Imagine that instead of your online shopping consisting of bulk orders of paper products and pet food, you inadvertently purchased an item of significance to Western art history.
Such is the case with French journalist Brigitte Benkemoun, who was looking around on Ebay for a vintage Hermès address book. Once she won and received the item, she became intrigued by its contents. Whoever had owned the book had known quite a few of the most important cultural figures of Paris in the first half of the 20th century.
You can read an excerpt describing the painstaking research, analysis, and logic she used, as well as the “Eureka!” moment, in this excerpt from the new book, “Finding Dora Maar”, for it turns out that the address book had belonged to one of the most glamorous, avant-garde, and tragic figures of the Parisian art world
Dora Maar (1907-1997) had a peripatetic life before she settled in Paris during the 1930’s, where she began to have success as a photographer and poet. She also served as a model and muse for various artists and writers in her social circle, although nowadays she is perhaps mainly remembered for her relationship with her most famous suitor, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). When Picasso saw this famous photograph of her by Man Ray (1890-1976) in Ray’s studio in 1936, he insisted on keeping it. By this point, Maar and Picasso were already a year into what turned out to be a nine-year-long, tempestuous affair.
Picasso painted the well-known portrait of Maar shown below, now in the Musée Picasso in Paris, sometime in early 1937. I’ve always found it to have an almost two-faced personality, if you’ll pardon the expression, in that Maar is so calmly, elegantly posed in her chair, but she appears to be trapped in a box that is closing in on her. At the same time, for all of her arched brows and slightly knowing smile, there is something twisting and churning inside of Maar that Picasso is able to capture in this work.
Picasso had many wives and mistresses over the years, but perhaps none of them quite so haunted his artistic memory as did Dora Maar. She documented the creation of his masterpiece, “Guernica” (1937), serving as both model and, if you will, archivist during the creation of the work. Picasso’s imagery of his mistress was profoundly affected both by her own mental illness – which was exacerbated by his treatment of her –and by how he reacted to the Spanish Civil War. You can see this in another famous painting depicting Dora Maar, “Weeping Woman” (1937), which is now in the Tate Modern. It’s interesting to note that Maar herself didn’t like almost any of Picasso’s many paintings of her, feeling that they failed to capture who she really was.
Fortunately for those of us who are not quite good enough to read an entire book in French, “Finding Dora Maar” has just been translated into English and published by the Getty Press. I’ve just ordered a copy for myself, and look forward in particular to reading more about some of the writer’s research methods. And since we have no idea hereabouts when we will be returning to something approaching normal again, this might be a good candidate to consider adding to your reading pile.
With that recommendation out of the way, let’s move on to some art stories of interest this week – all of which have a connection to Paris, either directly or indirectly.
Sticking with Picasso’s peers for the moment, a new art center dedicated to the work of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is set to open in Baltimore next year, and its first director has now been named, thanks to a generous donor. Katy Rothkopf will head the Marder Center for Matisse Studies, which when it opens will have “the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Matisse works in a public museum,” consisting of over 1,000 works by Matisse, from paintings and photographs to drawings and prints, such as “Marie-José in a Yellow Dress” (1950), shown below. Given its size and location along the Northeast corridor, this is going to become a major center for the study of not only Matisse, but also of French cultural life during the first half of the 20th century, so this is definitely one new cultural institution that I plan to put on my must-visit list.
In Notre Dame de Paris news, it seems that although work is resuming at the Cathedral-Basilica site, as I reported on previously, but what many of us thought had been resolved, i.e. the issue of the central spire, appears not to be resolved at all. Although the French Senate voted to restore the spiky, Neo-Gothic spire by Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879), which regular readers of these pages will recall was part of the structure’s UNESCO World Heritage designation, it seems as though President Macron’s desire to hold a competition to design a new spire isn’t quite dead yet – er…or maybe it is. As any student of French political history knows, sometimes things which appear to be settled can suddenly be unilaterally, and unexpectedly, undone. The Architects Newspaper has a good roundup on the present state of play here.
Following completion of a multi-year, major renovation and overhaul, the legendary Hotel Ritz in Paris not only came up with a number of unexpected finds – such as this painting by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690) which I told you about, later purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – but also a surfeit of items which it either no longer needs or wants to care for in the future. Among these are an enormous number of dining and drinking items made exclusively for the hotel, from Limoges porcelain to Lalique crystal to Christofle silver, as well as a host of the types of hotel guest linens that people sneak into their suitcases upon departure. A press release PDF in English is available here. Most of us can’t quite manage to buy a LeBrun, so an upcoming auction by Artcurial of these more utilitarian, yet beautiful objects, could be a great way to own a piece of French cultural history. The auction will take place over June 21-23, and you can see the catalogue (and register to bid in English) by following this link.