Dora Maar’s Photomontage “Le Pisseur” (1935), Gelatin Silver Print

We see in front of us a magnificent but not imposing interior of what looks like a castle-temple as a monument of traditional aristocratic culture in its double nature (castle aspect and temple aspect). The castle aspect refers to the sociological meanings of the building, and the temple aspect to its aesthetic (secularly spiritual) quality. Historical changes can easily dismiss the value of sociological meanings of traditional architecture – revolutionary moods of people who hate everything aristocratic serve as a justification for vandalism and destruction of the old historical sites. But cultural value of traditional culture is universal and timeless – philosophers and artists of the past are “immortal” and are always needed for spiritual functioning of the later generations. The palaces’ architectural and interior-designs as examples of human creativity are inalienable from humanity in its wholeness, from our past and future.

Still, it’s not only the desperate revolutionary crowds can be destructive to the traditional secularly-spiritual culture. It seems, that the real destroyer of serious culture is subcultural organism named “mass culture” (which is based on psychological “mechanism” of repressive desublimation) helped by human consumerist reflex and megalomaniacal need to be entertained. Mass culture doesn’t destroy the walls of traditional monuments, but the spiritual side of human aesthetic sensitivity, it undermines the human soul with gradual but radical erosion. Everything mass-cultural mind is focusing on is reduced to rudimental forms and ideas. Here, we are already close to the very semantic nucleus of Dora Maar’s photomontage “Le Pisseur”.

In the upper left corner of the photograph we see something happening that is challenging our expectation of what is possible to see in work of photographic art. We see that an adolescent boy is… urinating not just on the internal wall of the castle, but right at the adult person who is trying to protect the place’s interior from being scandalously dirtied and defiled – the precious relic from the past. The boy is obviously intending to damage and dishonor the castle, but the woman is desperately trying to protect its interior by, literally, putting her body on the way of the hooligan. She is, probably, the curator and an educator, a person feeling that thinking that it is her noble obligation to help the younger generation to become more culturally competent and aesthetically refined. By observing today, in the 21st century, mass orientation on consumption, entertainment and fight for higher social position and wealth we can easily imagine how “successful” this heroic woman-defender of cultural values can be in a situation depicted on Dora Maar’s prophetic photograph. How can you stop the new generations from neglecting and defiling serious culture then and today, after more than eighty years after Maar’s photomontage was made, when children are formed by animation cartoons and very often – violent video-games?

This encounter between the barbaric teen and “self-sacrificial” educator is the punctum of Dora Maar’s photomontage. But now let’s focus on the relations between the ceilings and the interior walls of the castle-temple – and its polished floors meant to reflect them but already losing this “reflective” ability because of “urine of contempt” for the cultural heritage on part of the liberally uneducated generations. Here Maar’s photomontage forces us to differentiate between a work’s of art plot-as-action and plot-as-meaning of action (plot enlarged and ennobled by its meaning). Of course, this particular hooligan boy is not able to destroy the whole floor of the castle-temple’s wide hall, but the group of young people inspired by collective excitement to destroy what they don’t (and don’t want to) understand triumphantly can, and this is exactly what we see in the photograph. Dora Maar’s photographic art is not an example of mass-cultural photos depicting actions and sentiments. “Surrealistic” style gives her the chance to make photographs semantically multi-dimensional. She is interested not only in the lives of concrete human beings but in lives of human societies in culturological perspectives, in their development or degradation.

Maar’s photograph also focuses on the importance of the function of reflection not only in mirroring but in the intellectual sense. She makes the physical reflection of the castle’s interior by the floor a metaphor of the very ability of life to reflect about its own past, roots and ability for growth and modification. The inability of human civilization to reflect – to disinterestedly think about itself and the world is a matter of the difference between serious culture cultivating interested in real humanistic knowledge instead of stimulating blind emotional reactions on the world and other people and mass culture based on exchanging entertainment on financial profits. The boy (trying to debase the castle’s interior) is a product of mass culture which taught him how to have fun instead of intellectually loving the world of otherness he is born into. His ability to reflect about the world is radically hurt, as the function of the floor to reflect the interior of the castle-temple. This floor signifies disintegrating civilization which has lost its humanistic (not technically “mechanical”) reflective ability – it is transformed into ruins, the floor in the Dora Maar’s photograph looks like.

Look attentively at the floor in the photo – eroded by human waste. It looks not like chaotic piles of unorderly rocks as pre-civilizational crude landscape, but like post-civilizational disaster – as rocks ripped out by the cosmic catastrophe of human making – as a fiasco of human culture, the inability of human societies to disinterestedly reflect about themselves, life and the world.

Dora Maar in her “Le Pisseur” is trying to alert us – by mobilizing her own experience of knowing European life between two wars – about the dangers of technological fetishism and mass-cultural distortion of human reflective abilities.


Dora Maar (1907-1997)