Henriette Theodora Markovitz (1907–1997) was one of the pre-eminent photographers from the sphere of French Surrealists, drawing admiration from Man Ray, André Breton and Paul Éluard, to name but a few. With her camera she documented the process of creation and transformations of Guernica between 11 May and 4 June 1937 in Picasso’s studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins.
Born in Paris in 1907, Dora Maar worked from the early 1930s as a commercial photographer and on her own private work. Her photography can be distinguished by four strands: “street photography”, in which the influence of Atget in a Surrealist sensibility combines with Maar’s characteristic humour and social critiques; Surrealist photography, for instance her renowned Portrait d’Ubu (1937–1938), a symbol of the movement which condenses ideas about the sinister and seemingly innocent origin of monstrosity; portraits, including those which accentuate her friends and inner circle; and, finally, fashion and advertising photography. It was also in the 1930s, during her relationship with Picasso, when she took up painting again after previously leaving it aside for photography; however, after their separation Maar progressively distanced herself from art and art circles until she withdrew from public life in the 1960s.
Her political involvement, with communist leanings and against fascism, and shared with other members of the Surrealist group, undoubtedly influenced her street photography: following on from the flâneur spirit which was also discernible in the contemporary photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, in Maar’s work misery became raw and troubling, strangely distant, yet without a trace of condescension.
The figure and talent of Dora Maar was eclipsed for a protracted period through her relationship with Picasso, and partly “devoured” by the myth of the painter’s genius. The photographs she took of Guernica in progress are one of her better-known works, although her entire oeuvre has been vindicated in recent years. Maar joined Picasso in his studio to document Guernica’s process of creation and was commissioned by Christian Zervos to publish the images in his magazine Cahiers d’Arts. From the contours of the main figures to their completion, the “metamorphosis” of the painting, Picasso’s preferred term for the stages of the work, was recorded, with the photographer overcoming problems of light and space and the canvas size by applying different types of photo retouching. Consequently, the series became key to understanding Guernica as a work which was shaped by the events which unshackled it.