I got an email invitation from collectors Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg to join them for dinner and the opening of an exhibition of part of their collection devoted to French photography. Entitled "French Twist: Masterworks of Photography from Atget to Man Ray", the exhibit is currently showing at the Delaware Art Museum until September 15th.
Usually it would be a relatively quick hour ride down to Wilmington, DE, but this was a summer Friday (think "beach traffic") during rush hour. On top of this, it decided to rain buckets. Soon the car collisions, sheer volume and traffic jams took over, piling up like the zombie bodies in World War Z.
Despite leaving myself a margin of an extra 75 minutes, I was soon doomed by the traffic gods to unfashionable lateness. After finally arriving in the parking lot of the restaurant, the skies opened up to drop a monsoon on my location. After dashing through streams of water that rivaled the Amazon River (Who says that I'm prone to hyperbole?), I arrived at my friends' table 20 minutes late and visibly dripping water, which formed a puddle under my feet. Michael and Judy were solicitous, and the waiter offered me an extra cloth napkin to dry myself.
We settled into a pleasant dinner discussing some of the latest developments in the field of photography. The pair have been highly active and are well plugged into current trends and topics; so between the excellent food and the equally enjoyable conversation, the dinner passed by quickly.
When we had finished, the sky had cleared and we headed out to the museum.
While the facade of the Delaware Art Museum looks rather nondescript, inside the building was an interesting and very pleasant warren of walls and glass. Celebrating its 100th anniversary of its founding just last year, the museum had undergone an extensive redesign and expansion and just reopened in mid-2005. Now containing over 80,000 sq. ft., the facility has excellent exhibition space and a collection of 12,000 art objects.
The reception for the official show opening was jammed with people. Visitors were encouraged to dress up appropriately for the event. Many, if not most, were dressed in 1920s attire that would be suitable for Paris, although a number of the men thought that a black beret was enough. However, the women were decked out in amazing, and often very sexy and distracting outfits that were much more suited to the affair.
Even the wine served was—mostly—French. There was even a three-piece band playing music from the flapper era.
But the real focus of the evening, despite the distractions, was the photographic work itself, fairly glowing off the neutral gray walls.
Often when you go to a smaller regional museum, you get to see a reasonably interesting show, especially if the curators were somewhat creative. But rarely would you see a show of such high level vintage material. Drawn from one of America's top private collections, these vintage photographs truly stood out. The show could easily have graced the walls of one of the country's half dozen top institutions. In fact, it might have trumped a few of their shows.
The Delaware museum staff, including curator of American Art Heather Campbell Coyle, did a beautiful job of hanging the show, including the typography and other graphics. Well spaced and nicely arranged in a spacious and perfectly lit gallery, the 101 images got top treatment. But in the end it was the amazing level of work in the show that stunned me.
While I am no stranger to Michael and Judy's collection, I had not realized the depth and quantity of the work from this period that they had acquired. Michael and I walked the show together.
The exhibit led off with photographs by Eugene Atget. Since most of the show's work was pulled from that rich vein of between-the-wars material, it could be argued that Atget might be out of place. It might be argued, but not by me. Atget was one of the prime influences on the many photographers working in France who followed, especially Man Ray.
I might also have been influenced by the exceptional print quality and astounding image choices here. For instance, here was the finest example that I've ever seen of the iconic Corset Shop, which was pulled from the Julien Levy collection (Quelle provenance !). Given that I've sold nearly 100 Atgets myself and seen numerous Atget shows here and in Paris where I've viewed literally thousands of Atgets, I feel fairly qualified to say that all the Atgets on the walls here in Wilmington were up to a very high standard indeed. Besides the miraculous Corset Shop, I was particularly mesmerized by Atget's Flowering Apple Tree and his Nymphaeas, Versailles. All three images were that rich dark reddish purple that collectors of Atget know is the peak of print quality for his printing-out and albumen papers. There were also fine examples of Atget's rare arrowroot prints.
The rest of the show was broken up into "themes", the first being "La vie de la rue (Life of the street)". The lead-off photo was rather familiar since I had sold it to Michael and Judy, a 1929 image of André Kertész's Flea Market, Paris. But the Ilse Bing images that followed were like a selection of her best Paris work, including her image of the Greta Garbo poster. Michael stopped by her "Puddle, rue de Valois" to tell me that he and Judy had stayed in Paris nearby and had gone searching for the same puddle.
Also, in this section was an image by the much-neglected French modernists, Théo Blanc and Antoine Demilly. Titled simply "Façade, 32 rue des Anges, Lyon ("merde")", it was that last word graffitied on the front of the building that drew Mattis' attention first and then the spatial sensibility of the photograph.
Jacques Henri Lartigue headed up the section entitled, "Divertissement (Diversions)". Two of Lartigue's most important images in small vintage contact prints were included. One of these little gems showed exactly how he printed this famous image later, enhancing the drama by heightening an angle of view.
The rest of the section contained some great Ilse Bing's, André Kertész's and Brassai's, but Henri Cartier-Bresson held the position of honor in my mind. Here were rare early and vintage prints by the master of photojournalism, instead of the later prints made for the collecting market with such dispatch that little quality is seen in these high-contrast modern prints. Here these rare prints looked like they were real photographs rather than glossy posters. Perhaps the star among the stars was the 1932 vintage print of Hyères, which is of a racing bicyclist. But many other well-known images by Cartier-Bresson were here, including his iconic Picnic on the Marne in one of the earliest known examples. Ironically, many of the other well-known images were not drawn from French scenes, but depicted Cartier-Bresson's very famous images in Spain, Italy, Hungary and Mexico.
The rest of the thematic sections, namely "Les Basses Classes", "Paris de nuit", "L'art pour l'art", and "La figure", contained other stunning surprises.
One of my favorite prints from "Les Basses Classes"was made in 1937 by Lisette Model of a young man asleep, Paris. The image is a starkly simple one, but Model's exquisite printing of it puts it in another class entirely.
Of course, Brassai's oversized print of street toughs from Grand Albert's gang was a centerpiece for this section. Brassai used a blank piece of photo paper on the left side of the image to burn in the right side, as if the two thugs were standing next to a darkened wall. Brassai also wrote about his encounters with this gang, who pick-pocketed him after he had paid them for their help. As Brassai explained, "Thievery for them, photographs for me. What they did was in character. To each his own."
Brassai also dominated the section, "Paris de nuit", or should I say, WAS the section. Looking at the images on the wall, Judy Hochberg even found something new in the photographs, noting that in "The Quarrel, Bal Musette des Quatres Saisons, Rue de Lappe" the man is actually not just looking away from his companion but looking directly at another woman sitting across from the couple, which may have even been the source of the argument.
"L'art pour l'art" was one of the most impressive sections, which given what came before may sound like an exaggeration, but isn't. How about a vintage large matte print of Chez Mondrian and a vintage print of Mondrian's Pipe and Glasses, both by André Kertész? Michael and I had a whispered discussion of the value on the two photos. I won't tell you the specifics, but it sure meant he needed to up the value for his insurance on the two. But value and rarity aside the Chez Mondrian was simply magical.
Dora Maar's L'Orangerie, Chateau de Versailles, 1935, was another great print. There are several versions of this image including one with a contorted figure of a boy. This was sans boy, but had an architectural power that reminded me of Frederick Evans' famous Sea of Steps.
American Edward Steichen is represented in the show with his lyrical still life, Three Pears and an Apple, Voulangis, France, 1921, in a large 1950s print. Steichen tried numerous versions until he struck the right balance, and, as he said, "Here for the first time in a photograph, I was able to sense volume as well as form."
A Pierre Dubreuil of "Les Lanternes Vénitiennes" was a rather early image from about 1908 and was another "find" in this exhibition. Michael and I had a discussion about whether the location is France or the Venice Carnival, but he has semi-convinced me, unless one of my French friends tells me otherwise.
As noted from the title for the show, Man Ray's work is also well represented here, from his self portrait with camera to his Rayograph with lock of hair. But not surprisingly, his best work here was probably inspired by his female muses, including Lee Miller, Dora Maar, Kiki, Meret Oppenheim and others. A unique silver print of the Nude Torso from the famous Electricité series was a highlight in this collection. Another is "Lee Miller and Friend", who appear about to kiss. According to Mattis, the photograph is one of two extant prints of this sensuous image, the other belonging to the pop singer Madonna. And a third highlight of the Man Ray women is the image of Dora Maar with a doll's hands surrealistically posed under her chin along with her normal hand reach down across the top of her head.
"La figure" is perhaps the weakest grouping and seemed to be tagged on to the rest. It is not that the images here are not strong enough; it is largely because there are not enough of them to truly make up a valid section. The Kertész distortion is reasonably good; the Erwin Blumenfeld draped nude is actually quite strong; but the Brassai nude is some what pedestrian. The Dora Maar nude with mirrors is perfectly fine; as are the Man Ray nudes, but these were actually placed in a different section. Perhaps adding most of the Man Ray's to the last group would help, as I understand they were intended to be. Mattis told me that the title, "La Figure", really includes portraits as well as nudes, but perhaps that is a asking a lot from non-French speakers, although the subtitle does qualify this.
But all in all these are mere quibbles, and French Twist is a very satisfying and lovely show that I can highly recommend.
As I noted earlier, the exhibit is currently showing at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE, until September 15th. The show is being toured by art2art Circulating Exhibitions, http://www.art2art.org . Future confirmed bookings include the McMullen Museum, Boston College (Feb.-May 2014) and the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati (Oct.-Dec. 2014).