The Self-Made Surrealist Woman

Isabella Martin 8 November 2019
Image credit: Flickr

The exhibition on Dora Maar, well known Surrealist icon usually remembered for her relationship with Picasso, is set to open on the 20th of November.

The Tate Modern introduces her work by stating that “this exhibition will explore the breadth of Maar’s long career in the context of work by her contemporaries.” – yet again, encompassed in this harmless sentence, we bear witness to the compulsive desire of the art world to contextualize the female artist. Throughout history, the female artist has been constantly and consistently placed in subordination to the male artist; a skewed power dynamic that particularly comes to light during the Surrealist Movement in the 1900s. Why must the female artist be continuously placed in the shadow of her male contemporaries throughout history?

Surrealism, the movement which sprang to life in 1924 following André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, and of which Dora Maar herself eventually came to be a pivotal player, intrinsically subordinates and objectifies women, from its theories to its artistic manifestations. The Surrealist dream was driven by male artists and intellectuals who sought to attain a lucidity, clarity of thought, and a greater reality via the liberation of the unconscious mind, free from the constraints of objective reality. However, obsessive objectification of the female body is embedded in the movement. Surrealist artists routinely resorted to taking ownership of the female body within their art as a stepping-stone for their own personal liberation.

During her lifetime, Maar’s work was defined by her role as Picasso’s accessory; model, muse and lover. Her existence as the object of Picasso’s gaze absolutely dictated and reigned over both her artistic output and personal life. Their twisted power dynamic comes to the fore through their art: whilst Maar was often featured as tears in Picasso’s work, a mere fragment of the artistic whole, she dedicated an entire documentative photographic series to Picasso’s creation of his masterpiece, Guernica.

Picasso’s mastery of the male gaze facilitated his dictation of Maar’s artistic output and her subordination in their relationship.

Picasso began to impose on her his cubist style and pushed her from photography to painting: the medium he considered to be superior. Throughout this time, Picasso was seeing his other mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter with whom he had a child. Eventually the tension drove Maar too far: in 1945 she suffered a mental breakdown and was consequently admitted to a psychiatric clinic.

“Eventually the tension drove Maar too far: in 1945 she suffered a mental breakdown and was consequently admitted to a psychiatric clinic…”

Fortunately, post-mortem, Maar has been able to resurrect a haunting legacy. Although she was unable to auto-define or be recognised throughout her lifetime for her artistic individuality, her work is now benefiting from close re-examination. Whilst a shame that she never saw the recognition she deserved, in recent history there has been a resurgence of focus on past female artists who were restricted in their lifetime. With a new mission to examine and educate, museums and public institutions of culture, such as the Tate Modern, hold the influence to foster interest and respect for newly (re)discovered female artists.

Maar’s provocative photomontages have become celebrated icons of Surrealism. Her ‘eye for the unusual’ extended beyond her artwork to her commercial work in advertising and fashion photography, and social documentary projects. Far from other Surrealists’ hindrance by their short-sightedness of the male gaze, Maar was by no means restricted by her artistic eye; her work extended beyond her visual play and tied into her political activity. In Europe’s increasingly fraught political climate, Maar signed her name to numerous left-wing manifestos – a radical gesture for a woman at that time.

Dora Maar’s innovative use of superimposed negatives. Image credit: Wikipedia commons

Historically, various feminist art movements have fuelled the desire to destroy the oppressive male gaze. The Guerilla Girls, anonymous activists in New York founded in 1985, posed a threat to the oppressive masculine lens with their famous poster, ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’. The Guerilla Girls took to protecting their identities by wearing gorilla masks in public; their anonymity afforded them a greater power as they were no longer susceptible to objectification by the male gaze and in the public eye. It is ironic, though, that their anonymity is the very factor which accords them power in the public eye, yet also wipes their individuality: in claiming their power, they deny themselves their ability to self-define, becoming uniformed robots of a movement.

The increasing demand for equality in representation was codified in the Art Worker’s Coalition’s (AWC) Statement of Demands, which was developed in 1969 and published in March 1970. The AWC also demands that museums ‘encourage female artists to overcome centuries of damage done to the image of the female as an artist by establishing equal representation of the sexes in exhibitions, museum purchases and on selection committees’.

On these grounds, the retrospective celebration of female artists is one to be cultivated. However, the battle is not yet won. A post-mortem definition does not qualify as an auto-definition on the part of the artist; it just about suffices as a substitute, or viable compensation for their individual artistic imprisonment during their lifetime. Looking to the future, in order to do justice to female artistic talent, women must be given the space to self-define and create their own legacy themselves. Ultimately, the ability to auto-define represents true artistic liberation and authenticity: one which cannot be accorded accurately in retrospect by museums, or well-meaning art directors.

So, see you at the Maar exhibition at the Tate. Support your local female artists, dead or alive.

One of The Guerrilla Girl’s most famous posters. Image credit: Flickr