by Roderick Conway Morris

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Centre Pompidou, Paris
'Untitled (Hand and Shell),' 1934, by Dora Maar.

Venice: Contemporary Art at Palazzo Fortuny

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 19 June 2014


Palazzo Fortuny, the former Venetian studio and home of the artist Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, has been reanimated by its director, Daniela Ferretti, as a vibrant showcase of modern and contemporary art.

The palazzo's permanent collection - bearing witness to Fortuny's career as a painter, draftsman, sculptor, photographer, fabric maker, fashion and theater designer - has not only provided a unique backdrop for a wide variety of temporary exhibitions, but also stimulated a number of contemporary artists invited to create works inspired by the Spanish-born artist's diverse activities.

For her latest group show, 'Spring at Palazzo Fortuny,' Ms. Ferretti, who was appointed in 2007, has brought together an all-woman lineup of artists, including an exhibition devoted to Dora Maar, bringing her work to the public in Italy for the first time.

Now primarily remembered as Picasso's lover, muse and model, Maar was also, as evidenced here, an artist meriting attention in her own right.

Maar is joined by three contemporary artists - the Norwegian painter Anne-Karin Furunes, the Japanese glass artist Ritsue Mishima and the Venetian jewelry maker Barbara Paganin. Their work shows alongside 'Amazons of Photography,' a display on the Palazzo's ground floor of works by women photographers from the 1860s to the present day, from the collection of Mario Trevisan. All of the exhibitions will be there through July 14.

When Maar died in July 1997, only seven people attended her funeral. After her split with Picasso and traumatic wartime events, she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1945, after which she was psychoanalyzed by the French psychiatrist and writer Jacques Lacan. Thereafter, she lived as a virtual recluse, her own work fading from view.

During the 1990s there were the first signs of a revival of interest in Maar as a photographer and member of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s. This was further stimulated, after her death, by the sale of the contents of her Paris apartment and the country house that Picasso had given her.

In 1993 the Spanish art historian Victoria Combalia obtained a rare interview with Maar on the phone. After Maar's death, Ms. Combalia organized a traveling exhibition, 'Dora Maar and Picasso,' in Munich, Marseilles and Barcelona.

At the invitation of Ms. Ferretti, Ms. Combalia puts Maar firmly center stage at the Fortuny in 'Picasso Notwithstanding,' a show of over 100 of her images, including street scenes, nudes, publicity shots and Surrealist collages, with additional photographs by friends and colleagues and two portraits of her by Picasso, one on canvas and one in bronze.

Dora Maar was born in November 1907 in Paris to a Croat father and French mother and christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch. The family lived in France and Argentina, where Maar's architect father had large-scale commissions. At the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, she became friends with Jacqueline Lamba, who was to marry André Breton in 1934. Some of Dora's later portrait and nude studies of the beautiful, blonde Jacqueline are included in the Fortuny show.

Having switched to the Académie Lhote, where she got to know Henri Cartier-Bresson, and then the Ecole de Photographie de la Ville de Paris, she won her first commissions as a fashion photographer in 1928. In 1931, Maar opened a studio with Pierre Kéfer and they marketed their images jointly as Kfer-Maar. Two nudes under this signature published in a periodical 'Formes Nues,' a copy of which is still in Fortuny's library, have been added for the duration of the show to the cabinet displaying the Spanish artist's cameras and photographic equipment.

Maar was a skillful photographer of the female nude, able to remain within the necessary bounds of 'artistic' taste while producing unmistakably erotic images. She also, through artfully framed close-ups, managed even to bring out the surprisingly sexy and phallic suggestiveness of some decorative public sculptures, as she did with her shots of 'Pont Mirabeau' and 'Pont Alexandre III.'

Among the most memorable of her images here are of streets scenes captured in Paris and Barcelona, of market folk, peddlers, beggars, the blind, marginalized families and ragged children living in shacks and caravans, to which she brought an acute and sympathetic eye.

Some of these studies also indicate that she was a natural Surrealist with an instinct for spotting the incongruous and odd in everyday life. This was a talent that she would develop in the Surrealist images she created - a number of classic examples are exhibited here - after she became associated with the group through her friendships with Paul éluard and Ms. Lamba.

It was also éluard who introduced Maar to Picasso in early 1936. The meeting initiated a passionate, obsessive and frequently fraught relationship, which was to last until 1943, when Picasso began an affair with Françoise Gilot. Maar abandoned her career as a photographer in 1937, but not before making an invaluable photographic record of the making of 'Guernica' between May and June of that year; the photographs are on loan to the Fortuny from the Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Photographs are also the starting point for Ms. Furunes's 'Shadows,' eight enormous canvases hung on the palazzo's second floor. These were inspired by her investigations in Fortuny's own photo archives, where she came across a series of images taken by Fortuny in the late 19th and early 20th century of some of his Venetian female workers, employed in the palazzo's workshops manufacturing textiles and clothes.

Beginning in her student days at the Academy of Fine Art in Trondheim in 1993-94, Ms. Furunes has perfected an extraordinary pointillist technique of recreating photographic images by perforating canvas with thousands of minutely graduated holes that let through varying degrees of light.

She first applied this technique to pictures taken from her family album after her mother died, which she found infused them with light and created a strong but elusive sense of presence. She went on to treat archival pictures of anonymous individuals, including German soldiers during the occupation of Norway, Finnish women fighters, and Roma and other victims of the Holocaust.

Only one of the names of the Venetian women workers whose images Ms. Furunes has chosen is recorded: Giorgia Clementi, who exudes an air of self-possession and also apparently sat for Fortuny as a model.

Each of Ms. Furunes canvases requires many hours of work of great precision, but the results are evanescent and haunting. As Ms. Furunes herself describes the effects in the show's catalog: 'The images come and go depending where the viewer stands. It is like trying to catch a vague dream, the image evaporates as one gets closer to the canvas. Close up, you begin to see the real walls through the empty holes.'

The orchestration of subtly changing light effects also lies at the heart of Ms. Mishima's glass creations. Her 'Tras Forma' is a collection of 11 pieces made especially for this exhibition, which have been positioned among Maar's photographs and Fortuny's wall hangings and paintings on the palazzo's high-ceilinged piano nobile, or first floor above ground level.

Ms. Mishima divides her time between her native Kyoto and Venice, where she has worked with the Venetian glass master Livio Serena and, since 2011, with Andrea Zilio. She employs colorless 'cristallo' glass, first made on Murano in around 1450 by Angelo Barovier, who perfected a pure transparent glass as pellucid as natural rock crystal. Ms. Mishima's luminous pieces have intriguing configurations inspired by organic forms.

Several of her works here allude to Fortuny's multifaceted activities at the palazzo, including 'Instruments,' a collection of mysterious tools, and 'Pomegranates,' a favorite motif in his textiles. In 'Babel,' Ms. Mishima has departed both from her exclusive use of clear glass and from her customary avoidance of figurative forms by adding a band of glass sprinkled with gold dust, echoing the gold of Fortuny's painted fabrics, and by making this vitreous sculpture strongly suggestive of a standing female figure.

Ms. Paganin's adventurous jewelry is represented in major museums, among them the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For her 'Open Memory' exhibition here she spent three years working on a series of 25 elaborate, surreal brooches built around miniature 19th-century painted and photograph portraits. To these she has added tiny found objects - collected from antique shops and markets on her travels in Europe and America - arranged in her own hand-crafted gold, silver and glass settings.

Each brooch is a kind of Lilliputian shrine to the nameless, long-forgotten person or persons depicted, adorned with porcelain good-luck charms in the form of hippopotamuses, mice, frogs, badgers and rabbits, ivory elephants and giraffes; minuscule metal shoes, dresses and utensils that once furnished dolls' houses; and decorative elements from old jewelry, such as emeralds, sapphires, rubies and opals.

The brooches are displayed on the palazzo's piano nobile in one of Fortuny's cabinets of curiosities - an ideal place for these tantalizing, enigmatic and evocative objets d'art.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023