Dora Maar: an innovator with classic references

When walking around the Dora Maar exhibition at Tate Modern (until March 15th, 2019), I could not help but notice the multiple references to masterpieces of the past. And when talking about Dora Maar, what else do we first think but: photographer, surrealism, and Pablo Picasso? In this article, I aim at showing how the photographer managed to innovate by looking back on masterpieces of art history.


Dora Maar, Man Ray, 1936
Dora Maar, Man Ray, 1936

Dora Maar was born in Paris on November 22nd, 1907. From 1910 to 1926, she lived in Argentina with her family. This had a great impact on her mental health. Her parents fought, her bedroom was separated from the rest of the house by a glass window which made her feel very insecure. When she came back to France, she started studying at the School of Photography in Paris, then at the Académie Julian. In the midst 1930s, she met André Breton and thus began her relationship with surrealism.

In 1935, she met Pablo Picasso: an encounter that would change her forever. The Spanish artist was attracted by this woman with blue eyes and brown hair, and her mysterious look. Her artistic creation was strongly impacted by her relationship with Picasso. Their break up in 1943 led her to being interned in a psychiatric hospital. She never stopped painting. However, she let photography on the side to focus on abstract psychological creations which she started after her encounter with the painter Nicolas de Staël. She died in Paris, in 1997.


If Dora Maar is famous as a surrealist photographer and painter, it is important to look at the classical references present in her photographic works to understand how ground-breaking she was. Her looking back on masterpieces of art history shows how innovative she was as an artist.

Woman’s hair with shampoo, 1934

Shampoo or Woman's hair with soap, Dora Maar, 1934
Shampoo or Woman’s hair with soap, Dora Maar, 1934

Shampoo or Woman’s hair with soap was taken in 1934. In the context of a growing consumer society, photography was becoming the new medium for advertisement. This photograph was taken as part of an advertisement for shampoo. It was exhibited, in 1934, at the Salon International d’art Photographique.

The portrait is a close-up of a woman’s face and hair. There are two hands behind her that are not hers. Her face and her hair are entirely detached from her body, which is absent from the picture. The focus is on the foam the shampoo creates. It gives it a sculptural aspect, as if her hair will stay in that movement forever. That, and the placement of the hands behind her, allows to compare it to Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. Indeed, the composition of the photograph and the sculptural aspect Dora Maar gave to it recall the baroque sculpted group.

Shampoo and Apollo and Daphne

There are two elements that allow to make a parallel between the two works. The most obvious one is the movement of the hair. Bernini sculpted Daphne’s hair by using a drill. With it, he created the curls in her hair. The curls and the movement create light and shadow in the work. This looks very much like the effects the shampoo has on the woman’s hair in Dora Maar’s photograph. Her wet hair contrast with the white foam of the shampoo, like Daphne’s curls look either white or dark depending on how the sculpture is lit.

The second element is the facial expression of the Woman with wet hair. One would except from a 1930 ad-photograph, to see a woman baring a smile on her face while shampoing. Here, Dora Maar chose to give her model the expression of a real woman whose hair are soaking with shampoo. The naturalism of the photography is therefore the second element that allows to create a parallel between the two works. The woman is not posing: she is squinting her eyes, which gives her a lot of character. In Bernini’s work, Daphne is screaming silently. That is what creates the fear on her face.

It is also interesting to note that Dora Maar made a reference to a baroque work. Baroque was, according to Quatremère de Quincy, “the notion of ridicule at its peak”, “bizarre”. In that sense, one could easily compare the Baroque movement to Surrealism and Dora Maar’s later collage. Could the fact that she may have used Bernini’s work as a reference have foreshadowed her future involvement in the surrealist movement? I will leave that question open.

Untitled (Nude), c.1938

Dora Maar, Untitled (Nude), c.1938
Dora Maar, Untitled (Nude), c.1938

The female nude is a subject that goes as far back as before Antiquity. Its popularity is undeniable and the works that Dora Maar may have used as a reference are numerous. However, one can see two major references in this work. The first one is Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres. The latter’s influence on Dora Maar’s work is direct and undeniable, as Man Ray was one of the major photographic reference of the time.

Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres

Man Ray, Le Violon d'Ingres, 1924
Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924

Le Violon d’Ingres is, in itself, a reference to two works by the french academic painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: The Turkish Bath and The Bather.

Indeed, Man Ray photographed his model Kiki de Montparnasse from behind as Ingres painted his bathers. The photographer also chose to have Kiki wear a turban, yet another reference to Ingres’ works. Here, the modernity of Man Ray lies in two things: his use of photography as a medium for his art, and the fact that he drew the gills of the violon on top of the picture. As a surrealist artist, he was a major reference to Dora Maar who joined the group a decade after Ray took the Violon d’Ingres.. As for the previous comparison, maybe this foreshadowed her future affiliation with the surrealist group?

Edgar Degas, the bath series

Another reference one can see in Dora Maar’s photograph is to Edgar Degas’s bath series.

E.Degas, Woman seated on the edge of a bath sponging her neck, c.1895
E.Degas, Woman seated on the edge of a bath sponging her neck, c.1895

The models are captured in intimate moments. They are in their baths, combing their hair. The paintings by Degas are nudes of the backs of these women. It seems like he was looking through the keyholes of their bathrooms. The picture by Dora Maar gives the same impression.

Moreover, the movement of the arms in all the paintings and the photograph is the same. All of them are touching their hair. The gesture brings a kind of sensuality to all of the works which, in Degas’ paintings, is increased by the fact that they are in their bathrooms. However, in Dora Maar’s works, there are frames in the background. The woman is out of the private environment of the bathroom. She is openly a model, a muse, and nudity is entirely the subject. The photographer places the woman as one who agreed to pose for her – and not one who was seen through a keyhole.


This statement shows the modernity of Dora Maar. By using classic references, she managed to create her own language, a new language. She paved her own way to more surrealist works such as the famous Hand-Shell.

Dora Maar, Untitled (Hand-Shell), 1934
Dora Maar, Untitled (Hand-Shell), 1934

Once again, this work refers to a classic work: Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Thus, her photographies, while being revolutionary in their subject, were filled with references to famous and classic works. It show how brilliant she was an artist, who could use these references to create an entirely new language. But it also shows that Dora Maar was not only Picasso’s muse: Dora Maar was a state-of-the-art artist.