The Artist Who Collaborates with Ants

An installation view of Chalmers’s “Builders of Greatness.”Art work by Catherine Chalmers / Courtesy The Drawing Center: Photograph by Daniel Terna

On her first trek through the rain forest, in 2000, the artist Catherine Chalmers noticed movement on the ground near her feet. It was a parade of thousands of leaf-cutter ants. “There’s these perfectly cleaned pathways that the ants make and maintain, and they carry bright-green leaves,” Chalmers told me recently. “And so you saw this ribbon, almost like a drawing. Green, flickering, because light shimmers on them. I didn’t know they existed. And it was really, really beautiful.”

Chalmers wanted to work with the ants, but didn’t know how. “I’m interested in that place where nature meets culture,” she said. The more complicated the interface, the better: around this time, she was exploring humans’ relationship with cockroaches. But, by comparison, the ants seemed almost too natural to work with artistically. “They’re of the forest,” she said. “We think of them as the other.” What would it mean to make art about our relationship with such creatures?

Chalmers mulled over the idea for years, steeping herself in the science of leaf-cutters. The more she learned, the more connections she saw between them and us. While the ants may be of the forest, they’re also intensely social—urban, even, in their extensive underground lairs. In a 2011 book, “The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct,” the biologists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson suggest that “if visitors from another star system had visited Earth a million years ago, before the rise of humanity, they might have concluded that leafcutter colonies were the most advanced societies this planet would ever be able to produce.” For two decades, Chalmers followed this trail of thought. Last month, we stood inside a culmination of that work—a solo exhibit at the Drawing Center, in SoHo, titled “Catherine Chalmers: We Rule,” which comprised twenty-four drawings, a twenty-foot photo print, four videos, and an installation, which together evoked how much both humans and ants have busied themselves dominating and altering their environments. (It ran through January 15th.)

Chalmers, who is sixty-five and has an athlete’s poise—in addition to being an artist, she’s an accomplished figure skater—led me through the gallery. On one wall, sixteen drawings depicted ants in chambers and tunnels that formed a larger colony. There are around fifty species of leaf-cutter ant, and nests differ among them, but a nest can span five hundred square feet—“As big as this gallery here,” Chalmers noted—sometimes reaching twenty feet below the ground and containing thousands of chambers the size of a cabbage. Inside, there can be millions of ants supporting a queen who survives for more than a decade.

Human agriculture has shaped the planet for millennia, but leaf-cutters began cultivating food at scale millions of years earlier. The ants are responsible for a quarter of all plant consumption in their ecosystems; worker ants might travel two hundred yards to collect leaf clippings, cutting tons of plant material a year. Back home, adults drink the leaf sap while feeding the clippings to a fungus that they grow in their nests. They then harvest the fungus, feeding it to their larvae. To prevent a different fungus from taking over their “fields,” some leaf-cutters cultivate bacteria that produces antibiotics which the ants spread around their garden—a form of pest control.

The ants demonstrate a “chemical mastery” over their environment, Chalmers said. But, at the same time, they are enmeshed in a symbiotic system. “We think the ants are calling the shots, just as we think that we are deciding, when we go to a restaurant, what we want to eat,” she told me. “But the more that I’ve read about the microbiome”—the bacteria and viruses inside us that keep us alive and sometimes make us sick—“the more it seems that microorganisms are greatly influencing the choices that we make.” There’s a sense in which the bacteria in our guts “want” sugar, and so we order ice cream. It’s possible that the ants’ fungal gardens act like their microbiomes, influencing which plants a colony forages. Perhaps it’s not the ants that “rule” the rain forest but the fungus. “I’m not a scientist,” Chalmers said. “So I can speculate on these things and just observe and wonder.”

At the heart of “We Rule” is a set of four videos about ants that evoke core aspects of human culture: language, ritual, war, and art. The filmmaking began in 2007, when an art collector who had seen Chalmers’s earlier work invited her to his private island off the coast of Panama, where he also hosts scientists. Chalmers accepted the offer once she learned that the island had leaf-cutters. Working outside the studio was daunting: to set up a shoot, she’d clear brush to avoid bites from snakes and scorpions, then dig a hole to view the ants at their level.

The language-themed film that emerged from the trip is a four-minute piece called “We Rule.” Up close, amid a cacophony of bird and insect sounds, we see ants munching through green leaves and pink petals. Then, somehow, they’re munching the leaves into perfectly trimmed capital letters; by the film’s end, the ants march along, conveying the titular message, while a chorus of howler monkeys cheers them on. (The film is not computer-animated; the ants really did carry tiny letters made by Chalmers.) Ants are always “sharing data,” Chalmers said—sending signals about threats, food location, and leaf quality through pheromones and vibrations called stridulations, which they create by rubbing parts of their bodies together. “Somehow, in this exchange, they go to war, they decide what they’re going to harvest, how many tunnels, how many chambers. And without central command.” The film gives the ants a chance to boast about their inhuman coördination.

The roots of “We Rule” go back to the nineteen-eighties. Chalmers was earning an M.F.A. at the Royal College of Art, in London; she’d come to admire cuneiform-inscribed neo-Assyrian tablets at the British Museum and elsewhere. She tracked down a translation of the cuneiform text. Essentially, it says, “with little variation, ‘We rule, we conquer, you suck,’ ” she told me. Working with the leaf-cutters, she thought back to the tablets’ imperialistic message. “They’re a little bit a stand-in for us,” she said, of the ants. Making the film, she’d hoped to induce them to carry ten passages from the tablets, but it took her two days just to get six letters in the right order.

Chalmers grew up in San Mateo, California, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a landscape painter. She wasn’t into bugs as a kid, but the family liked animals; she had a bird, and brought it to breakfast and sleepovers. At Stanford, she declared her major, engineering, before classes even started, so that she could secure a spot in a popular course on visual thinking. She took almost enough studio courses to qualify as an art major and, after college, got a job at Mattel, designing toys. Her engineering background has helped her solve the puzzles of art production. How do you build a set that induces insects to behave a certain way? How do you film and light it?

Her work with insects began when she moved to New York, after her M.F.A. As an experiment, she started putting dead leaves and flies on her canvases; when she ran out of flies, she started raising them. The flies swarming in her terrarium entranced her, so she asked her neighbor to teach her photography. He lent her equipment, which she used to make her first book, “Food Chain.” At first, she was a little sickened by the idea behind the project: “I was going to raise animals to feed to another animal,” she said. “But, the more I thought about it, and the more horrified I was, the more it made sense, because one of the drivers of civilization is to remove ourselves or to have control over the food chain.”

Chalmers started with a red tomato. She applied turquoise tobacco hornworms, which burrowed their way through the fruit’s juicy flesh; she then fed the hornworms to a praying mantis, which she fed to a frog. She also raised mice, feeding pink babies to a snake and a second frog. “Baby mice are like nature’s Cheerios,” she said. “I mean, everything eats them.” Starting in the early nineties, the photos were presented at shows around the country. “Boy, did I get hate mail,” Chalmers recalled. Viewers who could tolerate a photograph of a praying mantis shredding a larva drew the line at seeing a snake swallow a mouse whole. “Predation is essentially what keeps the ecosystem going,” Chalmers said. “There’s no way around it.”

She leaned into her own queasiness. “I would see a cockroach and I would lose it,” she said, so, interested in “our adversarial relationship with nature,” she began making films and photographs in which cockroaches are disguised as more palatable creatures, or living in tiny houses, or being executed in a gas chamber or electric chair. One film, “Safari,” depicting the domestic bugs exploring a jungle, was called “perversely entertaining” and “deeply Darwinian” by Time Out and the Times, respectively, and won the 2008 Jury Award for Best Experimental Short at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The work encourages us to empathize with bugs. One reason they disgust us, Chalmers believes, is that they seem immoral, or at least differently moral. “We see ourselves as individuals,” she said. “And we see insects as being this uniform, formless mass that will sacrifice themselves and do all these sorts of things.” Some of her photos capture a praying mantis eating the head of her mate. “Civilization is a march for greater and greater and greater control over the world,” she said. But nature doesn’t play by our rules.

Another of Chalmers’s admirers owned many acres on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, which contained multiple leaf-cutter colonies. The other three ant films were made there. “The dynamics between the colonies—it was a little bit like ‘Game of Thrones,’ where the same species in the same habitat had markedly different personalities,” Chalmers said. To make “The Chosen,” a film about ritual, in which ants carry flowers to a large golden idol of an ant, she collected flowers and presented them to all the large colonies within range of her lights. She coaxed certain ants into climbing over the idol, which scented it with their pheromones and would entice other ants to traverse it, before she placed it in a set depicting an underground chamber. The ants sometimes drop their flowers when they hit impediments. “And so they started burying the idol,” Chalmers said. “I thought it was perfect, because in a way it’s something that we wouldn’t do. It’s as if they’re burying their idol with nature, as if somehow nature trumps religion.” As the ritual proceeds, we hear the sounds of a Himalayan bell.

For her third film, “War,” Chalmers found a large colony that sent ants out each night. A smaller, neighboring colony had arrived at the opposite strategy, sending its ants out during the day and getting them home before nightfall. At night, some ants from the two colonies crossed paths; at the spot where they’d meet, she set out a white sheet and lights, then recorded the ants as they fought. As moody music plays, the film shows hordes of small ants ganging up on lumbering soldiers many times their size. The ants mince each other until only scattered piles of bodies and limbs remain. “You had this David-and-Goliath situation,” Chalmers said. The film is less than four minutes long, but the battles she watched would last for hours.

Chalmers sees the ants as her collaborators. In “Antworks”—the fourth film, which focusses on art—“their idea was much better than mine,” she said. Originally, in “War,” she’d planned to use time-lapse footage of ants stripping a branch, because “oftentimes the degradation of nature or the environment in a place leads to civil conflict,” but couldn’t get the ants to do it. Eventually, though, she noticed a colony near the beach stripping a colorful plant she’d thought was toxic to them. She used a machete to hack a branch off the plant and brought it back to her filming area. In “Antworks,” the ants lift the pieces, which are abstract and colorful in appearance, and then affix them to a flat rock wall. By the end, they’ve put nine striped and spotted leaf cuttings on the wall in a row, as if in an art gallery.

Entries arriving for February nature art showcase | News

Entries for the Council on Greenways and Trails’ February Nature Art Showcase and Sale have started to arrive.

Among the original artwork depicting outdoor recreation, natural resources, and landscapes already registered, included are acrylic paintings, oil paintings, traditional and digital photography, alcohol ink on tiles, fabrics dyed with botanical items, wooden plaques, and other media.

This free public display is held in the lobby of the Barrow-Civic Theatre in downtown Franklin that Feb. 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. and Feb. 4 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

For example, Anna Applegate is an amateur artist who resides in Pinegrove Township in Venango County. She dabbles in nature photography and painting; one of her entries is shown with this article. Entitled “A Brief Pause,” the full-color digital photograph captures a female ruby-throated hummingbird hovering by an orange blossom.

Franklin’s Neal Parker had a long career in conservation and art; in the 1980s his paintings tended to focus on wildlife, but then he waited another 29 years before to returning to painting. He will share with showcase attendees the second painting he completed after that long pause; it’s acrylic on Masonite, entitled “Wood Fern.” Each participating artist may enter one or two items of any size in the seventh annual Nature Art Showcase and Sale, conducted indoors during the “Franklin On Ice” Festival.

Artist registrations are free, but they need to be received by Jan. 18 in order for the information to be included in a complimentary printed program provided to all guests. Registration packets may be picked up in person at the Clarion Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the Titusville Council on the Arts, the Victorian City Art & Frame in Franklin; French Creek Framing and Fine Art in Meadville, The Gallery at New Bethlehem Town Center, and Penn Soil Resource Conservation & Development Council on Conewango Avenue in Warren. Registration instructions and forms may also be downloaded from the Council on Greenways and Trails’ website

Bloomington-raised poet, photographer talks Midwest stories for TEDx

Is ‘flyover country’ an appropriate moniker for the Midwestern U.S., or other overlooked places in the world? Through photography & poetry, this talk explores that question through inspection of the overlooked or the avoided: rust; thunderstorms; work; everyday people doing everyday things; politics; social class; et cetera.

A lifelong Midwesterner, Justin Hamm is the author of four poetry collections, two poetry chapbooks, and a book of photographs. His most recent book is Drinking Guinness With the Dead: Poems 2007-2021 (Spartan Press 2022) . . .

BLOOMINGTON — Most Midwesterners, like Justin Hamm, can say they once had childhood dreams of leaving their hometowns for somewhere “things are really happening.”

Now 42, Hamm is speaking about how he changed his perspective on life in the Midwest through the power of poetry and lens of a camera. The 1998 graduate of Normal West Community High School was featured in a TEDxOshkosh talk published Wednesday on YouTube, titled, “The American Midwest: A Story in Poems & Photographs.”

Bloomington-native Justin Hamm, in Mexico, Missouri, holds a stack of his poetry books in this provided photo from 2022. He was recently featured in a TEDxOshkosh talk.

Hamm, who mainly grew up in Bloomington, theorized before listeners in November 2022 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that “there really is no such place as nowhere.

Everywhere is somewhere, and everywhere has a story to (it) we can uncover if you learn to use the poet’s or the photographer’s eye.”

Pushing back against negative stereotypes about the region, like the “flyover country” label, he said the Midwest has kept him artistically busy and interested. Some of the prose recited by Hamm told of the beauty of a rust, “the mysteries of barn wood” and forgetting his jockstrap for a double-header baseball game.

Read this Wednesday, June 10, 1998 file story covering a Normal West High School baseball game against Olney High School, including quotes by then-catcher Justin Hamm.

The former catcher for the Normal Wildcats chanted verses of “Until Death Do Us Part,” as photo slides showing the exterior of Keller’s Iron Skillet & Catering in Bloomington were displayed. He drew parallels in his poem “Rust — Or Perhaps Fine Art” between decay and impressionist painting.

In a Friday interview with The Pantagraph, he said he tries to take photographs that would make good poems: “Quiet little scenes that illustrate something about the region.”

Watch now: Normal West student, ‘train fanatic’ publishes book in ‘Images of Rail’ series

“Experience another life.”

Hamm explained the title of his latest poetry book, “Drinking Guinness with the Dead.” Drawing from three other previously released books, it was released in March 2022 by Spartan Press, and contains material dated between 2007 and 2021. Hamm said it also has a “book’s worth” of new poems to go with it.

He said one meaning of the title refers to having a few beverages before revising older material. It was weird reading back in time, and he didn’t seem to care or relate to it at first. But Hamm said he didn’t want that to be the case.

He said going back also made him realize he wasn’t doing enough to publicize that work.

Reflecting on his piece titled “A real team effort,” he said he hoped to capture awfully embarrassing moments of adolescence and bring them to life. Hamm said many have told him they can relate.

Poet-photographer and former Bloomington resident Justin Hamm is shown in this 2021 self-portrait.

“They get to experience another life for a while,” he said.

That teleportation also extends to his photography work. Showing stills of rusted-out cars, he said countless people have told them that model was the first they owned.

At another poetry reading and photography showing, Hamm said two farmers lectured him about why a particular style of corn crib was built in Central Illinois but not in South Dakota, because of the immigrants who settled in those regions.

Shown in this 2019 photo provided by poet and photographer Justin Hamm, formerly of Bloomington, is a Central Illinois barn.

See with different eyes

Hamm said he never left the Midwest. He said he got married and went to school in the region, and moved to Mexico, Missouri, where he currently works as a librarian for Eugene Fields Elementary School. He’s a husband to his wife Mel Hamm, and father to two daughters: Abbey, 13, and 9-year-old Sophie Hamm.

He attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville to play baseball, also where he met his wife, and said he got more involved in the English department after hurting his arm. Hamm also explored fiction writing, but said he knew he “was always a poet at heart.”

Tucker drew on Bloomington-Normal ties for his science fiction, mysteries

Coming back to poetry over time, he said he found success. He did his masters of fine arts degree at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and followed another Bloomington native who was coaching wrestling in Mexico, Missouri.

Knowing his best friend “Martin” would be there and his wife liked the school district, he said it was a good landing destination. Hamm said they haven’t found any reason to relocate since they moved there in 2005.

Hamm also edited his startup literary magazine, Museum of Americana, for 10 years. Then in 2019, his poem “Goodbye, Sancho Panza“ was studied by 50,000 students worldwide through the World Scholar’s Cup curriculum.

Bloomington couple hope book, school visits improve birthmark awareness

Around 2009, Hamm said his mother died and he had his first child. That’s when he said he realized his roots are in the Midwest, and leaving was not a certainty. Hamm said he thought he’d better start trying to see things with different eyes.

“Everything that happens in this region is a microcosm of the biggest conflicts and struggles, and also the most beautiful things in the world,” he said.

He said these experiences teach us lessons in human psychology, social interactions and the dichotomy of rural versus urban. There are many different perspectives to view through stories and images, he said, like immigrant experiences and sights of beautiful landscapes.

“When I started to stop and pay attention, I realized how deep that history really is,” said Hamm.

To keep up with Hamm, and read or purchase his work, go to

Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison

Center for photography at Woodstock gets $1.5M grant

KINGSTON, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW) will be the recipient of a $1.5 million Restore NY grant that will enable it to begin rehabilitation of its future home. Its new hub, according to a press release, will be the historic Van Slyke & Horton cigar factory.

CPW is a community-based and artist-oriented organization dedicated to illuminating contemporary culture and society through photography, a spokesperson for the center said in a written statement. In late 2021, after 45 years in Woodstock, the nonprofit moved to a small gallery in Kingston.

In its larger city, CPW has begun expanding its exhibitions, programming, workshops, and digital lab services. But this new vision entails occupying more space, hence its bid to purchase the cigar factory.

Constructed in 1907, the four-story, red-brick Van Slyke & Horton building is a 40,000-square-foot industrial space in Kingston’s Midtown Arts District. It has open-floor plans, 12-foot ceilings, and windows on all four sides, with unobstructed views of the Catskills.

In its Kingston home, CPW aims to build a new model for photography and visual art organization that is an anti-museum, anti-gentrification space. CPW will do this by meeting the needs of emerging artistic voices, and by effecting social change through innovative public events, engaging online media, stimulating courses and workshops, and provocative exhibitions and publications, according to the release.

Once renovated, the space at 25 Dederick Street will be used for exhibition galleries, a digital media lab, classrooms, community meeting rooms, staff offices, a film screening theater, and a state-of-the-art collection storage vault.

“The intended uses will create a significant cultural hub in an economically distressed area targeted for revitalization in the City’s Arts and Culture Master Plan,” said Anna Van Lenten, a spokesperson for the center. “The building is located close to Kingston City Hall and the Kingston High School, and one block away from the Empire State Trail and the newly redesigned Broadway-Grand Street intersection, a key part of the City of Kingston’s recent business corridor improvements.”

ART BEAT: Debra Barnhart takes her nature photography to the tumultuous Farallon Islands | Entertainment

A Walk through the Cypress: December showcases a gallery of gifts | Arts and Theatre

The welcoming sights and sounds of the holidays can be found at the corner of H and Cypress. Along with the towering city Christmas tree and the gazebo decorated with lights, is the Cypress Gallery, full of gifts.

Our artists have created a myriad of little jewels for you to choose from this month. Hand-crafted objects of personal adornment glitter in their cases, luscious little paintings and glassware glisten on the walls and pedestals.

A Christmas tree is hung with ornaments made by creators. And a smiling yellow moon, crafted from a wooden bowl by Linda Gooch, adds a most welcome dose of whimsy and good cheer.

The gift items are placed throughout the gallery, and offered to art lovers in a variety of price ranges, all of them holiday wallet-friendly.

Carol Wood has an entire wall of small exquisite oil paintings on display. Still-life, florals and landscapes, of isolated objects and scenes, are painted with deft paint strokes and jewel tones that are irresistible.

Kathy Badrak, using the malleable gourd as her medium, transforms what is essentially a plant into objects of art. Delightful figurines, vessels, and even a hanging lamp are on display.

Larger works by your favorite gallery artists deck the halls as well.

Neal Abello’s nature photography is breathtaking. The artist’s excitement of searching for and finding his spellbinding subjects is evident. We feel the wonder of a breaching humpback whale, and of a snowy egret making contact with its prey.

Charlton Heston as Moses makes an appearance too, in a powerful predominantly white acrylic by Douglas Clark.

“Holiday 2022” by Michael Corob, is a peaceful pastel of seasonal lights, incorporating the artist’s personal iconography of doves and their wings.

The Cypress Gallery is indeed a place of contrasts.

We are especially proud of our jewelry selection, with pieces not be found elsewhere. It is a joy and honor to wear the polished and cut stones of nature, the painstaking bead work, and hand-wrought metals created by gallery artisans. That they make great gifts is an understatement.

A marvelously large and wonderful door decoration by Chris Jeszeck is probably the most unique piece in the show. Come and see for yourself this three-foot Christmas ornament, if it is not already sold! We’re fast approaching the halfway mark of December.

Visit the gallery soon for first dibs.

The Strange Surrealist Magic of Dora Maar | History

Few artists boast a style and subject matter so singular that three separate specialists would use the same word to describe them: “strange.” Yet that’s exactly what happened when Smithsonian magazine asked a trio of scholars about Dora Maar, a 20th-century French photographer and painter whose oeuvre in many ways defies explanation. Almost all of her artworks capture a certain uncanniness in their surroundings, bringing to light the strange in the mundane.

Dora Maar, Père Ubu, 1936

© 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

One of Maar’s most famous works—the 1936 photograph Père Ubu—is a perfect example of this phenomenon. It’s the kind of art that requires repeat viewings, all of which yield something new. There’s something inscrutable about the subject’s scaly body, its one slightly open eye, its barely outstretched claws and its ear flaps clouded by shadows. The viewer is left to question whether the figure is alien or something found in nature; they want to know more, but at the same time, they’re slightly disgusted, says Andrea Nelson, an associate curator at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. Donors gifted a print of the Surrealist image to the museum in 2021.

“It’s compelling but repellent at the same time,” Nelson says. “You don’t quite know what it is, and you’re trying to figure it out. It’s surprising, it’s mysterious, it’s completely bizarre and it’s grotesque. It still maintains that power.”

The same could be said of Maar herself. Born Henrietta Théodora Markovitch in Paris in 1907, the artist split her childhood between Argentina and France. From a young age, she was determined to be an artist, studying everything from decorative arts to painting to photography and attending prominent Paris schools like the Académie Julian and the École Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographie (Technical School for Photography and Cinematography). At one point, Maar even trained with French Cubist painter André Lhote.

As her abilities grew, Maar began a career as a commercial photographer and later a painter, winning renown in her own right. Today, however, most mentions of the artist reference her mainly in relation to her most famous lover: Pablo Picasso, who featured her in the 1937 portrait series Weeping Woman. Her “career and accomplishments were overshadowed during her lifetime by the details of her affair” with Picasso, notes Encyclopedia Britannica.

Weeping Woman portrait of Maar by Pablo Picasso, on view at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006

Photo by William West / AFP via Getty Images

Maar’s own work was both influenced by and had a real influence on Surrealism, a cultural movement that rejected rationalism in favor of art and literature informed by dreams and the unconscious mind. In fact, Père Ubu is “one of the most iconic artworks of the movement,” Nelson says. But it doesn’t really resemble prominent Surrealist works, nor does it look like Maar’s other art. The artist’s photographs tend to be either beautiful in an almost supernatural way or heartbreakingly realistic, capturing the realities of poverty. As the Morgan Library and Museum points out, Père Ubu stands out from the rest of Maar’s work precisely because of its “repellent qualities.”

Even when the portrait was displayed at the “London International Surrealist Exhibition” in 1936, it stood out from the stylized world of Maar’s fellow Surrealists.

Ubu … would have acted as a small, sharp puncture in the exhibition’s exuberant display of the Surrealist imaginary, asserting its connection with the world beyond the gallery,” writes photographic historian Ian Walker in the catalog for a 2019 Maar retrospective co-organized by Paris’ Centre Pompidou, London’s Tate Modern and Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum. “For these images were based in the documentary nature of photography while also exploiting the medium’s Surrealist potential.”

Selection of photographs by Dora Maar

Courtesy of Artcurial

What adds meaning to the snapshot is its title, which references Alfred Jarry’s 1896 Absurdist play, Ubu Roi. The drama’s main character, Père Ubu, is a greedy figure who does whatever it takes—including killing members of the Polish royal family—to achieve his goals. But Maar’s Père Ubu is hard to reconcile with that description. Is this an innocent creature or one primed to commit harm? With a “sagging belly and bulbous nose” that mirror the distasteful appearance of the play’s title character, the portrait conveys the “vulgarity and slothfulness” of its namesake, according to Walker.

Jarry’s creation is “savage and malicious, truly threatening as well as ridiculous,” the historian adds. “Maar’s Ubu lacks that overt savagery, but in its place is an ominous stillness, as we are pitilessly observed by the creature’s black, depthless eye, like that of a shark or reptile, while its claws … might also be about to metamorphose into Ubu’s sinister ‘nearole-incisors.’”

The photograph raises a more pressing surface-level question, too: What exactly does it depict? The subject is hypothesized to be an armadillo fetus, but definitive proof is hard to come by, as Maar would never confirm its identity.

Interestingly, the catalog for a Paris Surrealist exhibition where the image was displayed classifies it as an “interpreted found object.”

“It is evidently the thing that is depicted in the photograph that is the [‘object’]: a neutral term that serves to disguise whatever was its original nature,” Walker writes. “It is also significant that it is described not simply as ‘found’ but also ‘interpreted’—an acknowledgment perhaps that Maar’s photograph not only documents the thing but also re-presents and transforms it.”

Installation view of “Dora Maar” at Tate Modern, 2019, featuring Père Ubu at left

Tate Modern / Andrew Dunkley

Emma Lewis, a former assistant curator at Tate Modern, offers a more concrete answer, citing a visitor to the major Maar retrospective, which she co-curated. The individual was so interested in the photo that they asked a senior veterinarian from the London Zoo about the creature. The vet identified the subject as an infant or fetal armadillo based on its claws and underdeveloped osteoderms, or bony deposits. Exactly where the artist would have encountered this animal is unknown.

From Ubu’s otherworldly likeness to 29 rue d’Astorg, in which a glamorously dressed, nearly headless figure sits in a cavernous room, to a snapshot of a model with a cutout star covering her head, Maar’s art evokes a sense of uneasiness, strangeness even, amid beauty.

Yet the word “strange” carries a certain connotation that doesn’t fully reflect the scope of Maar’s work. Rather than being whimsical or fanciful, the artist’s photographs are tinged with darkness, Lewis says, a Gothic quality often characterized by stylistic experimentation.

“She contributed to making the everyday strange,” the curator adds.

Dora Maar, Mendiant London, 1934

Courtesy of Artcurial

Dora Maar, Couple sur la fontaine de Trafalgar Square, London, 1934

Courtesy of Artcurial

Maar’s commercial work helped her craft this unusual style. In 1931, she opened a photography studio with set designer Pierre Kéfer, working on commission for fashion houses like Chanel and designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin. She often employed a collage technique, overlaying images “from her own work, including both street and landscape photography,” instead of using newspapers or magazines, per Tate Modern.

“These commissions had good budgets a lot of the time. They had good circulation, and they reached interesting audiences,” Lewis says. “Every image that we see by Maar is either about her pushing what she can do with staging, light and composition or her taking the components of the image and cutting and pasting and reworking that within her studio.”

A key example of Maar’s collage technique is a 1935 photo titled The Years Lie in Wait for You. In it, a woman clasps the bottom half of her face with her manicured hands, which are visible but almost hidden behind a superimposed image of a spiderweb. Thought to be a face cream advertisement, the work was never published, notes Lewis in Photography, A Feminist History: Gender Rights and Gender Roles on Both Sides of the Camera.

Installation view of “Dora Maar” at Tate Modern, 2019, featuring The Years Lie in Wait for You (1935)

Tate Modern / Andrew Dunkley

Maar enjoyed great commercial success with her studio, adding an experimental lens to many of her commissions. She could, “at roughly the same time, produce high-end fashion photographs, artful advertising pictures, flattering studio portraits, figure studies, soft-core pornography, … gritty street scenes, documentary shots, politically inflected images, rigorous formal compositions, and the complex, disturbing, and beautifully crafted Surrealist photomontages that are her most memorable creations,” wrote art critic Richard Kalina for Art in America in 2020.

Though the vision of independent womanhood conveyed by 1920s and ’30s advertisements was “largely an alluring commercial fiction … Maar and her friends actually lived such lives,” Kalina added. “And they put their exceptional autonomy to use” by documenting social inequality and advocating for political reform. Maar was a left-wing political activist involved with revolutionary groups, and her politics were “inextricable from her work as an artist,” Lewis says.

Today, Maar’s work is often referenced only or primarily in connection with Picasso, whom she met in the mid-1930s, when she was in her late 20s and the famed Cubist painter was in his mid-50s.

“So often the first sentence you read about [muses] is that they were the muse of Pablo Picasso” or a similarly prominent man, says Nelson. “But in the case of Dora Maar, she was a really successful and interesting photographer for years and years before she … even met Pablo Picasso.”

Installation view of “Dora Maar” at Tate Modern, 2019, featuring some of the artist’s collage works

Tate Modern / Andrew Dunkley

Aside from her collage work, Maar was known for using the camera to document reality and capture street life. Through her style and gaze, she was able to transform what she saw into something altogether different.

Many of Maar’s snapshots have never or rarely been seen by the public. The 2019 retrospective, which featured more than 200 works by the artist, highlighted some of these little-known photographs. And earlier this year, Paris auction house Artcurial placed roughly 750 photographs from Maar’s estate, the majority of which had previously been unpublished, up for sale.

Spanning the late 1920s to the end of the 1940s, the images included uncharacteristically informal photos of Picasso, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of his 1937 painting Guernica and self-portraits of Maar, as well as vignettes from major European cities, like a bookseller in Paris, a series of blind musicians in Barcelona and beggars in London.

Dora Maar, Guernica en cours de réalisation dans l’atelier de la rue des Grands Augustins, Paris, mai-juin 1937

Courtesy of Artcurial

“We have essentially retained from [Maar] to this day the strangeness of some of her compositions or collages, which bring their own score to the Surrealist movement,” says Bruno Jaubert, director of Artcurial’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department. “But it is also, to another extent, her way of capturing reality that goes beyond Surrealist aesthetics.”

While Maar’s work did not experience a major stylistic shift in the collection’s roughly 30-year span, Jaubert says her eye became more trained and refined.

“[The cache] shows a maturity in the look that immediately reveals a scene, a presence without seeking decorative effect,” he notes.

Throughout her life, Maar found herself caught between painting and photography, never able to choose just one. For years, particularly during her relationship with Picasso, she focused on painting, in love with the art form she had first taken up as a teenager. It was only toward the end of her life that she inhabited fully once more the world of photography.

“We don’t know that she ever stopped photographing, per se, but certainly in her later years, she returned to darkroom experimentation,” Lewis says. Maar died in 1997 at age 89.

Dora Maar, Las Ramblas Barcelona, circa 1933

Courtesy of Artcurial

Dora Maar, La Sagrada Familia Barcelone, circa 1933

Courtesy of Artcurial

The artist’s shift from painting to photography and back again wasn’t unusual for the time. As Nelson argued in the 2021 NGA exhibition “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” photography became a way for women to make money and express themselves creatively during the 20th century. Many followed a path like Maar’s, studying art in a traditional setting before pursuing photography in the 1920s and ’30s, as the medium was growing and changing.

For Maar, photography was a way to carve her own path in a business sense. She certainly wasn’t alone in that.

“For some women, photography was a very viable career where you could actually see yourself making your own money, earning your own income and becoming independent,” Nelson says.

When Nelson curated the NGA exhibition, she knew she wanted to include Père Ubu. Yet she had a difficult time determining where to place the photograph. It was such a strong composition, so different from the other pieces in the exhibition’s “Avant-Garde Experiments” room, that it didn’t quite work next to anything else.

Eventually, Nelson came up with a compromise: putting the photograph next to the room’s wall text. There, it wouldn’t overshadow other works but rather help start a conversation. It could only exist as Maar likely intended it to—on its own.

Installation view of “Dora Maar” at Tate Modern, 2019

Tate Modern / Andrew Dunkley

Hamilton Premiere Of Wildlife Photographer Of The Year Exhibition

right look © Richard Robinson, Wildlife Photographer of the
Year. Shot under New Zealand Department of Conservation
permit #84845-MAR.

An award-winning
New Zealand photographer is the guest of honour for the
opening of theworld-renowned Wildlife Photographer of the
Year exhibition at Hamilton’s Waikato Museum Te Whare
Taonga o Waikato.

On tour from the Natural History
Museum in London,Wildlife Photographer of the Year will
open on Friday 9 December and marks the first time Hamilton
has been home to this exhibition of the world’s most
exceptional nature

“Wildlife Photographer of
the Yearis the most prestigious photography award of its
kind, and the competition has provided a global platform to
showcase the best of photography talent formore than55
years,” said Liz Cotton, Director of Museum and Arts,
Waikato Museum.

“It’s an honour to be
the first New Zealand hosts for this year’s exhibition,
particularly as the award-winners include stunning images by
New Zealander photographer Richard Robinson, highlighting
the work being done to protect our population of tohoraa
[southern right whales].”

“We look forward to
welcoming visitors from around the country to Waikato Museum
to see these incredible images over the summer, including
those with a passion for photography, the environment, and
our natural world.”

Speaking from London, the
Director of the Natural History Museum, Doug Gurr,

“We are thrilled to see our prestigious
Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition reaching
audiences in this part of New Zealand for the first time.
What could be more fitting than the setting of the Waikato
Museum, on the banks of the biodiverse Waikato River? We
hope every visitor leaves the exhibition feeling inspired to
protect and celebrate the natural world.”

in 1965, todaythe annual Wildlife Photographer of the
Year competition receives entries frommore than 90
different countries,highlighting its enduring appeal.
This year’s award-winning images are on an international
tour thatwill allowthem to be seen bymillions of
people all over the world, including here in

An international panel of industry
experts selected underwater photojournalist Richard
Robertson as the winner of the category, Oceans – The Bigger
Picture. His award-winning image ‘New life for the
captures a hopeful moment for a population of
New Zealand native whales that has survived against all
odds. Another of his photographs, ‘The right
was also Highly Commended in the Animal
Portraits category.

Another New Zealand photographer
was also recognised by the judging panel, with D’Artagnan
Sprengel’s photograph ‘Frost daisy’ receiving a
Highly Commended award in the 11-14 Years Old category for
Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Winner of the
Grand Title award was ‘The big buzz’ by Karine
Aigner, shot with a macro lens to show the frenzy of Texan
cactus bees competing to mate. This captivating image, and
all other prize winners, will be among the 100 photographs
on display at Waikato Museum until 23 April

© Scoop Media


Clark Island artists’ work on display at the Craignair Gallery

Craignair Gallery invites the public to a Holiday Open House December 7 from 4 to 7 p.m. to celebrate the opening of “Tide to “Pine”, a photographic exhibition by Justin Smulski and works by Clark Island artists Shelley Nolan, fused glass; Susan Baines, small form; Mary Gaudette, nature photography; Lesley Dangerfield and Gayle Bedigian, ceramics. Refreshments will be provided.

As a freelance photographer, Smulski’s photography addresses what it means to live, explore and work in Maine from the perspective of one who is “from away.’

Hailing from suburban New Hampshire, the photographer eventually moved to Washington D.C., Boston and finally Portland, Maine.

“My photography is about ditching those unhelpful monoliths and building a shared vocabulary of exploration,” said Smulski, in a news release. “There is a thoughtfulness, intimate and deeply honest, to how we orient ourselves in relation to the places we are drawn to for solitude and exploration.” I

“Tide to Pine” is on exhibit through Jan. 3. Works by Clark Island artists remain on exhibit throughout the year. The Craignair Gallery, located at 5 Third Street in Spruce Head, is open daily from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, contact or visit