IN SEARCH OF BEAUTY
It is very unfortunate that today Baron de Meyer’s artistic photography is so ignored by photographers. Much of the innovations he brought to photography influenced much of the photographic work being done in studios can be traced to him.
“A dead society can only be judged by its relics. Capitalism fecundated by aesthetism, on the other hand, has given birth to some marvelous, golden-hoofed black sheep, whose exquisite follies ( like the fantastic creations of Beckford or Ludwig of Bavaria) enchant us. These black sheep were sheperd by Oscar Wilde, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Diaghilev in pastures glittering with Venetian mosaics and flowered with the Savonnerie carpets of the Ritz hotels. Such creatures were concerned solely with the creation of Beauty and remained its incarnation in the eyes of several generations following their own. Their place is somewhere between fiction, whose conventions were to narrow to contain them, and history, in which they no longer had any place.” Pilippe Jullian
THE ELEGANT PHOTOGRAPHER AND THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF ELEGANCE
Who is he talking about? He is talking about the gilded black sheep: Proust’s muse the Comtesse de Grefulhe, the Marchesa Casati, Ida Rubinstein, Sarah Bernhardt, society and mundane icons that are still pretty much alive in the minds of art , fashion, photography lifestyle enthusiasts. They were portraited continuously by the artists à la mode: from Sargent to Dalì, from Boldini to Van Dongen to my favorite, Christian Bérard.
THE BOLDINI OF PHOTOGRAPHERS
The early 1900’s where times during which society ladies preferred to be portrayed by painters rather than be immortalized by photography, too realistic for their tastes. They preferred to hide behind the mystery which a painting by Boldini promised. Baron de Meyer’s style transformed reality into a beautiful fantasy, instilling magic in his works with the use of soft focus lens and ethereal lighting, charming these reluctant ladies into posing in front of his camera and becoming the photographer every socialite wanted for her portrait. “ He brought out the delicacy of attractive detail and ignored the blemishes that were unacceptable…he produced Whistlerian impressions of sunlight on water, of dappled light through trees.” Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion. He was for society what Cecil Beaton later became for the Royals.
HE SAW IT ALL
Adolph “ Gayne” de Meyer, was born to a French mother and German father, in 1868 and died in 1946. His long life is like a book on social, political and cultural events that contrasted with each other so much in such a short time (50 years ). He lived through most of the somber Victorian era, and enjoyed the graces of the Belle Époque, he survived the atrocities of WWI to witness the Jazz age, then again experienced the Great Depression and another terrifying World War.
Most of all, he played his role as an artist in a world of rapidly changing fashions. Divergent fashions coexisted until the end of First World War. Each coutourier freely designed inspired by different sources. Doeuillet revisited the Second Empire style while Poiret was attracted to Orientalism.
A SUCCESSFUL WHITE MARRIAGE
If it is true that behind a great man there is always a great woman, in the de Meyers’ case the woman was Olga Caracciolo, the ultra-fashionable, more chic than beautiful, daughter of an Italian prince but suspected daughter of the future King of England, Edward VII. Connections are relevant for an artist and his wife since 1899 opened a lot of golden doors behind which was to be included the title of Baron. Gayne and Olga were a successful couple that never consummated their marriage but nonetheless were extremely close until the unhappy end.
FOLLOWING THE TRAILS OF THE ORIENT EXPRESS
The couple’s travelling followed the Orient Express route without ever actually stepping on the Grand Hotel on wheels.
Together they created a life surrounded by the Tout-Chic of the era. In their Cadogan Gardens house in Edwardian London they entertained cosmopolitan socialites and actors with concerts, luncheon parties and fancy-dress balls. Painters such as Sargent al were frequent guests. As was, more secretly, the King.
Each September, during the Belle Époque, the de Meyes rented Palazzo Balbi-Valier on the Grand Canal. Of course they met Marchesa Casati with whom they planned several lavish and exotic (in one case even macabre) dinner parties. Baron de Meyer portrayed the fiercely eccentric Italian icon in 1912, and her portrait with a cigarette holder in hand leaning toward the photographer over the back of a chair smiling in her “anti-Gioconda” fashion, was found on Gabriele D’Annunzio’s, her lover, deathbed. The Marchesa wrote him a dedication accompanying the portrait. “ Flesh is merely the spirit bethroted to Death.” She posed for several portraits in front of de Meryer’s camera. In Venice they were frequent guests at the Princesse Edmonde de Polignac’s palace and paid regular visits to Mariano Fortuny’s studio whose aesthetic atmosphere inspired Baron de Meyer.
When not in Venice, they rented a Yali boat on the Bosporous and lived in such luxury that suspects of them being German spies arose. He photographed the dilapidated beauties of decadent Constantinople and later of the picturesque Moroccan port of Agadir. A final pit-stop for some pictures in Spain was included in the their Grand Tour.
In Paris they disguised themselves for the Bals du Grand Paris that were held annually at the Paris Ópera House. Olga detested France.
PARIS AND THE BALLETS RUSSES
One of de Meyer’s most memorable works are the portraits taken of Nijinsky during the rehearsal of L’Aprés Midi D’un Faune performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, in May 29, 1912. His erotic dance – portrayed by the photographer and Debussy’s music raised a scandal whose echo can still be heard today. But those who followed the cult of Beauty where amazed. His pictures of the Ballets Russes still convey the impact Diaghilev’s ballet company had on Parisian society for 20 years.
The result of this photo shooting was a luxurious book printed in limited edition and sold at astronomic prices. Published by the great illustrator Paul Iribe, it included and essay by Jean Cocteau. “All these albums will sell like hot cakes”, declared the Ballets Russes’ impresario, Sergei Diaghilev. Just a few copies survive today, impossible to find. There should be a new edition of it coming soon, published at an exorbitant, but understandable, price by Steidl.
THE DE MEYERS IN AMERICA – FROM ARISTOCRACY TO THE GREAT NIJINSKY TO NIGHTGOWNS
At the break of the war, the de Meyers – still suspected of being German spies – yachted, penniless, to New York, a city they will come to detest as well. It must not be easy to start all over again in un unknown, unchic country, with no connections whatsoever. But soon the Vogue adventure will begin as well as modern fashion photography. He became the first highest payed photography of his time.
STEIGLITZ AND THE PHOTO SECESSION
In New York, Baron de Meyer joined a group of professionals lead by Alfred Steiglitz in the Photo-Secession, a movement dedicated to establishing photography as a recognized art form. The group that included Edward Steichen, exhibited at 291, Steiglitz’s gallery on Fifth Avenue, New York. It is believed that it was at one of these exhibitions that De Meyer met Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase.
At the beginning, America was not ready for the de Meyers. Emily M. Burbank wrote in Vanity Fair:
“They are essentially un-American products, opposed by tenure to everything we Americans deem established and conventional. They are patrons of the arts; they are artists by nature and practice: and they are romantic, not to say exotic. Figures in the social life of half a dozen countries abroad. They are distinctly what in France are termed originales, and someone has said of them that ‘they are posters for the latest whims of fashion’… If this be true, they are posters for fashion distinctly European and remote; hardly for those in prosaic New York. The chief characteristic if the de Meyers is un understanding of Beauty; a reverent worship of it, an instinctive rejection of everything not beautiful.”
Still, the couple managed to become arbiters of taste and manners and celebrities lined up to be portrayed by the French photographer and published in the pages of Vogue, the greatest authority on fashion.
“The Baron gave them all that aura of elegance bestowed by English chic, Slavic charm and Parisian dressmakers…the supreme skill with which the Baron made use of back-lighting created a poetic halo around the most ordinary people.” The dancer Irene Castle, the ex Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mary Pickford. He treated them all like Duchesses. His still lifes showed his talent in interior decoration.
ON THE NATURE OF CHIC
I always ask myself why it is that us Europeans try in every way to impose our idea of chic where it is not a necessity, more a desire, as much as it is in Europe. We are physically different, walk in different ways, our instinctive gestures are different, so why insist?. The same goes with style. Would you impose an ideal of European chic in Japan or in middle eastern countries? Each country has its identity which you can never really transform into a poor imitation of the original. Europe, on the contrary, has always been more open to other influences. It was, after all, the result of an empire that included for centuries, different cultures.
Japanese traditional clothing regularly appears in western fashion collections since the beginning of the 20th century. From Worth, Paquin, Poiret, Doucet, Mariano Fortuny to Yves Saint Laurent to the European success of Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yoji Yamamoto.
In the essay that accompanies the book “DeMeyer”, the art historian and biographer Philippe Julian writes:
“Chic made its appearance in the middle of the last century, invented by dandies for whom there was no art like that of making a fine display. It became the religion of Society, and it is a demanding religion, though, a constantly changing one. Its first law is to foresee new fashions without adopting them in advance (which would be termed “eccentricity”). The idea of chic is international, as was the idea of honor in the Middle Ages. Not all countries as we have seen, have the same talent for it…. and it would be too easy to say that masculine chic is English and feminine chic is French. Chic is not just a matter of clothes. It pervades everything-dealing at cards, serving a salad, choosing a motorcar and even the chauffeur’s livery buttons…Chic and snobbery both were born in changing society, and those who practiced it were less often aristocrats than people aping aristocracy…Chic was the Religion of Baron de Meyer.” Philippe Jullian
BEING CHIC: INBORN TALENT OR CULTURAL IDENTITY?
I’m not sure if we can relate chic to talent. It is much more than that. It is something that grows within you if you are exposed to it for enough time, like a photographer that wishes to capture on film the slightest bit of light during a dark night. His shutter must be kept open for a long time to be able to absorb it. To develop chic, you need to be exposed 24/7 to beauty in all its forms. Exposed to millennia of artistic developments in architecture, art, nature, literature, craftmanship, religion. That is why certain civilizations have developed their own typical and recognizable unique styles. Why did Ralph Lauren become so successfull? And Tommy Hilfiger? Because they interpreted to perfection American way of life, they did not try to integrate in their collections completely different cultures.
On the other hand, Cecil Beaton, who defined de Meyer as the Debussy of Photography said : “You can lead a woman to a Dior dress, but how she will look in it is another matter. Only personality creates style. Indeed, personality not only can impose its bizarre aspects on a period, but even, to some extent, creates the period itself. “ I think style and chic where much closer concepts than they are today. Wallis Simpson, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy, were indoubtly personalities with style and chic. But today, if a personality creates a style, it isn’t necessarily chic.
His pictorial style transformed photography into an art and changed the history of fashion representation in the 20th century. His melodramatic portraits and fashion shots became since 1914 a constant presence in Vogue, the most famous fashion magazine of the time to which he contributed also articles on the beau monde’s tastes and styles.
The best information on an artist is best found in the autobiographies of the people who have been close to him or to her. That is the fun I have in writing this blog. I open on my desk all the books I can think of that may mention the artist and start putting the pieces together in a more objective manner.
In Always in Vogue, Edna Woolman Chase dedicates a few pages on her relationship as his editor-in-chief for a decade:
“de Meyer had been a dilettante in photography for some years, but the pages of Vogue became the setting that developed and exhibited his talent. Like many a born artist, he effervesced into other fields, notably dress designing and interior decorating. He photographed for us fashions, society and celebrities; we also published exquisitely grouped and lighted still lifes.”
And Polly Devlin in Vogue, Book of Fashion Photography writes:
“De Meyer transformed fashion photography into being a full-time artistic occupation and a fashionable way of life….He wanted to create an ideal of feminine beauty, of softness, luxury and high romance. He created a glamorous and elaborate world, gleaming with reflected light, a world of lush textures and silvery fabrics…. His was a world in which women conformed to a mythology of femininity both out of the Belle Époque of Europe: Cocooned in luxury, protected from care, swaddled in furs and satines, these creatures appeared to have nothing more to do than wonder what fabric to choose what fitting, or what gown to wear to what social event. There is no hint of activity in his photographs: his women did not work, played no sports; they existed to be admired…they are statements about a society which finally existed only in a nostalgic vision.”
He captured in his photographs the mood of the times. The romance, delicate beauty, luxury , social ambition, the furious and exhausting activity of keeping pace with the changing world, the changing fashions. He suggested an idealized High Life, transformed in a sort of paradise.
THE END – NOT ALWAYS IN VOGUE
I hate unhappy endings and de Meyers’s last years unfortunately are a sad story to tell. His wife died tragically in an Austrian hospital, intoxicated by years of drug abuse. He never recovered and talked to his wives ashes for a long time.
Later in the years, when de Meyer, after jumping ship from Vogue to the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar tried to return, Mrs. Chase would recall his remorse and his attempt to walk back on his steps:
“When he was fired from Harper’s Bazaar, he came to see me and wanted very much to come back on Vogue. I felt shocked and a little sad. He seemed wasted somehow, and his grey hair, which had given him an elegant air, was dyed bright blue. We didn’t take him back, but it was not because of spite or a desire to get even. His place had been filled and we didn’t want anyone who, despite the fact that he had once been one of our big stars, was now known as a Bazaar personality. Also his work was sadly passé.”
Still she later recognizes that both Vogue and de Meyer helped one another in building their respective prestige.
He must have felt totally humiliated. I feel a lot of sympathy for the artist and the man. Mrs. Chase’s autobiography is one of the best I have read so far but it also saddens me how harsh the fashion universe can be. It was then, it still is today.
If de Meyer’s work was passé just a few years after the beginning of his career – and if we, today, look at his images with the contemporary eyes of a young photographer they would look passé to us too – could we agree with Susan Sontag, on what she says in her book “On Photography”:
“Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, the certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”
It is a pity that just a few of us know him ( I discovered him when I was looking for a photographic book on The Ballets Russes ) and that there is little literature on him but somehow I can see hints of his style in Paolo Roversi and Sarah Moon’s work. But maybe it’s my ignorant eye that is taking a really, really long shot. Some of the greatest artists, in every artistic field, knowingly or not, look at the past to build their own styles.
IN 2018 Baron de Meyer was celebrated with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York “Quicksilver Brilliance: Adolf de Meyer photographs”. In 2019, Louis Vuitton Editions published a book for its Fashion Eye collection, on his travels in Japan in the early 1900’s.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Adolph de Meyer wanted to be remembered as a “raconteur” who instead of words used lights, sensual poses, intimate artistic relationship with the model that conveyed a radiance and sparkle that enveloped her in a cloud of light.
The essay by Philippe Jullian is a thorough description of an extraordinary life, of the most fascinating personalities and the artistic qualities of a forgotten talent.
The book includes 65 photographs including his commercial works for Elizabeth Arden and his still lifes.
ALL THE PICTURES IN THIS POST ARE EXTRACTED FROM THE BOOK EXCEPT UNLESS OTHERWISE SPECIFIED.
|CURATED BY||ROBERT BRANDAU AND PHILIPPE JULLIAN|
|PUBLISHER||ALFRED K. KNOPF – NEW YORK|
|DATE OF PUBLICATION||1977|
|PRICE||€ 48,00 + PLUS SHIPPING|
|CONDITIONS||USED, GOOD. THE COVER IS TEARED ON THE TOP – NO MARKINGS, NO UNDERLINING|
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