How Pablo Picasso’s mistress and muse, Dora Maar, influenced art history

Hosted by

In “Finding Dora Maar,” author Brigitte Benkemoun reconstructs the Parisian social life of Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso’s mistress and muse. Photo courtesy of Getty Publications.

A few years ago, a French journalist leafed through an old Hermes address book that her husband bought on eBay. In alphabetical order, there were names and addresses of France’s most important thinkers and artists. They were stars of the early 20th Century art world. 

Brigitte Benkemoun discovered the book belonged to a woman famous for being Pablo Picasso’s mistress and muse for his famous “weeping woman” painting. The woman was Dora Maar. 

Entry by entry, author Brigitte Benkemoun reconstructs Dora Maar’s Parisian social life through just 20 address pages, scribbled in brown ink. Her book is called “Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life.”

“She was an artist. She was a painter. And people forget that because she's so important in the history of art,” says Benkemoun.  

Read an excerpt of Chapter 2: 

Achille de Ménerbes
22 rue Petite Fusterie
Avignon

        Forget Bergerac! Forget the sellers and auctioneers! Since I had at my disposal exhibit A, I could subject this piece of evidence to a kind of interrogation: decode it line by line and page by page, make a list of the known friends of the unknown genius, search the others on the internet. I would end up solving the mystery.
       
A-B: The first entry is illegible because it is partly blotted out with black ink. The second might be ANDRADE, then AYALA. On the fourth line is the first familiar name: ARAGON! Followed by a few contacts that call up nothing for me: ACHILLE de MÉNERBES, BERNIER, BAGLUM . . . Then a few entries for whom he or she listed an address as well, perhaps because they were closer friends: BRETON, 44, rue Fontaine; BRASSAÏ, 81, rue Saint-Jacques; BALTHUS, château de Chassy, Blismes, Nièvre.
       
For the letter C, COCTEAU is the first entry: 36, rue de Montpensier, RIC 5572, or 28 in Milly. But are the first entries always the closest friends? And this poet was such a figure on the Paris social scene that everyone must have known his number. Followed by the painters COUTAUD, 26, rue des Plantes; CHAGALL, 22, place Dauphine . . .
       
The gaze behaves like a paparazzo, snubbing the lesser-knowns to focus only on the VIPs: ÉLUARD, GIACOMETTI, Leonor FINI, NOAILLES, PONGE, POULENC, Nicolas de STAËL . . . But most of the names in the address book were easy to identify on the internet: Lise DEHARME, novelist and muse for the Surrealists; Luis FERNÁNDEZ, painter and friend of Picasso; Douglas COOPER, major art collector and historian; Roland PENROSE, English Surrealist; Susana SOCA, Uruguayan poet . . .
       
This list was beginning to look like a postwar who’s who, a roster of special guests posted outside a reception, an index of names cited in a biography of a famous artist. It also made me think of a group photograph as it was being developed in the darkroom, each figure emerging from the red depths one by one.
       
Implicitly, the address book’s ownership was being revealed through these relationships. This was someone who kept company with the greatest poets of the time, many of them, though not exclusively, Surrealists: ÉLUARD, ARAGON, COCTEAU, PONGE, André du BOUCHET, Georges HUGNET, Pierre Jean JOUVE. Someone who moved even more frequently among painters: CHAGALL, BALTHUS, BRAQUE, Óscar DOMÍNGUEZ, Jean HÉLION, Valentine HUGO. Many Surrealists, some gallery owners, a canvas restorer. This was probably a painter’s address book! And since it included LACAN’s telephone number, this painter must have stretched out on his couch.
       
A tormented, depressive, “hysterical,” or melancholic painter. But not a bohemian, not a cursed poet: he or she kept both feet on the ground and recorded contact information for a plumber, marble mason, private hospital, veterinarian, and hairdresser. I was certain the address book belonged to a woman.
       
To summarize: a woman, a painter, with strong ties to the Surrealist movement, psychoanalyzed by Lacan, and associated with the greatest of the great. If one wanted to quibble, four or five of the century’s giants were missing here: Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, Miró, René Char. But more important than those missing was the missing owner: the woman who held the pen and gave us this photograph of her world in twenty pages. Sometimes she made spelling mistakes or got names wrong: she wrote Rochechaure instead of Rochechouart, Leiris with a y, and Alice Toklace rather than Toklas. She was a foreigner, or dyslexic.
       
At first, she made an effort. Each page begins with a list of carefully written names—always using the same pen—undoubtedly copied from an earlier address book. The letters are even, somewhat rounded, the stroke energetic but neat. And then, after a few lines, the handwriting becomes confused and disorderly. These were the new contacts for the year 1951 whose numbers she added later, scribbling them down, one hand holding the phone, the other reaching for the closest pencil. Or maybe that day she was more irritated, or tired, or in a hurry.
       
At a used-book stall, I discovered an enormous 1952 phone directory. It weighed at least five kilos and had a weathered orange cloth cover with advertisements printed on the spine. With this new resource, I cross-checked the names and addresses in the address book to compare and verify them. Jacques Lacan’s number did correspond to the one in the book: LACAN, physician, 30, rue de Lille, LIT 3001. But BLONDIN, avenue de la Grande Armée, with the same name as the writer, was a surgeon. There were at least three other numbers for doctors. More surprising: TRILLAT, graphologist. So the owner was curious about other kinds of analysis. More frivolous: a beauty parlor, a furrier on boulevard Saint-Germain. I was beginning to imagine a stylish artist, maybe very beautiful as well. MICOMEX, rue de Richelieu, import-export: she must have needed to ship her paintings. I went back and forth between directory and address book. From address book to Google. From Google to Wikipedia. Each tiny discovery seemed like a victory.
       
But some names remained indecipherable or elusive. Camille? Katell? Paulette? Lorraine? Madeleine? Women’s first names, jotted down to be read only by the one who wrote them and knew them so well that the surnames were superfluous. I was reminded of Patrick Modiano’s remark, trying to track down Dora Bruder: “Often, what I know about them amounts to no more than a simple address. And such topographical precision contrasts with what we shall never know about their life—this blank, this mute block of the unknown.”
       
Achille de MÉNERBES also remained a mystery. She had noted his address, 22, rue Petite Fusterie, in Avignon, and his telephone number, 2258. But seventy years later, it was as if this man never existed. He had left not a trace. Why linger over this name? If I were sensible, I would move on to the next one. Nevertheless, this Achille was like a band-aid stuck to my fingers—good thing it wouldn’t let go! Suddenly, under the magnifying glass, the letters fell into place. I had been reading too quickly or not carefully enough. She hadn’t written “Achille de” at all, but “Architecte”!
       
“Architecte Ménerbes.” She must have owned a house in this village in the Luberon, and she must have needed an architect from Avignon to supervise the work. My fingers trembled as they punched out the letters on my computer keyboard. The Wikipedia page on Ménerbes revealed that only two painters spent time there in the early 1950s. I automatically eliminated Nicolas de Staël, since he appeared among the contacts. The second name was that of a woman: painter, photographer, driving force behind the Surrealists, close friend of Éluard and Balthus, analyzed by Lacan. Of course, it must be her! Everything fit, it all matched, up to Picasso’s absence at the letter P. In 1951, six years after their breakup, she did not copy his address or his phone number into her new address book, not being able to erase him in any other way. Maybe this wasn’t “a Picasso.” But it was the address book of Dora Maar that I held in my hand!
       
I think I remember letting out a cry, shrieking like a soccer player who has just scored a goal, yelling and making fists, screaming—bizarrely—“YES!” Then I called T.D. No answer. Stupid telephone! No one to shout to—“I found it!”
       
“First I find, then I seek,” said Picasso. That was exactly what I was going to do—seek to understand.

This excerpt is from the new publication “Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life” by Brigitte Benkemoun and translated by Jody Gladding © 2020 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Credits

Guest:
Brigitte Benkemoun - French journalist and author of “Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Kathryn Barnes, Nihar Patel