see the seams from the casting moulds. On its own, the hand would be little more than a plastic avatar of languid femininity, fixed in a ladylike half-point at nothing in particular. But femininity is precisely what Maar’s montage subverts. Turned upside down, emerging from the orifice of a seashell, her hand is a creature crawling through rough sand, a hermit crab dragging its home behind it, raked by white studio lights beneath an apocalyptic sky. It is like something out of a horror film: a kind of monstrous birth.
Yet the photo is beautiful, too. This is an image that reflects self-creation and determination. Born in 1907 to a Croatian architect and his French wife, Maar was one of a new generation of female artists making their way in a male world. Working as a successful photographer, making radical art with the Dadaists, surrealists and the October Group, she too was pulling herself out of a decorative shell, dragging beauty along behind her.
She did not quite manage to escape it, though. After her nine-year affair with Picasso ended, she had a breakdown and then slowly became reclusive, creating most of her art in private until she died in 1997. Only now is she being recognised as the pioneer she truly was: appreciated, finally, for her own handiwork.•
Dora Maar, Tate Modern, London, until Mar 2020; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Apr-Jul 2020