Mari Mahr is a brilliant artist of Hungarian origin who divides her time between London and Berlin. Too gentle a person ever really to push herself forward, Mahr has had the kind of career which is faultless, but not really very visible. No longer a young woman, she remains insufficiently appreciated by a large factor. She works in relatively small series, often about her family, occasionally about figures of more public standing. In series after series, she has produced works of astute elegance seeking to situate her own affective existence among the objects of affection or culture around her. Her hallmarks are exquisite delicacy of psychological enquiry, matched and made visible in exquisite delicacy in the photographic object. By quality of work, she is one of the very great artists of recent years; by the amount of limelight shone upon her, almost invisible.
In 1982, as something of a feminist looking for strong women models, Mahr came upon the figure of Georgia O’Keeffe. This is how she herself described it:
“In the very last scene of a documentary movie, an old woman climbs a ladder all the way to the top of her house. I was impressed by the strength and charisma of such an old woman and decided to find out more about her. I learnt she was partly Hungarian, but what is more important I absolutely loved how her career came about, the way she made her choices, how she chose her men, how she made situations awkward for herself, painting away when it wasn’t a womanly thing to do.
I’d read her diary where she writes so eloquently about Taos, Black Place and so on — I saw it all in colour. This was before I’d been to America, so all the knowledge of the country came from Technicolor movies. I did the series in 1982, about her travels in the 1920s, using a black car like the one Stieglitz (the photographer, her husband) had given her.”
It sounds simple, and so perhaps it is, once you’ve done it. By making the stagey elements of her pictures completely apparent, Mahr let us know immediately that we weren’t looking at fact. Every standard picture element is up for revision: scale, perspective, narrative… this is a complete taking of control by the artist of those things which more normally constrain photographers. The obvious edges and folds, the block colours, the ultra-plain symbolic elements (skyscraper, cow, adobe, car, flag…) give the clues to a reading of O’Keeffe’s story which is both heroic and curiously domestic in scale. What results is a tribute and a separate work in its own right. Mahr has admiration and respect for O’Keeffe, and a point of humour about her, too.
These are variants of collage, set design, maybe diorama. A few recurring themes make them understandable as music. They’re lovely as little post-cards, and sensational as the chapters in an episodic biography. They’re anything you like except flat photographs. No matter that it is little known; this is one of my great series.
[Another in the series Hodgson’s Choice, assembling a virtual collection guided by no more than my own taste, interest, curiosity, amusement or any combination of those. This piece was originally published in the Financial Times in January 2013 and reposted as part of a larger piece on these pages in 2015.]