Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) au Jeu de Paume

Erwin Blumenfeld, The Picasso Girl, 1941-42

So many fashion photographers end up selling their creative soul to the jaws of commercial demands, sacrificing all trace of experimentation to meet the needs of advertising the client and to feed the bank balance. Not Erwin Blumenfeld. Until the very end of his career, he was able to incorporate creative flair into otherwise generic advertising images, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar’s covers, as well as the films he made for the Dayton department store in Minneapolis. The current exhibition of his work at the Jeu de Paume shows a lifetime of Blumenfeld’s work, an oeuvre that is always looking and searching for the vanguard of photography. In fact, some might even argue that the fashion photography is among his most exciting work.
Erwin Blumenfeld, Self-Portrait, 1945
The exhibition is curated by a leading scholar of modern German photography, Ute Eskildsen of the Museum Folkwang in Essen. The sophistication of Eskildsen’s knowledge of the period in which Blumenfeld was working, together with her experience as a curator, shows in what is a revellatory hanging of his work. The photographs are organized generically, moving from the pre-photographic montages and drawings, through portraiture, nudes, architecture to fashion. Thus, rather than following chronological development, we are witness to how different subject matter enables Blumenfeld to bring out the singularity of what was, at the time, this relatively new medium of photography.
Erwin Blumenfeld, Three Profiles, 1952
From the beginning Blumenfeld experiments. He explores light, reflections through the use of mirrors, shadows, darkness, always intensifying the schism between the positive and negative of a photographic image. In some works, he moves far beyond chiaroscuro to blackening out the entire ground, until in 1952, the face in profile is reduced to an outline of coloured light. In Three Profiles, the negative and positive photographic print cannot be distinguished, the two are here brought together.  This theme of the negative and positive, inside and outside, opposites in a single image – is extended beyond the formal to the complexity of the person in the portraits. From the beginning Blumenfeld finds the female form in the male body, the inanimate in the human, the grotesque in the beautiful. Blumenfeld achieves this through overlaying multiple negatives, combining different elements in the darkroom, thus creating a montage in the process of photographic production.
Erwin Blumenfeld, Voile Mouillé, 1937
Blumenfeld is truly interested in the female form: it’s not an academic exercise. And all of the screening and masking, the various techniques and ruses of composition used to hide or complicate the form, serve to emphasize the form of the figure and depose the identity of the sitter. When he comes to photograph buildings, they resemble the portraits. That is to say, the light is magnificent in its use to bring out the form and structure. Again he uses double exposures, and manipulations of light to abstract the buildings to convince us that form is itself an artistic creation, just as if it were the female body.The final fashion photographs are sumptuous. We see Blumenfeld’s fascination with light transform into a dexterity with colour. He maintains the use of mirrors, privileges over and under exposure, to create figures that are spectres of their selves, or fragmented by a camera that replicates them without original.
Erwin Blumenfeld, Hitler with Bleeding Eyes and Mouth, c. 1953
Throughout the exhibition I felt Blumenfeld’s photographs always to be disturbing. In the early collages he includes images of soldiers, and other icons of war, even if fragmented, as a way to protest the violent ripping apart of his country and his people. And in response to National Socialism, he made an images of Hitler with bleeding eyes, and another of a skull superimposed on a portrait in what are now darkly prophetic images. Everywhere in Blumenfeld’s images there are distortions, double exposures, superimpositions, uses of light and mirrors to create screens, fractures. And then there are broken images, like Broken Mirror Nude, 1947. The text says that these works are playful and clever but for me, they are filled with trauma and a sense of being eternally fragmented. It’s difficult not to read the images as somehow reflective of Blumenfeld’s broken biography. As a German Jew he was literally hunted from one country to another, always trying to get away from the Nazis until he reached New York towards the end of the war. Without detracting from the intelligence and creative innovation of these photographs, the violence and drama appears to extend way beyond the technical and formal levels. To me all of these photographs, but particularly the portraits, tell the story of someone who carried the troubling scars of anti-Semitic persecution throughout his life.

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