Tate Modern presents the first UK retrospective of the photographer, painter and poet Dora Maar, a show that explores the work and identity of an artist, who until recently, was known primarily for being Pablo Picasso’s muse, most famously represented in his painting Weeping Woman (1937). However, since her death in 1997 the full breadth and creativity of her work is finally being realised.

The exhibition is curated across nine rooms, each dedicated to a creative direction she took during her life and though these seem to shift dramatically in theme, there is a continuum of influence and feedback that threads throughout her work, from her early commercial assignments through to her final experimentations with camera-less photography. The show also includes portraits of Maar, as taken (or painted) by her contemporaries, providing a political, professional and social context to her life and work.

Born Henriette Théodora Markovitch, in 1932 she opened her first studio and ‘invented’ herself as Dora Maar, photographer. Her commercial work was born from a determination to take her place in the professional world rather than through financial necessity, demonstrating the freedom that her circumstances afforded her. However, this is not to diminish her talent and influence in anyway. The iconic images from her commercial assignments include portraits, erotic nudes and fashion photography that mixes the uncanny with the familiar. So much of the aesthetic that we take for granted in contemporary advertising, we owe to Maar.

Driven by her strong political convictions, Maar channelled her energy into documenting the struggles faced by the urban poor in Europe during the 1930’s. In 1933 she travelled across Costa Brava, Paris and London, capturing images of people in the heart of the Depression, from demonstrations in Paris, to lottery ticket sellers in London. Her Surrealist photomontages that she produced shortly afterward bear the starkness of her documentary photography, lending a discomforting edge to these images. Her sensitivity to the other side of society and people’s struggle to survive enabled her to represent our own shadow with honesty and clarity, using surrealism as a mirror to what we would rather not see.

This exchange of influence is evident during her tumultuous relationship with Picasso, where she began to move away from photography toward painting. Her early paintings clearly bear his influence, like anyone who carries the scars of an unhappy relationship and this is most obvious in the bold, cubist-style of “The Conversation” (1937). Yet, questions arise of Maar’s influence on Picasso, not just in terms of his political engagement, but also in a practical sense where she expanded his skills within the darkroom, specifically the technique of cliché verre, a process combining photography and printmaking.

In 1937, Maar documented the creation of Picasso’s Guernica, gifting us a rare window into the construction of a great painting. Rather than a mysterious alchemy, where a masterpiece emerges miraculously from the studio, Maar’s images reveal the bloody mess of creation where a work of art is built, torn down and rebuilt.

As the show concludes with Maar’s final output of landscape paintings, abstract prints and darkroom experimentation, she scratches from the page of our collective imagination that sole status as muse to a male genius. In its place, a graphic image of the artist in her power emerges: prolific, creative and continually exploring. An artist in her own image.

Tate Modern – 20 Nov 2019 – 15 Mar 2020