Behind every man of genius: Picasso and artist Dora Maar on the screen
Men of genius, actress Samantha Colley explains, could never be attracted to emotional sponges. They want a woman on their intellectual level, a woman they can enjoy mind tussles with too. They don’t want dummies.
Unfortunately, when you are a woman of fire, spirit and talent in a relationship with a man of genius, it very rarely ends well. And Samantha Colley should know: she’s just played the partners of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in Seasons one and two of the Genius series on National Geographic.
Not only has British actress Colley played Mileva Marić, the Serbian mathematician who was Einstein’s first wife, but she was asked to step into the shoes of Dora Maar, French photographer, surrealist painter and poet and the lover of Pablo Picasso. Picasso, played here by Antonio Banderas, went through women at the rate he went through sketching – so much so that Clémence Poésy, Poppy Delavigne and Aisling Franciosi are all in the season as well, all with a significant part of play in Picasso’s life and art, and often simultaneously.
Picasso physically abused Dora; he made her physically fight Marie-Therese Walter for his love
“Geniuses are tricky, it’s always difficult,” Samantha Colley allows. “I think that genius means having a laser like focus and a belief in your gifts and what it will bring to the world. That doesn’t really lend itself to relationships, whether they are platonic or romantic. An element of selfishness always comes into play.”
Maar, who studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was an established photographer and member of the Surrealist Arts set when she met Picasso in a café in 1936. She was well-known for her left-wing politics, for participating in anti-fascist demonstrations, and for photographing the down-and-outs and the slums of European cities – a photographic George Orwell. Hers and Picasso’s meeting was documented by another writer.
"The young woman’s serious face, lit up by pale blue eyes which looked all the paler because of her thick eyebrows; a sensitive uneasy face, with light and shade passing alternately over it. She kept driving a small pointed penknife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves... Picasso would ask Dora to give him the gloves and would lock them up in the showcase he kept for his mementos.”
Dora would be his muse for much of the next decade; but also photographing the stages of development of Picasso’s anti-war painting, Guernica. However Picasso physically abused her; he made her physically fight Marie-Therese Walter (the mother of his daughter Maya, who he continued to see at the same time as Dora) for his love; once they had broken up, he was often cutting and cruel. Dora suffered a nervous breakdown,and in the 1940s the treatment for that was electro-shock therapy.
But Samantha doesn’t believe that Dora was simply a victim of abuse.
“She suffered a lot of distress at his hands but that’s only one colour to the palette of their relationship,” she says. “I found a lot of humour and play between them, and a meeting of two challenging and dangerous personalities. She was a talented photographer in her own right and she had several male muses of her own. She was part of the bohemian art set and she did know what she was getting into. Even without Picasso, her personality was intense, and she had insecurity and abandonment issues anyway, you can see it in her art. She didn’t deal with the break up well. She became a devout Catholic, and became very anti-social,but she loved Picasso till the end. She never sold her story, as we’d say now.”
"Dora was already established, and maybe if she’d maintained that trajectory we’d know her in her own right than through the prism of Picasso."
So few female artists have had the chance to shine in history that Dora Maar seems destined to always be known as ‘Picasso’s lover.’ Mileva Marić never made it from the shadows of being with Einstein either.
“The sad element is that these two women both had the capacity and capability to be near geniuses in their own rights,” Samantha agrees. “Mileva was trying to push herself against a male landscape of science and mathematics though, while Dora was already established, and maybe if she’d maintained that trajectory we’d know her in her own right than through the prism of Picasso. But he also did enrich her art. But yes – both deserve to be spoken about apart from as part of the constellation of these two men. “
"I'd like the next 'genius' to be Sylvia Plath."
What genius will be next for National Geographic. Samantha agrees that the next one “has to be a woman or a person of colour. I’d like it to be Sylvia Plath, I think. But I don’t think I would get asked again – they must be sick of me!
“It’s a different time now but it still feels like for a woman to be recognised, you have to push that extra hard and be that much better to get to the top. The female experience is always to push harder, and it must be doubly difficult when a charismatic guy is your partner. I think it was a meeting of two flames and it must have been difficult to stand up in her own right.”
Genius: Picasso, 23rd April at 8pm on National Geographic.