Frick photo exhibit explores Parisian privilege in early 20th century
“Fast Cars and Femmes Fatales,” opening Feb. 6 at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze, offers a glimpse into Parisian high society in the first half of the 20th century, as seen through the lens of Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986).
The exhibit of 135 photographs taken from 1907 to 1958 features personal snapshots of speeding cars, fashionable women of the Belle Epoque and ice skaters caught midair.
“In some ways, you feel like you’ve walked into a movie of this period and you are looking at frames,” says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum.
In many ways, that’s true.
In these intriguing black-and-white images, the subjects’ personalities come through, and the clothes look like costumes rather than everyday outfits.
“They’re in these situations that feel like you are infringing on some sort of narrative that’s happening, some sort of escapade or caper,” Hall says. “It’s a lot of fun.”
One of the earliest images visitors come to, “Zissou, Rouzat, 1911,” features Lartigue’s older brother Maurice in a “rubber pocket” typically used for duck hunting. “In the hand of the Lartique brothers, it takes on a sort of more playful quality,” Hall says.
Born into a wealthy, glamorous French family, the two were fascinated by cars, aviation and sports in vogue; Jacques Lartigue used his camera to document them all. As he grew up, he continued to frequent sporting events, participating in and recording elite leisure activities such as skiing, skating, tennis and golf.
He also became a better photographer, Hall says, “capturing the speed and vivacity of life.”
“The idea of somebody doing this on their own was pretty unusual,” Hall says. “The capabilities of cameras were improving at pace with his interest in photography.”
Lartigue was introduced to photography as early as 1900 by his father, Henri Lartigue, who gave him his first camera in 1902, when he was 8 years old.
From then on, Lartigue recorded incessantly the world of his childhood, from automobile outings and family holidays to inventions by his brother Maurice (nicknamed Zissou).
Several of the photographs feature Bibi, Lartigue’s first of three wives who was the daughter of the French composer Andre Messager and feted Irish opera singer Hope Temple. They met in 1919, and many of the images on display reflect their active courtship, which was filled with leisure-time activities.
“She is outgoing, vivacious and into all of the new things that were happening,” Hall says, pointing to a photograph of Bibi at a beach.
Also on display are several images taken from fashionable strolls down the boulevards of France, such as “The Pradvina. Bois de Boulogne Avenue. Paris, January 1911,” in which a woman wrapped in furs walks two tiny dogs down a promenade.
“He can take these pictures because, obviously, he is a part of this world,” Hall says. “He’s always a little bit more of an observer than a participant.”
Surprisingly, Lartigue did not achieve widespread recognition for his photographs until he was in his late 60s, when seminal Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski became enchanted by Lartigue’s work and mounted a major exhibition.
As a result, Lartigue ended up with a feature in Life magazine in the November 1963 issue — the same one with coverage of the Kennedy assassination. That meant his images were suddenly widely seen.
Still, these earlier images of Lartigue’s oeuvre contain, and continue to promote, the idea of the photographer as a blithe amateur, unconcerned with the demands and fashions of the art market.
Although best known as a photographer, Lartigue was a fairly good painter, as evidenced by the image “My portrait. Rouze, July 1923,” in which Lartigue can be seen painting a self-portrait while looking in a mirror, humorously enough, outdoors, on a grassy lawn.
“He often showed up in the official salons in Paris and in the south of France,” Hall says.
Lartigue was friends with a wide selection of literary and artistic celebrities, including playwright Sacha Guitry, singer Yvonne Printemps, painters Kees van Dongen and Pablo Picasso and artist-playwright-filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
Many pictures of Guitry are also on display, as well as a few widely recognizable shots of Picasso. They help flesh out the story of a life well lived — one filled with good friends, a loving family and lots of fun times.
“It’s an exhibition that unlocks history in a vivid way, because you see these personalities and get a sense of who they were,” Hall says. “Seeing them in this milieu, these snapshots not only give you a sense of immediacy, but that these were real people.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at [email protected].