PRINT April 2020


Dora Maar, Le simulateur (The Pretender), 1935, gelatin silver print, 10 1⁄2 × 8 1⁄2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

“Dora Maar” was slated to travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles on April 21. It has been postponed due to COVID-19.

WHEN APPROACHING A CONCAVE MIRROR, we initially see ourselves unsettlingly upside down. But there is a threshold at which the image momentarily disappears, only to reemerge, the world righted. What is the artistic equivalent of this phenomenon? Consider Dora Maar’s Le simulateur (The Pretender), 1935, a beguiling picture.* A figure bends improbably, his back arched away from a curved wall at the inflection point where the stone half-pipe floor snakes around the corner. Inhabiting this windowless, carceral space, the simulateur seems at once to mimic, describe, and reinforce the structure, his flexed spine echoing the inverted barrel vault beneath his feet.

Dexterity and agility were hallmarks of Maar’s career, as demonstrated by the touring exhibition opening this month at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles after stops at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London. Born Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, the artist spent her youth between Paris and Buenos Aires, where her father, a Croatian architect, found success. Evincing a talent for self-fashioning before and behind the camera, she made her name in the 1930s as Dora Maar. An accomplished studio photographer who crafted images for fashion houses and glamour magazines, Maar was a canny manipulator of fantasy; her skill in this area serving her well as she moved into the Surrealist milieu.

The built environment is a key protagonist in Maar’s photomontages. Monumental edifices are fantastically reoriented; bourgeois interiors and ceremonial palaces become theaters of fetishistic role-play.

Le simulateur’s sleight of hand is technically simple—a montage of two photos, reversed and rotated. The setting is the Orangerie of the Château de Versailles, as captured in a 1907 volume of photographs of the palace’s architecture. Defying the horticultural purpose of the original light-filled space, Maar closed up the windows with painted-in masonry and converted its vaulted ceiling into a floor, transforming the indoor garden into a dungeon. She inserted into this accursed corridor a young street acrobat she photographed on a visit to Barcelona in September 1933. In the source picture, the boy is in the midst of executing a wall flip, throwing his weight over his shoulder to complete the rotation, anticipating the cushion of a hay cart’s unloaded cargo in the alley that he makes his playground.

The built environment is a key protagonist in Maar’s photomontages. Monumental edifices are fantastically reoriented; bourgeois interiors and ceremonial palaces become theaters of fetishistic role-play. Le simulateur is one of seven pictures that deploy imagery from the Versailles photo album, exploiting the depicted site’s potent symbolism of the opulent excesses of the ancien régime and, later, of imperial and republican authority, as the building was opportunistically retrofitted to serve the needs of whatever government claimed power. During the Third Republic (1870–1940), the joint congress of the National Assembly convened at Versailles to alter the constitution and elect presidents. More recently, President Emmanuel Macron has hosted dinners there for global business leaders in advance of the World Economic Forum’s meetings in Davos, Switzerland. The Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret remarked that Versailles was “incapable of producing a ruin,” characterizing the palace as “the decadent product of a degenerate feudal society, already gnawed at by the society to come.” In pillaging this political architecture, Maar’s Versailles photomontages betray a darkly twisted humor: A boy pisses on an elderly woman in the apartment of Madame du Barry, its muddied floor striated by reflective puddles; an altar niche of the palace chapel, flanked by child courtiers and baroque ornamentation, opens onto a burlesque striptease replete with a suggestively fetishistic fur rug and crystal candelabra.

Maar created Le simulateur a year after the February 6, 1934, riots in Paris, during which far-right groups stormed the streets, demonstrating that France was not immune to the rising tide of fascism sweeping Europe. Maar’s signature on tracts published in the wake of the crisis offer evidence of her political engagement. She had already associated with communist and other leftist groups that vehemently denounced fascism, disavowed Stalinism, and distanced themselves from the Soviet-linked French Communist Party. In the autumn of 1935, she would join Contre-Attaque, a coalition of intellectuals organized by Georges Bataille and André Breton, in criticizing the incrementalist positions of the Popular Front in favor of revolutionary politics. Maar’s role in these movements and the impact they had on her photographic output remain difficult to pin down, but resonances within the pictures suggest how she conceived the interplay between political action and artistic production.

Along with her Surrealist work, Maar exhibited images in a documentary vein: photos of the destitute and disabled, street children (like the figure in Le simulateur), and working-class laborers in Spain, London, and Paris—pictures attuned to the dynamics of inequity and domination. These dual modes of photography testify to the competing visions put forth for paradigms of representation in advancing revolutionary politics. Just days after Le simulateur was first displayed, Maar was included in the Paris exhibition “Documents de la vie sociale,” organized by the photographic wing of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (AEAR), a cultural group sponsored by the French Communist Party. Alongside images by Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Germaine Krull, and Eli Lotar, a special section was devoted to photographs taken during the 1871 Paris Commune. While Surrealism drew on the iconography of the French Revolution and on the persona of the Marquis de Sade, the AEAR frequently invoked the Commune, proposing a genealogy linked to the nineteenth-century realism of Gustave Courbet. Conscripted by erstwhile Surrealist Louis Aragon to the cause of a renewed political art, Courbet offered a compelling avatar for the committed avant-garde artist, both as a master of working social content into a modern picture and for his role in the Paris Commune, where he served as head of its Federation of Artists. When the Army of Versailles defeated the Commune, Courbet was arrested and charged for his complicity in the toppling of the Vendôme Column, a memorial to Napoléon’s war exploits. The Château de Versailles was repurposed as a prison, and Courbet was among those held in the Orangerie, as a sketch in his notebook attests. Against this historical backdrop, resonant for the French Left of the ’30s, Versailles recalls not only monarchical rule but also the Republic’s repression of the workers’ uprising.

One can imagine the appeal of Courbet to Maar: he a realist and Communard undoing the vertical authority of the phallic imperial form, she a Surrealist, a radical, and a monteur who, in a typically acerbic montage from the period, would replace a Neoclassical nude sculpture of Diana atop a fountain in Barcelona with the image of a two-headed calf. Set in the ancien régime palace that would become Courbet’s prison, Le simulateur is like a nightmare of a history painting, distorted and overdetermined, lacking a definitive temporal anchor. The painter figures as a constitutive absence in the montage, even as Maar seems to transform the name “Courbet” through a dream logic of symbolization, embodied pictorially as the bending street urchin—le gamin courbé. In Maar’s response to the crises of the ’30s, she mimics realism’s ethics of actuality and social concern, only to upend them through displacement and disorientation.

If Maar used photomontage to entangle the politics of the street and the studio, a more straightforward photographic document from 1936—her invocation of Alfred Jarry’s antihero Père Ubu—offers a complementary strategy for portraying emblematic forms of authority. In contrast to the excessive context of Versailles, this close-up presents a pathetic creature (never identified by Maar, but commonly believed to be a juvenile or fetal armadillo) as an embodiment of abject totalitarianism. Maar’s Ubu is a found object, framed by the camera to enhance the pseudomorphic resemblance between the biological specimen and Jarry’s pear-shaped protagonist. Ubu and the simulateur occupy opposing modes: one a slothful figure of oppressive stasis in the seat of sovereignty, the other agile, in perpetual convolution around the edifice of domination. Considered in tandem, the two works present a social world at once oneiric and grotesque, sliding into a mythology of gothic horror.

In Maar’s response to the crises of the ’30s, she mimics realism’s ethics of actuality and social concern, only to upend them through displacement and disorientation.

To be a Surrealist in the ’30s was to be fluent in simulation as a poetic method: By mimicking the symptoms of mental disorder, the Surrealists hoped to expand the horizons of linguistic expression. For Maar, to simulate with photography was to probe beyond the illusion of unmediated optical perception, to negotiate photography’s claim to historical representation in a moment riven by strife, even while contesting the camera’s purchase on the real. In medical and legal applications of the term found in newspapers of the era, simulateur has a pejorative cast: It’s an epithet reserved for those who faked their maladies to avoid responsibility—justifying transgressive behavior under the pretense of mental illness, say, or feigning physical incapacity to evade wage labor. As a saboteur of the social order, the simulateur either passes as merely another case, unsuspected of any artifice, or exposes the institution in its sadism. Who is the arched figure in Le simulateur? Is he a captive, a custodian, an intruder, or a survivor in this structure? Figure and architecture, prisoner and penitentiary, don’t ultimately mirror each other, nor does one dissolve into the other. Instead, reciprocal inversions and formal rhyme heighten their antagonism. In the montage’s turns of revolution, the simulateur somersaults into the halls of history, casting its forms into focus. 

Phil Taylor is a curatorial assistant in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.