Louisa Treger’s Retelling of Dora Maar’s Relationship with Picasso Reveals the Human Behind the Muse

This new fictionalized retelling of the now-famous nine-year love affair is galvanizing and compelling in its complexity.

A black and white photo of a man wearing a white tank top and a woman wearing a patterned t-shirt; she looks bored
Dora Maar, photographed with Picasso by Man Ray, was an artist and photographer in her own right. © Man Ray Trust 2015 / VG BILDKUNST 2021

One particularly tense scene in The Paris Muse, author Louisa Treger’s new fictionalized retelling of the nine-year love affair between Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, really lingers in the mind. The two artists are sitting together in Picasso’s studio, “close but not quite touching,” viewing a large album of his sketches: drawings of beautiful women cavorting with minotaurs in Bacchanalian environments. Pablo—fifty-five, magnetically charismatic and worldly—turns the pages of the album while Dora—his junior by some thirty years, dark-eyed and filled with creative intensity, already at this stage a renowned artist admired by André Breton—feels increasingly hypnotized by him. “A minotaur knows he’s a minotaur, but he has a human side,” Picasso says to Dora, taking her in with a furtive glance, before adding in a lowered voice: “Of course, I am the minotaur.”

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A book cover featuring a woman leaning out a window
The Paris Muse by Louisa Treger. Courtesy the publisher

To be familiar with the legend of Theseus is to recall that the minotaur is a complex being: with his bull head and man’s body he is monstrous, yet, born as the result of divine punishment, he is multifaceted. As much the object of incredulity as of fear, he is accepted neither by the human world nor by the animal kingdom. So, too, does Pablo Picasso defy straightforward categorization within Treger’s text. One moment he’s almost clinically cold, a selfish womanizer, the next, he’s a weary and sensitive soul more sinned against than sinning. The novel opens not with the very first meeting of Picasso and Maar (which took place in 1935 in Les Deux Magots cafe in Paris and which Treger describes later in the book with unabashedly dark eroticism), but in 1975. We join Dora Maar as she picks up the phone to a man who is calling in the hope of purchasing one of the paintings Picasso had given her years earlier. Maar refuses, and she won’t budge: despite her impecunity, she has her own work to sell and is determined to be heard. While she was the much-fêted muse of Picasso’s The Weeping Woman series of oil paintings, by the time of their creation Maar had already exhibited at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London and could, therefore, be described as a household name of 20th-century art history for her own works, rather than for those for which she was the inspiration.

A black and white photograph of a woman with a star for a head wearing a gown
Dora Maar’s Mannequin-étoile (1936). Courtesy Centre Pompidou

In her 2022 book, Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces, art critic Ruth Millington writes of how Maar transformed Picasso’s practice entirely and how she deserves credit for the role she played in his career: “Behind The Weeping Woman is Maar’s compassion, intelligence and political activism, all of which profoundly inspired Picasso’s anti-war art.” Treger highlights Maar’s political activism directly, and the book contains many vignettes of Maar and Picasso animatedly discussing the politics of the day with fellow artists and writers against a menacing backdrop of the build-up to World War Two. So vivid and compelling is Treger’s dialogue and scene-setting that you feel you could pull a stool up to their table and join the conversation.

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Books in the historical fiction category tread a fine line between factual biography and the exercising of the author’s artistic license, and this can be hard on the reader. Louisa Treger, however, really knows how to work the genre so that readers of The Paris Muse are both reliably informed and unceasingly gripped. The author does not shy away from difficult subjects. One of Treger’s previous works, Madwoman, was historical fiction based on the true story of Nellie Bly, the world’s first female investigative journalist. Bly feigned insanity in the 1880s to be committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island in order to work undercover to expose the wretched conditions faced by patients there. The reader of The Paris Muse will be moved by Treger’s visualization of Dora Maar’s time in psychiatric care following her breakup with Picasso and his cruel treatment of her: Maar was treated by famous French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan in Jeanne d’Arc Hospital, and this is where Treger’s scene-making is at its most raw. The contrast between this time, and the time so engagingly depicted earlier on in the book—Maar’s creative process with Picasso, working on photography at the forefront of surrealism—is remarkable for its sharpness.

As a novel, The Paris Muse is hard to put down: as a testament to Dora Maar’s artistry, it is galvanizing and hugely compelling. Art enthusiasts interested in the forthcoming exhibition at Centre Pompidou, “Surréalisme” (on show from September 4 to January 13 and made in co-production with the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA and the Tate Modern in London) will enjoy reading Treger’s account of how Maar came about the ideas for many of the works we now identify as being key pieces of the Surrealist canon. Her changing inspirations were dictated not only by her passion for Picasso but also by her nuanced understanding of the world and all she found fascinating within it.

Louisa Treger’s Retelling of Dora Maar’s Relationship with Picasso Reveals the Human Behind the Muse