Cubist and Surrealist encounters at the Clark — BTW column

The cloth of her shirt ripples like light on water, and above her three circles of light shine like bubbles or sun on a lens. This is a self-portrait. Dora Maar was about 28 when she made it. I can imagine her in her darkroom, shaping light and shade on a silver gelatin print. Sounds filter in from outside — taxi horns, voices in the street, radio. This is Paris in the 1930s, and she is a rising Surrealist photographer with her own studio.

She has a sure place in the young movement. The founder, André Breton, admires her, even to making her name part of his Gradiva gallery on the Left Bank — the name is an acronym, and the D is for Dora. She has shown work in London, Prague and New York; her images have become icons. But within two years, she will put down her camera.

You can see another portrait of her this summer in Williamstown. But according to her, you won’t see her in it. In 1936, she began a relationship with Pablo Picasso. She was 28. He was 54. At the Clark Art Institute, she appears in “Picasso Encounters” as the “weeping woman.” He painted her in a series of distorted images, and always in tears.

” ‘All Picasso’s portraits of me are lies,” she told the American writer James Lord. “They’re all Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar.’”

I’ve been wanting to get to know her all summer. The Clark show sets out to counter the image of Picasso as a solitary genius and to see the people around him: artists in his circle, printers, gallery owners — and especially women. They appear in his paintings, and they define new periods in his painting. The art critic Jean-Paul Crespelle, who knew him, writes that each time Picasso began a new love affair, the creative energy it gave him would turn his work in a new direction.

When I first walked through the show, one wall panel stopped me. Not far from the weeping women that represent Dora Maar, the wall text quotes Picasso as claiming, “there are two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.” Then it argues that the women in this show are more than muses, that they are partners and collaborators.

A partner is an equal and a creative soul. To see a woman as a partner, he would have to see her as an artist, talk over her work, understand her thoughts, feel her pain. And on this wall he has just denied it. Goddesses and doormats have one thing in common: They’re not human. As I left the show and walked along the wall-high window, looking across the reflecting pool, I wondered who these women were in their own minds.

Crespelle knew them too. At the williams College Library I turned up his 1969 biography. He had known the contemporary art world for 35 years and had talked with the people on the Clark’s walls many times. He writes clearly with his own biases, but he shows this circle in a series of vivid sketches. It’s an informal life in conversations.

And it begins with the first woman who influenced Picasso — Fernande Olivier, who lived and worked with him in a studio in Montmartre, when they were both in their 20s, before World War I.

It was a grimy room smelling of dog, mouse and turpentine, with peeling grey walls and windows painted blue to reduce the glare. It was icy in winter, and in summer he would work naked except for a strategic bandana, painting late at night and sleeping half the day. But it was full of people.

They sound like college students in a frat house, drawing Egyptian masks, cheating local grocers out of a scanty dinner, drinking themselves blind, talking over poetry in the local bar. Artists, poets and writers gathered in that grungy studio in the Bateau-Lavoire — Braque, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein.

Fernande was part of this world when Picasso came to it. He was a penniless, educated self-exile from Barcelona. She was on her own, making a living as a model (with benefits). She was also an artist, learning what she could from the artists she knew, and she described them later, in a memoir, in quick, ironic sketches. She had a quick eye and a talent for mimicry.

In her company, Crespelle says, Picasso left the starved, hollow-eyed scenes of his early “blue period” and turned to acrobats and tight-rope walkers. She gave him a sense of relaxation. He said later that he liked her drawings. He might have acknowledged that she influenced his work

But he would never have called her a partner. He seems reluctant to acknowledge other artists in his own circle, even Braque, who developed Cubism along with him. And he refused wholly to recognize the influence of many artists whose work fascinated him: Greek and Egyptian work at the Louvre, Catalan sculptors in the Pyrenees. He knew the work of sculptors from the Côte D’Ivoire, and their influence shows in his paintings.

He could have seen work from master artists at the time — Uopié, Sra, Sabou bi Boti — but he would not have known their names, let alone crediting their forms and patterns and colors in his own work. (A meeting described in Lex and Love at the Williams College Museum of Art suggests how arrogant and oblivious an African artist once found him.)

If he acknowledged the intelligence and ability of any woman, he came closest with Dora Maar. He met her almost 20 years after he left Olivier. His life had changed course since the ragged days in Montmartre. The Great War had broken his circle of friends. He was famous and wealthy and living in Paris. After a liaison or two, and a marriage he tired of quickly, he met Maar at a local bistro. Or more accurately she met him on a film set where she was taking photographs and set out to catch his eye.

At the Clark’s library, Louise Baring’s new biography of Maar is waiting to be put on the shelves. She shows Maar the rising Surrealist in her compelling photographs, some beautiful and some deliberately disturbing. Maar was ambitious, independent and earning an international name. She was also fascinated by a much older man, and his influence on her would be deeply painful.

He pushed her to give up photography. He kept a longterm mistress, the beautiful Marie-Thérèse, who, he said, did what he told her — and he pitted the two women against each other. He drew Maar in distorted images, monstrous and mis-shapen portraits. When he finally showed them, after World War II had receded enough for exhibitions, the people who saw them found them vicious. A group of students tried to take them off the walls.

She stands out among the woman in this show: Fernande Olivier, earthy and practical and without illusions; Eva, fragile and ill; Olga, his first wife, a conventional social climber; Marie-Thérèse, an athletic and compliant beauty; Françoise, who followed Maar as the 20-year-old girl Picasso managed to involve for a few unhappy years when he was in his 60s; and Jacqueline, who married him when he was old.

If any of these women were creative enough and forceful enough to be a partner and a collaborator to a dominating man who had become the best-known artist in the Western world in his own lifetime, it would be Maar, who taught him techniques in her darkroom, in her own studio, and photographed him painting Guernica in his.

He valued her intelligence, and he bore down against it. Maar would end up in a psychiatric hospital before she left him. The story is clear here and in Crespelle’s account, and in Picasso’s paintings, and in his own words. She was too intelligent to be reduced to a goddess or a doormat. If Maar was the weeping woman, he made her that way.

“Those who loved and understood Maar saw her in a different light,” Baring says: “stubborn, humorous, passionate in love as well as in politics and culture. Her vast library of books — whether studies on mysticism, religion, philosophy, the ancient world or on El Greco, Goya, Tintoretto and Michelangelo — was found in her apartment stacked in piles on the floor, in cupboards and on shelves supported by white Doric columns.”

Standing by the Clark’s reflecting pool under the hazy August sky, I think show has not led me to Picasso as much as it has to the world around him. It heads into Paris before and between the wars, where artists and writers are smoking in night clubs and on stained studio couches, redefining what art can look like and borrowing from artists around the world they don’t understand. And it walks down a village street in the south of France where the local bistro with a radio plays the news of the German invasion in 1940. The people are vivid. And Picasso’s encounters with them are painful.

Picasso’s Encounters — they bare down to Maar’s words when she left him, a feeling Crespelle echoes: “you have never loved anyone in your life.” Now that I have heard her voice, I look at the few images in the show that invoke her, and her voice is not in them.

Crespelle too says that Picasso never felt or understood love. He enver understood intimacy, in his relationships or in his art. Crespelle writes as early as Picasso’s hungry days in his first derelict studio: “He no longer had any desire, nor would he in future, to explore the soul.”

But she did, in the few years when she created her own dream images, when her self-portrait seemed to wrap flowing water around her shoulders like a shawl.

And the artists who carved the masks Picasso collected — they did. Not long ago, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris held an exhibit of art from the Ivory Coast, naming the masters and artists whenever they could. Among the many artistic traditions of the Côte D’Ivoire, some sculptures held protection, a spirit, a connection to the living world, as a river might hold a spirit. And some of these sculptors are women. Now I want to know their names.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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