New York

Gisele Freund

Sidney Janis Gallery

While historical figures are only an invisible presence in Atget’s photographs, in Gisele Freund’s they are the subject. Three quarters of the show at Sidney Janis were portraits, and of these the most remarkable part was a group of three dozen color studies of France’s most celebrated artists and intellectuals—Gide, Malraux, Paul Eluard, Duchamp, Cocteau, de Beauvoir, Sartre, André Breton, Louis Aragon, et al.—photographed in either 1938 or 1939. Talk of France between the wars! What a flabbergasting document this set of photographs was. If I were a collector, to own any one of these portraits wouldn’t mean much to me. But to own the whole set—now that would be something.

As photographs per se, they are not much. The pale, faintly tinted look of the color, as if all the prints were on some non-absorbent surface like metal, is at most a curiosity now. It’s quaint, like player pianos in the age of stereos. Nor do I see in Ms. Freund a very inspired portraitist. She worked always at the same range with the same lighting and had two or three basic poses that she used. “Put your knuckles to your chin, please.” “Cap the side of your head with your hand.” “Now try touching your thumb to your lips . . . No, don’t put down your cigarette while you do it.” Thank you. If you want a standard of comparison, take a look at what Berenice Abbott did with much the same cast of characters a decade or so earlier. All Freund’s pictures of Sylvia Beach put together aren’t equal to the one portrait Abbott did of her in what appears to be (of all things) a plastic raincoat.

But I don’t mean to complain about the regimentation of the poses and the sameness of the color in Freund’s portraits. On the contrary, their uniformity is what makes them such extraordinary documents. Here on the eve of World War II is a dazzling company of geniuses, each with his own, idiosyncratic view of the world. Yet the portraits reduce them all to a single stereotype. At that moment the course of events in Europe was doing much the same thing, rendering distinctions in thought and vision irrelevant. This imparts to Freund’s portraits a pitiful beauty they could only have had in retrospect. Their sameness makes us think of the photos that are affixed to identity cards, or to dossiers in a file of undesirable social elements—future deportees—maintained by Gestapo headquarters.

You could say that the France of the period between the wars was created by the people in Freund’s portraits. If one wanted to find a source book for that period more satisfactory than the magazine Photographie on which the Zabriskie show was based, the place to look might be another magazine with an even smaller circulation, La Revolution Surrealiste. That is where Atget’s photographs were published. We might even take Atget’s publication there as a convenient terminus a quo, a starting point from which the photography of France between the wars can be dated. The founder-editor of La Revolution Surrealiste was of course André Breton, who appears once again among Freund’s portraits along with half the other luminaries of the art world in France. Because of the standardized pose Freund elicited from each subject, all look calm. (Indeed Cocteau, always unable to resist a prank, looks as if he’s asleep.) Despite the historical situation, everybody continues to meditate upon life without visible concern. The only one who looks worried is Walter Benjamin. But then he probably looked that way all the time. As concerned as the others were inside, it must have been hard not to feel that even now Benjamin, with his perpetual gloominess and bad judgment in his own affairs, was exaggerating their jeopardy.

The year after Freund’s portrait, the Gestapo confiscated Benjamin’s apartment in Paris and his personal library. On September 26, 1940, en route to New York via Lisbon, an emergency exit visa Benjamin had obtained in Marseilles was not honored at the Spanish border. Detained overnight on the French side with other refugees, Benjamin killed himself. If Atget’s pictures were a terminus a quo, Benjamin’s suicide was the terminus ad quem for the France that had existed between the wars. It was an end to all the French culture of that period, photography included.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.