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Vol. LXII, No. 48
 
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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Art

James A. Michener Art Museum
Photographers and Celebrities: “It’s Wonderful to be Famous as Long as You Remain Unknown”

Stuart Mitchner

“But you’re just a boy!” According to legend, that’s what Marilyn Monroe said when she first laid eyes on photographer Milton Greene, who replied, the story goes, “And you’re just a girl.” While Greene went on to become the most prolific photographic interpreter of the movie star, siren, sex symbol called Marilyn, his spontaneous “just a girl” suggests that he saw through the 20th-Century Fox phenomenon to the essential humanity of Norma Jean. And it’s the “girl” (or gamin) in Marilyn you see in the portrait by Greene that the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown is featuring in “Saving Face: Portraits from the Collection of Robert Infarinato,” which will be on view in the Fred Beans Gallery through March 15, 2009.

The “just a” exchange is worth keeping in mind when walking through an exhibit where most of the human subjects (and often the photographers themselves) are so famous that they compromise your perception of the work. It’s not only the preconceived notions of celebrity that might render the photographer’s art irrelevant; it’s what you make of the individual behind the famous name. Where or when or how does celebrity submit to art? And does it matter? Or, to put it crudely, what would you rather put on your wall or pay money to see — a brilliant portrait of a nonentity or a lesser work with a celebrated subject? And how much aesthetic value can be placed on seeing famous people with their guard down, “as they are,” or, as MTV would have it, “unplugged”?

Matisse: Two Views

With photographers such as Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Philippe Halsman, Edward Steichen, and Robert Frank, you’d think that the famous artist would trump the famous subject in “Saving Face,” but more often than not, it’s the other way around, or else it’s a draw. Both images of Matisse, one by Cartier-Bresson from 1954, one by Capa taken in 1950, are structured and composed in a way that belies the exhibit’s emphasis on “face.” Capa’s presents a side view of a heavy-set, white-bearded, sixtyish man in an open-collared white shirt, loose-fitting sweater vest, baggy pants, and sandals, a cigarette hanging from his lips. The floor of the smallish room, which has some painterly light coming through the shutters, is neatly carpeted with newspapers and the walls are blanketed with drafts of a work in progress, one large panel of which the artist seems to be sizing up with an extremely long pointer. If you disregard everything but the central figure and forget who and what he is (think “just a man”), you might be looking at a paunchy mathematics instructor pointing to an equation on a blackboard or a fisherman patiently fishing. Nice, but nothing special — except, of course, when you remind yourself that this version of “just a man” is Henri Matisse captured by the camera toward the end of his life working on a mural project for the Chapelle des Dominicains in Vence.

Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of Matisse, would have a special charm regardless of the identity of the man with the dove in his hand. In this case, the white-bearded painter is not standing at the center of the composition, but seated and not seated so much as submerged in a crowded field, an empty aviary above and behind his head, with another, rounder cage on which three doves are perched dominating the foreground. So striking is the effect, with the birds whitely looming, you might not notice at first that the man in the chair is sketching as he holds the dove. The light plays a more active role in this picture than it does in Capa’s, catching and delineating the cross-hatched design of the aviaries, enhancing the whiteness of the doves, and putting a gleam in the lenses of Matisse’s spectacles. You begin to notice other patterns as well, in the striped fabric of Matisse’s chair, in the drapery in the closet behind him. The photographer’s instinct for what he termed “the decisive moment” resulted in one of the richest images in the exhibit, one where the photographer has come as close as is humanly or technically possible to painting with the camera. No wonder, then, that, much to the chagrin of his admirers, Cartier-Bresson gave up photography for painting some 30 years before his death, declaring in 1973, “All I care about these days is painting — photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”

When Cartier-Bresson died in 2004, the obituaries mentioned his fondness for a thought attributed to Degas: “It’s wonderful to be famous as long as you remain unknown.” Insisting that he was “not an actor” and questioning the whole notion of “celebrity,” Cartier-Bresson wanted to work undercover, a secret agent of art rather than a celebrity photographing a celebrity. Perhaps that explains why he disappeared into the painter’s more private world.

In theory, the story behind a picture or a person should be no more significant or necessary to an appreciation of it than the backstory of a piece of music or a work of literature. Even so, with some exceptions, including Cartier-Bresson’s “painting” of Matisse and his doves, Ansel Adams’s Gottardo Piazzoni in His Studio, or Phillipe Halsman’s extraordinary portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, the criteria for most of the works in this show, along with Mr. Infarinato’s criteria as a collector, were the celebrity of the subject and common knowledge of their stories. To fully appreciate Elliott Erwitt’s photo of Simone de Beauvoir, it helps to know something about her Paris life with Jean-Paul Sartre and the Café les Deux Magots element she seems to be inhabiting as she gives someone (Sartre maybe?) a sly sideways look. The same qualification pertains to Robert Frank’s 1958 photo of Norman Mailer with a drink in his hand. The image has no particular redeeming aesthetic value beyond the stature of the photographer unless you know Mailer and his story, particularly around this, the Advertisements for Myself period. Nor can the portraits of Martha Graham, or JFK and Jackie circa 1955, compare, as works of photographic art, with the unknown subjects in “Saving Face,” including two of the only works in color (along with Greene’s Marilyn): Joyce Tenneson’s limpid pre-Raphaelite semi-nude beauty, Suzanne, and Jeanne Birdsall’s gum bichromate of Allyn 8 Yrs old.

Picasso, Naturally

It’s no surprise that “Saving Face” features three visions of Picasso, the most instantly recognizable artist celebrity of the century. Right away quibbles about fame go out the window. Here’s the eternal show-stealer laying claim to our attention again, even when he’s bringing up the rear, as in Robert Capa’s famous picture of a beautiful, smiling Francoise Gilot, who becomes a supporting player to the sly, knobby-kneed old rogue holding the umbrella over her head as if it were the very banner of his art. With Picasso on the scene, the creative spirit is sun and shadow, it’s everywhere, he’s like King Midas: everything his presence touches turns to art. Does it really matter whose playful idea it was, Picasso’s or the photographer Robert Doisneau’s, to place a pair of finger rolls like two hands in front of the painter as he sits before an empty plate, his own hands hidden; the rolls add a touch of Dadaesque Picasso whimsy to the otherwise standard cafe table still life of plate, wine bottle, glasses, salt shaker, tablecloth. And what a look Picasso’s shooting in the direction of (perhaps) some hapless waiter (the plate’s empty, remember). Doisneau is a wonderful photographer, but here he’s like a musician simply interpreting Picasso’s music.

Marilyn

Still, when I came out of the Michener into the light of day I wasn’t thinking about Picasso or Matisse, and it wasn’t Lotte Lenya, Mother Teresa, or even Halsman’s amazing portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, or the classic photos of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughan, that haunted me and followed me home. It was “just a girl,” Marilyn, in the photograph from Milton Greene’s “Peasant Series.” For all my carping about celebrity vs. anonymity and what is and isn’t art, can it be that the pretty, simply dressed woman sitting on the curb on what looks to be a European street would stay in my mind if I didn’t know Marilyn’s story? Does it matter, knowing she had less than ten years to live or that the street was actually on the backlot at 20th-century Fox, the set for What Price Glory, or that the sweater, skirt, and sabots were part of the costume worn by Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, or that the “peasant” theme was meant to help Marilyn prove that she could move from the sex-symbol stereotype into more serious roles? No, it doesn’t matter, at least not enough to explain the power and poignance of the picture. Subtract everything you know about Marilyn Monroe from this image and she would still get to you. Whether she’s being filmed or photographed, the camera loves this woman, this girl.

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