Author Brigitte Benkemoun’s husband lost his Hermes agenda so she bought him a vintage replacement on eBay. When it arrived, she noticed that its old pages were intact. They dated back to 1951, an address book filled with a who’s-who of artistic and literary figures of the Parisian Left Bank.
It quickly becomes a detective story, and Benkemoun’s excitement and drive to solve the mystery of the book’s owner are palpable. She begins with the obvious omission. Despite the biggest names of Paris’s avant-garde — Eluard, Balthus, Breton, Lacan, Cocteau, Chagall — the one noticeable omission was Pablo Picasso, which said it all. So she’s led to Dora Maar, the “Weeping Woman” — Picasso’s mistress and muse for almost 10 years (1936-1945). Just imagine that kind of stroke of fate, of this thing falling into your lap.
In 1951, six years after their breakup, Benkemoun notes that omitting him from her connections, so many of them still shared between them, was her only way of erasing him.
Before him, she had been a great photographer. After him, a painter who sank into madness, then mysticism, and finally reclusion.
Maar is best known to history through her relationship to Picasso, which is a shame because she was a gifted photographer and painter in her own right. Benkemoun notes how thoroughly her relationship with Picasso “eclipsed the entirety of her work.” Maar moved in the Surrealist set, no small feat on its own, as they tended to include very few women as working contemporaries as opposed to romantic partners.
Benkemoun sets out to discover what the book can reveal about Maar’s life by investigating each entry. It’s structured by friend or acquaintance, even the doctors and architects she consulted and why she needed them, thus touring her highs and lows and tracking her movements.
Benkemoun struggles throughout with acknowledging Maar’s state at the end of her life (her leftist politics were eschewed in favor of anti-Semitism, religious extremism, and fervent mysticism) and what all of this says about this complicated woman, who struggled with mental illness and personal demons, these flames fanned by Picasso’s horrid treatment, but who turned to some very dark places on her own.
This isn’t a comprehensive biography, and if you can accept that, despite some brevity and lack of information in spots, and enjoy it for what it is, it’s marvelous. It makes for a unique portrait through snapshots, scenes from parties and iconic cafes, and striking snippets of her poetry and poetry written about her by lovers.
My biggest qualm is that there’s some filling in of blanks. Benkemoun researches thoroughly, and is lucky and dedicated enough to meet with people connected to this story — Picasso’s son, an art dealer who worked with Maar near the end of her life, the daughter of a close friend — and they provide insights and commentary into Maar’s life and personality, but some recommended she write this as a novel. I have immense respect for her deciding to write nonfiction anyway, as it does strike me as more difficult in this case. But the end result includes a lot of guessing — might haves, presumablys, could have beens, perceived emotions and actions, etc. She admits to making inferences and imagining and to her credit is always clear when she does this, but it can be frustrating. I’m not sure a truly comprehensive biography even exists though.
A biographer’s task is a difficult and exhausting one, and when I put that into perspective and considered that Benkemoun was building a picture of a life through fragments, applying the context of the Surrealist movement and the indisputable facts of Maar’s life to the questions around her relationships and their evolution, it feels like such a unique and worthwhile undertaking.
And Benkemoun makes her passion for this project so clearly felt. It’s easy to see why she was deeply compelled to pursue it. It made me want to read more about this era and its players. It was a time of excesses and extremes, and wildly talented but equally troubled people orbiting each other in intense personal and artistic relationships, for better or worse. Benkemoun describes it well: “This world was a village where couples formed, fell apart, and re-formed, never leaving the tribe and rarely leaving the Left Bank.”
Maar is a compelling if problematic figure, and seeing who she was, in her historic place in twentieth century art history and yet with all her frustrating, upsetting personal contradictions and the massive artistic talent forever shadowed by her link to Picasso, is an intense and fascinating experience. The translation is excellent, and wonderful to see it brought to English-speaking readers, as it’s already a bestseller and longlist nominee for the Prix Renaudot literary award in France (Sylvain Tesson won it last year for La panthère des neiges, which I very much hope is translated into English soon!).
My destiny is magnificent whatever it seems. In the past I used to say my destiny is very hard whatever it seems.
Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life
by Brigitte Benkemoun, translated from French by Jody Gladding
published May 19, 2020 by Getty Publications
I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.