26 February 2015

Laure Albin-Guillot: Art and Desire

Of all the French contributors to modern art, arguably none have had a more far-reaching impact than its photographers.   Photographers took the lead in cross-pollinating with other media - literature, painting,  film, etc., and in the process energized as they were by advances in camera technology,  anything seemed possible.

Also, importantly, Paris in the 1930s was a good place to be a woman photographer.   Denise Bellon, Therese Bonney, Florence Henri, Dora Maar, Lee Miller, and Lisette Model, all were successful there, regardless of where they were from originally.   Above them all, there was  Laure Albin-Guillot, her body of work  a search for new ways of seeing through the lens.
Laure Meifredy was born in Paris in 1879  and made her public debut in traditional female fashion when she was married in 1901 to Dr. Albin-Guillot, a specialist in microbiology.  Together they collected specimens of plants, animals, and crystals  and Laure began taking pictures of the weirdly wonderful structures revealed by the microscope.  As the spouse of a microbiologist, she undoubtedly had access to Johannes Kepler's pioneering book Micrographia (1665) on the complexity and uniqueness of each snowflake.  With her interest in photography she may even have been aware of the work of an American photographer, Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley, who began photographing  ice crystals in 1885.  Looking as both photographers work  it is easy to see why Germans coined the term Eisblumen or ice flowers
During  WWI Laure Albin-Guillot began to publish her landscape photos and in 1922 the French Revue of Photography awarded her its gold medal.  Her work appeared in magazines from Arts & Metiers Graphiques to Vogue and Vu, the magazine that inspired Henry Luce to found Life magazine in the U.S.  In 1925 Albin-Guillot had her first solo gallery exhibition.  Also that year she photographed the designers and architects who participated in the wildly successful and extremely influential International Exposition of Decorative Art.   It is intriguing to wonder if Albin-Guillot there crossed paths  with an American expatriate, Therese Bonney, founder of one of the earliest photo agencies (Agence Bonney) that specialized in architecture and design.  Like Bonney, she was determined to make Thea case for photography as art.

After the death of her husband in 1929, Alin-Guillot never remarried  but she published her first book Micrographie decorative (Draeger Freres, Paris: 1931), a tribute to their years of collaboration over the microscope,  to immediate international acclaim.  Her micro-photographs, as she called them, struck a chord with constructivists, surrealists, and anyone interested in new discoveries in psychology.  By chance or choise,  Albin-Guillot had  chosen the perfect moment to change direction. Twenty unprecented images were the culmination of hundreds of hours of painstaking observation

Another new venture, just as complex but controversial, was photographing the nude.  Ablin-Guillot  had begun portrait photography in the early 1920s, often working from home, photographing her friends and neighbors. She also opened a studio in the rue de Ranelegh where she carried out her commissioned projects.
For her nude studies Albin-Guillot adopted a quasi-pictiorialist style, by now safe and even conservative, for images that she knew would provoke a frisson  when their creator was a woman.  And, interestingly, there has  been speculation ever since about her relationships with her male models. Controversial, yes, but like her micro-photography, a critical success.  Her reputation was such that Albin-Guillot had no trouble finding a variety of stunning models or partners for book projects. 
For La cantate de Narcisse (1936) she worked with longtime friend, the symbolist poet Paul Valery.  The Symbolists had had a decades-long fascination with the myth of Narcissus, redolent  of beauty and interiority, of the self engaged in a search for its soul.  Albin-Guillot chose to photograph her male nudes against a palimpsest of otherworldly shreds of vegetation and water.  In her vision the male is a always classical in aspect,sculpted by the photographer's lighting to recall Greco-Roman statuary,  

By the time Albin-Guillot illustrated La deesse Cypris (The Goddess Cypris) by Henry de Montherlant in 1946 she had  published many female nudes.  The nude had become a popular subject for women to photograph during the 1930s, Albin-Guillot's works suggest a  singularly  simpatico or woman to woman relationship with her models. Hers are images of collaboration between artist and model, rather than the appropriation of a woman by a male artist.  Their hands are as expressive as  faces, whether the face is turned away from the center of the image or  even withheld altogether,  the viewer  receives an impression of a unique personality.   Typically, Albin-Guillot photographed her female models against a solid featureless background.  The lighting was carefully placed to do the work of a chisel; we know from several extant sketches that the  photographer plotted these aspects with geometric precision. I see a new level of the emancipation of female sensuality in these admittedly idealized images.

"immense scope
shirks his responsibility by
by this withdrawal
shows that any
is a lie"
  " Nudite" from  Le reste du voyage, La lumière du noir by Bernard Noel,  Points Le Seuil 2006, p.157 (translation mine)

["immense étendue
se dérobe
en elle- même
par ce retait
que toute possessions
est monsonge." ]

During the inter-war period, known in France as Les Annees Folles (The Crazy Years), nervous energy was the engine driving art; not so much the energy of machines as was the case in Italy where futurist art goried in the replacement of human energy by modern technology. Think of the current buzz over the idea of robotics replacing human energy and you get the idea.

Her energies not completely depleted by her own work, Albin-Guillot worked to secure official government recognition and support for photography, serving as the first Archivist of Photography at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1933.  During the same year she helped to found the Cinematheque nationale in a new architectural complex, the Palais de Chaillot decorated with quotations by ehr friend Valery, where she envisioned a home for a museum of photography.  That last had to wait for the end of WWII.  She organized  an International Exhibition of Contemporary Photography at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in 1936.  A member of Union feminien des cariieres liberales et commerciales, Albin-Guillot as its president single-handedly organized  an exhibition of European women artists in 1937 at the Jeu de Paume.   The Jeu de Paume, originally built to house the tennis courts of Napoleon III, is now home  to one of several museums in Paris devoted to photography.   Even World War II did not deter her work. Her photos of artworks being packed up and spirited out of the Louvre to safety are poignant historical documents and the publication of her book of love Splendour of Paris in 1945 after the war's end earned her the gratitude of her fellow citizens. 

In 2013  the museum mounted a multi-gallery  retrospective Laure Albin-Guillot: L'enjeu classique,  Yes, Albin-Guillot excelled at images of classical perfection as the exhibition reminds us but, as even the curators acknowledge, her work encompassed so much more:  science, current events, and even ground-breaking work in advertizing.

Finally, I cannot resist the temptation to point out the obvious similarity between Albin-Guillot's 1935 portrait of Andre Gide in his study to I Lock my Door Upon Myself painted in 1891 by the Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff,  Khnopff the symbolist and his work were well known in Paris in the circles that Albin-Guillot frequented.   Both men were admired in their time for the hints of perversity scattered throughout their work.  In Khnopff's case there was an undertone  of incest, not unfamiliar to a culture whose founding work of theatrical art was Le Cid.  And Gide, especially during his lifetime, was known as the creator of  l'act gratuit in his 1914 novel Les caves du Vatican (in English Lafcadio'a Adventures), an example of energy gone crazy resulting in an act of senseless violence.

For further reading:
Laure Albin-Guillot ou La volonte d'art by Christian Bouqueret, Marval, Paris: 1996.

Images: unless otherwise noted, Laure Albin-Guillot, photographer, Colletcion Roger-Violett, Paris.
Micrographie in black and white, c. 1929.
Illustration for Narcisse, 1936.
Nude study, c. 1940.
Nu  masculin, 1936, Pompidou Center, Paris.
Nu feminine, 1938, Pompidou Center, Paris.
Andre Gide, 1935.
Fernand Khnopff - I Lock My Door Upon Myself, 1891, Neue Pinakoteck, Munich.

Study for La Cantate de Narcisse, 1936.

Study for La Cantate de Narcisse, 1936.

Packing Venus de Milo at the Louvre Museum, 1940.

Publicity photo for la pommade-vaccin Salantale, c. 1942.

Facade of the Palais de Chaillot, from Splendour de Paris, 1945.