“You could say that a miracle happened to me,” says French journalist Brigitte Benkemoun, about the gift that fell into her hands from heaven. When she lost the Hermès address book, with calendar pages, that she particularly liked, she contacted the international fashion house to order a new one. To her disappointment she was told that Hermès no longer manufactures that outdated model. Benkemoun didn’t give up, searched on eBay and ordered what turned out to be a partially used address book in the distinctive leather binding, which arrived by mail. The calendar pages had been removed, but unexpectedly, in an inner pocket in the binding, she discovered about 10 pages of addresses and phone numbers.
To Benkemoun’s amazement, she found names including the French poet Louis Aragon; Andre Breton, Aragon’s colleague and author of “The Surrealist Manifesto”, and the French photographers Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
As if by the stroke of a magic wand, more names, in alphabetical order, surfaced as the journalist read on: painters Georges Braque, Balthus, Marc Chagall and Leonor Fini; writers and poets Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard, Nathalie Sarraute and Georges Bataille; sculptor Alberto Giacometti; psychiatrist Jacques Lacan; society women such as Marie-Laure de Noailles and Lise Deharme; and many other celebrities – central figures on the cultural and artistic landscape of the second half of the 20th century.
When she recovered from the shock, Benkemoun embarked on extensive quest to discover the original owner of the elegant address book, whose pages had yellowed over the years. Who was the person who knew and perhaps was even friendly with these great artists and intellectuals, whose works are on display at leading museums and/or are studied around the globe?
“My detective work lasted for about three intensive years,” she tells Haaretz in a telephone conversation. Benkemoun was for years a radio and television journalist.
“I started by looking for the person who sold the address book on eBay, and when the seller was found – the owner of an antiques shop – it turns out that he didn’t remember how he ended up with it. I continued to check at public auctions of estates, but in that field people are very discreet about the identity of those who hand over the materials.
“The handwriting, in brown ink, was neat and pretty, in rounded letters, and seemed feminine to me. After making possible lists I started with a process of elimination: Among all the artists and prominent figures, one name was missing: Picasso. And after finding in the address book the name of an architect from the village of Menerbes in Provence, I remembered something: In that town Picasso purchased a house for his lover of nine years, photographer Dora Maar. Her name didn’t appear in the address book either, and it really isn’t likely that she would write down the phone number of her lover and the man whose breakup with her was a terrible tragedy for her.
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“I shouted ‘We did it!’ like a soccer announcer: ‘It’s Dora Maar! And then I decided to try to reconstruct her profile based on the names appearing in the notebook. That’s how I wrote my book ‘I am Dora Maar’s Notebook.’”
Plastic artist Sophie Calle also found a phone book in 1983, contacted the numbers appearing in it and created a work from it.
Benkemoun: “True, but she called anonymous numbers. In my case it was a kind of history book of 20th-century art.”
Does your book have any connection to the Dora Maar retrospective that opened in early June in the Pompidou Center?
“No, it’s a coincidence. My book was scheduled to be published in March, but when I found out that they were preparing the exhibition in the Pompidou Center I postponed the publication to May. This is a unique exhibition that displays the works she did before Picasso and mainly after him, when she did a lot of painting. Her own works were not sufficiently appreciated during his lifetime and became successful only after his death.”
What was your work method?
“I read biographies, letters, I burrowed in archives and mainly I met, based on the phone numbers, with the descendants of those personalities, most of whom passed away a long time ago. Only a few remained who knew Maar personally, but the image of her coalesced in an unconventional manner.”
In effect, then, the story of Dora Maar (1907-97), as portrayed by Benkemoun, is based only in part on direct testimony from the people in the address book, but their names in the pages she found led her to many biographical passages included in her book.
Theodora Markovic, who shorted her name to Dora Maar, entered history – unjustly – as “the weeping woman,” whom Picasso painted in many cruel pictures that are to this day displayed in major museums and collections worldwide. She was born in Paris in 1907 to a Spanish mother and a Croatian father, an architect, who took his family to Argentina in the hope of earning a living there.
Dora grew up from the age of 3 in Buenos Aires; at 19, when she returned to Paris, she was a beautiful young woman, elegant and very self-confident. She was a feminist before her time, studied photography – an unusual profession for a woman at the time – had many artist-friends and frequented the Le Select and La Rotonde cafes in the trendy Montparnasse quarter.
“She had quite a few lovers, including the famous writer Louis Chavance, who wrote the script for the film ‘Le Corbeau’ [The Raven] by Henri-Georges Clouzot,” Benkemoun notes. “I met with his son, who said that his father’s relationship with Dora ended in 1935, and although she apparently humiliated him, he always described her as a symbol of absolute elegance.”
The most famous of Maar’s lovers before Picasso was writer and philosopher Georges Bataille, who was much older than she. Bataille – who often wrote about the connection between eroticism and violence, and about the mystique surrounding physical suffering and sexual ecstasy – influenced many prominent intellectuals, among them Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Benkemoun: “Bataille apparently also influenced young Dora, but none of the interviewees or biographers knows for certain about the nature of their relationship. Many, including Picasso, fantasized about the erotic and sadomasochistic relations between them, but there’s no evidence of that.”
Even before meeting Picasso in 1936, Maar became an admired photographer in the realms of advertising, fashion and journalism. She traveled to Spain and England and took pictures in poor neighborhoods, in coal mines, in dangerous places that demanded great courage. She was active in 1930s’ leftist circles in Paris and was affiliated with the surrealist movement, by means of which she became acquainted with poet Éluard, who introduced her to Picasso.
“Their meeting, which became legendary, was described in all kinds of testimonies. One came from painter Jacqueline Lamba, whose name also appeared in the notebook I found, and who was present at the time,” says Benkemoun.
“Although Lamba died in 1993, art historian Martine Monteau, with whom I met, was able to describe the scene: Éluard entered Les Deux Magots café in St.-Germain-des-Pres with Picasso. Dora, beautiful and elegant, was sitting at a table and immediately recognized Picasso, and in order to attract his attention slowly removed her black gloves.
“She had lovely white hands – I devoted a special chapter in my book to her obsession with manicures. Dora removed a small pocket knife from her bag and started to stick it quickly and precisely between her fingers, which were placed on the table, until drops of blood started to appear on her white skin. Picasso, hypnotized by the ritual, saw it as a clear invitation: ‘Take me, I’m willing to hurt myself for you’ – and did in fact take her. That’s how the story began.”
‘Suffering and sex’
How do you explain Maar’s transformation from a liberated woman with an independent career to being Picasso’s victim – almost his slave?
“She dreamed of being an artist and conducting a dialogue with Picasso through art. Historian Monteau told me that Dora was the one who showed him the photographs of the bombed city of Guernica, and also that she documented the entire process of the painting of his most famous work, in photographs. Picasso allowed her to fill in the dying horse on the bottom of “Guernica” with gray paint, and she felt she was a full partner to the work, but he distanced her from any partnership. He considered photography an inferior form of art.
“She was mesmerized by the connection between suffering and sexual passion – perhaps still under the influence of Bataille – and we can see signs of that in her work even before Picasso. They didn’t live together, but she was at his disposal at any given moment, next to her phone and awaiting his order ‘Come down,’ in order to eat lunch together.
“Picasso had a sadistic element in his personality, and he found in Dora exactly the masochist he was looking for. Early in their relationship he had her compete with the presence in his life of [model and lover] Marie-Thérèse Walter and her daughter Maya, and he even observed with amusement a loud altercation between the two women who met in his studio. Dora was jealous but confident of her place in his life – until in 1946 he left her for 24-year-old Françoise Gilot. Then she went to pieces.”
You write that during that period of crisis, when she was hospitalized in a private clinic after the intervention of Éluard and Picasso, she was treated with electric shocks under Lacan’s supervision.
“That was the accepted treatment method at the time. According to testimonies that I collected, she was hospitalized for only about 10 days and afterward she underwent psychoanalysis with Lacan. The treatment lasted for seven years, but during that period Picasso was not sparing in his cruelty toward her: for example, when he showed up at her house with Françoise Gilot so that Dora would declare to her that she was no longer his lover. He would also appear with his new partner at Dora’s house in Menerbes and order her to leave the place in favor of his young lover.
“But still, Lacan’s treatment strengthened her, and in the 1950s and 1960s she became herself again – although not with the same vitality as before Picasso. She returned to being attractive, prominent, intelligent, always carefully groomed and dressed only in black suits designed by Balenciaga.”
In your book you describe her anti-Semitism – a surprising characteristic for someone who was part of liberal circles, the left, Jewish gallery owners and art dealers.
“The Jewish modern art expert and gallery owner Marcel Fleiss, whose testimony I bring in the book, said that in the 1990s he purchased several of her paintings. ‘She said to me: I’ll sell to you only if you aren’t a Jew’!’ Fleiss says that was the first time he lied about his origin. He saw ‘Mein Kampf,’ in her library, and I myself discovered the book in her archive.
“It’s possible that she received the basis for her anti-Semitism from her father: Josip Markovic was a Christian and a Nazi lover. She was very afraid that her original surname would raise a suspicion that she was Jewish, and made sure to mention that it was a Croatian name. After the end of her relationship with Picasso, Dora became a devout Catholic, and often said that, ‘Only God could follow Picasso.’”
In her latter years, notes Benkemoun, Maar secluded herself at home and maintained contact only with a Protestant minister who apparently fed her with extremist religious anti-Semitism.”
How did you choose the names in the notebook whose stories you wanted to develop?
“The selection was partly random, and partly a matter of constraints, because many had passed away. I looked only for those who were involved in her life. I also chose anonymous figures such as a plumber, the architect from Menerbes and the Russian manicurist who would come to her home every week.”
Despite Benkemoun’s rather unconventional research methods, the figure of Maar that she portrays is unlike that in other biographies – for example, in “Picasso and Dora: A Personal Memoir,” by American writer and art critic James Lord.
It’s surprising that important figures in Dora’s life, such as James Lord, didn’t appear in the notebook.
“That’s true, but the notebook only went up to 1951, and they became friends only in 1954. I was warned by some people that Lord isn’t always reliable.”
Lord, an American soldier who arrived in France with the invasion of Normandy, was accepted in Picasso’s circle already in 1945, and remained close to him. He says that he knew Dora well already then.
Despite his “unreliability,” I identified entire sections in your book that are very similar to his memoir.
“That’s true, I relied on certain descriptions of his – but his relationship with Dora began only in 1954,” Bankemoun insists.
How would you describe Dora Maar?
“In my eyes she’s a brilliant, charismatic, unpredictable woman, who spent her life in a search for herself that fluctuated between her tremendous arrogance and her doubts. She experienced various periods in her life in an extreme manner, good ones as well as very painful ones, with extremely low points. She was very talented and creative, very passionate, and also totally masochistic. One could say that throughout her life she wanted to be an artist rather than a muse.”