This photograph was taken during the winter of 1930 and the place is Megeve in the French Alps. The woman who poses on the snowy slope is festively attired for a day of skiing but the festivity does not reach her eyes. Her name is Madeleine Messager Lartigue; her nickname is Bibi, given to her by her husband. Can we ever see her for herself, once we know who her husband became ?
In Art And Illusion, E.H. Gombrich wrote that artists paint what they know, rather than what they see. It was the contention of the Frenchman Jacques-Henri Lartigue, “I have always been a painter.” Yet I look at his paintings and his photographs and want to tell him, “ No, you are a photographer.” In spite of training at the renowned Academie Julian in Paris, in spite of numerous exhibitions, Lartigue was never able to convince tout Paris that he was meant to be a painter. In the event, Lartigue (1894-1986) is remembered as one of the 20th century's preeminent photographers.
When Madeleine Messager married Jacques-Henri Lartigue on December 17, 1919, it seemed a perfect match. They were both young, beautiful, and full of a joie de vivre that we associat, in retrospect, with the Jazz Age or, as the French call it, Les Annees Folles (The Crazy Years). In him, restless energy had yet to find the right outlet. In her, it was both more joyful and more serene. He described her later as being “wonderful, joyful, intelligent, and curious ... " Perhaps it was the difference in their backgrounds that gave her the stronger anchor. Her father was Andre Messager, a respected orchestral composer and the director of the Paris Opera. . Lartigue was just the son of a wealthy family of industrialists. Their son Dani was born August 23, 1921, and a daughter Veronique was born in1924, but lived only a few months. (Photo - Bibi on their honeymoon at Chamonix, 1920).
An elegant couple, Jacques and Bibi participated in the bustle of the 1920s. We know that Lartigue was fascinated by creative couples from his admiration for the film director Sacha Guitry and his wife, actress Yvonne Printemps. From north to south, their destinations were intended to spark Lartigue's paintings ( Etretat, Deauville, the Basque Coast, Biarritz, Mont Blanc, the French Riviera) and it seems unkind to point out that the spark emanates from the adventurous Bibi.
From the time he was a boy, Lartigue took pictures constantly, documenting a life of fun, speed, and glamor, and also creating a series of characters out of his female companions, most memorably his first wife In an inversion of the Gombrich maxim: he looked at Madeleine Messager and saw Bibi Lartigue. And yet, after reading Kevin D. Moore's recent (2004) biography Jacques-Henri Lartigue: The Invention Of An Artist the reader knows no more about Madeleine/Bibi than when they started, not even the dates when she was born or when she died.
Aesthetically, Lartgue was caught between Scylla and Charybdis. If his painting had been more competent, a comparison to that of his friend Kees van Dongen would not have been invidious. If his sun-washed autochrome photographs had been paintings, they would have looked too good to be true, lacking the authority of reality behind them.
Yet he seemed to live a charmed life, skating along its surface like a water beetle. If his circumstances during the 1930s were shabby, he sought to downplay life in the twenties. When they arrived a Nice in May of 1920, they styaed first with relatives before taking up residence at the Eden Roc. He didn't even know the owner of Chateau de La Garoupe when he went to paint there, he knew one of the gardeners. When they were at Cannes with their friend Arlette Boucard, Lartigue emphasized that the spectacular house belonged to Arlette's father, no man of leisure but the hard-working Dr. Boucard, When the Lartigue family fortune was severely diminished by the stock market crash of 1929, Lartigue refused to compromise his ideas or give up his liberty to earn a living. (Photo - Bibi in their amilcar, 12 September 1927)
Around 1927 when Jacques gave up color for black and white photography, Bibi stopped smiling for the camera. Bibi appeared doubtful about their life together. Did she doubt his love or his talent as a painter? We know that she left him shortly after the vacation at Megeve and that they were divorced in 1931. We also know that he met the beautiful Romanian model Renee Perle in March of that year. For the man who loved women, after two years with Renee, there would be others - Marcelle, called Coco, and his third wife Florette - none of them were the person that Bibi was. As for Madeleine Messager Lartigue, she made a life for herself away from the camera.
For further reading: The Autochromes of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, published in 1981 by the Viking Press, edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
All photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Ministere de la Culture, Paris.
Bibi Lartigue at the Eden Roc, Hotel Cap d'Antibes, Nice, 1920.
Bibi Lartigue in the Park at Chateau de la Garoupe, Cap d'Antibes, 1920.
Bibi Lartigue sitting on the beach at Etretat, 1920.
Bibi Lartigue and friends on the beach at Nice, mid-1920s.
Bibi Lartigue - Spring, 1926.
Bibi Lartigue and an unidentified friend, Nice, c.1927.
Bibi Lartigue on the Ile de Saint-Honorat, Cannes, 1927.