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  • Neshan Tung

Beyond the “Muse”: The Intoxicating Work of Dora Maar & Penny Slinger

By: Neshan Tung

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CONTENT WARNING

This article contains nudity.

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In an interview with the Guardian, rockstar Marianne Faithfull was asked about the idea of being a muse, to which she quickly retorted: “a muse? That’s a shit thing to be. It’s a terrible job. You don’t get any male muses, do you? Can you think of one? No.”


Kitty Corner by Penny Slinger, n.d.

Book of Matan and Other Collages, © Penny Slinger, 2014.


The sentiment Faithfull echoes here is all too familiar for artists who also happen to be women. Penny Slinger and Dora Maar are fascinating trailblazers who at first may seem completely at odds— they operated in different eras, and came from different backgrounds, decades apart. Yet the phallocentric art world they dealt with was one and the same. Both had their artistic legacies alienated from the canon, which prevented them from being fully understood and written into art history. Maar, who created innovative surrealist photographic techniques, had her legacy eclipsed by her affiliation with Picasso. Slinger, the punk movement’s foremother, was ostracized by the art world because of her supposedly unabashed eroticism.

The Years Lie In Wait For You by Dora Maar, 1936. Source.


While it can be argued that in some cases, it is important to contextualize female artists in relation to their male counterparts in order to further understand their creative output, art historian and curator Katy Hessel has made the case that along with men being disproportionately represented in museums, “exhibitions still [unnecessarily] contextualize female artists in relation to the men in their lives.”


Bride's Book cover by Penny Slinger, 1973.

Bride's Cake Series, © Penny Slinger, 2014.


Dora Maar, or Henriette Theodora Markovitch, was born in 1907 and was raised between Argentina and France. Maar became a collagist and photographer who was a key player in the Surrealist movement in the early 20th century. Creating strange, phantasmagoric, and experimental photomontages, she was politically engaged and on the cutting edge of photographic innovation. Closely affiliated with the likes of Leonor Fini, Georges Bataille, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Brassai, Man Ray, and Jean Cocteau; Maar’s work strayed beyond the bounds of surrealism. Her documentary photography captured the bleak realities of the Great Depression, and she continued to paint well into her old age.


Jacqueline Lamba In Front of a Bouquet Enclosed in Glass

by Dora Maar, 1930. Source.


Her thematic explorations included eroticism, dream-states, the unconscious, and the uncanny, often blurry relationship between art and reality. Frustratingly, despite her prolific artistic output continuing throughout the rest of the century until Maar was 89 years old, her career is often categorized as “Before Picasso” and “After Picasso.” She is widely known as being Picasso’s “Weeping Woman.” In a phone interview with the writer James Lord in 1953, Maar stated: “all of his portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar […] my relations with the rest of the world for the rest of my life do not depend on the fact that I was once acquainted with Picasso.” Even though she maintained a fruitful career that spanned nearly six decades, Maar was not cemented into the art history canon until her long overdue retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019.


My palms are riveted (unpublished) by Penny Slinger, 1969.

50% - the Visible Woman, © Penny Slinger, 2014.


Penny Slinger was born in the United Kingdom in 1947. Her career spans from the 1960s when she was first inspired by Max Ernst, to the present day. She has created collages, books, paintings, and experimental films that deal with themes of female desire, subjugation, sexuality, spirituality and mysticism. As someone who was well acquainted with Lee Miller and kept falcons as pets, Slinger is a visionary; a true bohemian artist who was very much ahead of her time and whose art foresaw many of the ideas contained in second and third wave feminism. After growing tired of the misogyny and classism baked into the art world at large (she has spoken at length about these bleak realities, as many male art collectors assumed that she “came with the art”) Slinger seemingly disappeared at the tail end of the 1970s. She abandoned the cutthroat elitist American art world, opting to live in the Caribbean for a while, where she created whimsical paintings of the Arawak people before eventually ending up settling in Northern California.


Mother of Pearl by Penny Slinger, 1976-77.

Mountain Ecstasy, © Penny Slinger, 2014.


Slinger has since reemerged, and she has never stopped creating. Reflecting on the struggles of being an artist, Slinger has said, “when you have big dreams, the inability to manifest them, the feeling of not being understood and appreciated is hard to swallow.” However, she is finally getting her due and is even quite active on Instagram. About the slippery idea of the "muse," Slinger has said, “I saw so many women throughout the history of art but generally as the muse, as the one depicted, rather than the one doing the depicting. So I took on, as a challenge and an object in my art, to try and reverse that paradigm.”



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