Chance would be
a beautiful thing
make it reign fall
downpour a deluge
and after the storm
a reverent silence
before starting up
and over again
to begin afresh
casting of die
turning of cards
flipping of coins
drawing of straws
moving of pieces
swayed by chance.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 opened Japan’s ports again to foreign trade after 200 years of international isolation. Soon Japanese art and artefacts found their way to Paris and London which resulted in a craze known as Japonisme. Ukiyo-e, particularly the works of the masters, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro, would have a profound effect upon the first of all modern art movements, Impressionism.
Utamaro was renowned for his psychologically astute portraits of courtesans. Employing sophisticated compositional techniques of partial views, striking mannerism and subtle gradients of light and shade, Utamaro was collected by many luminaries of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, notably Degas, Gaugain and Toulouse-Lautrec. The serenity of his female studies were clearly a major influence on the ground-breaking female artist Mary Cassett.
Utamaro, like every ukiyo-e artist produced a large body of shunga. His sensitivity to female beauty combined with the intimacy and tenderness of many of the scenes portrayed rank among the finest examples of erotic art.
Utamaro-Three Beauties of the Present Day
Takashima Ohisa using two mirrors to observe her coiffure night of the Asakusa Marketing Festival
Else Ernestine Neulander-Simon, known simply by her professional pseudonym, Yva, was a pioneering female photographer of the Weimar Republic. She set up her first studio in 1925 and briefly collaborated with the experimental photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke (see Dreams of Desire 54 (Written on the Body) before a copyright dispute led them to part ways. Initially focused on nude, portrait and fashion photography, Yva was one of the first photographers to fully realise the commercial application of the field to advertising. Her Berlin atelier was one of the most successful of its days and employed 10 assistants by the time Hitler came to power.
Yva and her husband Alfred Simon, who managed the financial affair of the studio, were both Jewish and considered for some time whether to emigrate from Germany, especially when she was forced to ‘Aryanize’ the business in 1936 (a law had come into effect that forbade Jews from owning businesses, necessitating the transfer of the company to her friend, the art historian Charlotte Weider). There was the possibility of a fresh start as Life magazine had informed her that a job was waiting for her when she came to America. However Alfred was unwilling to start over again in a country where they didn’t even speak the language and thought maybe the situation in Germany would improve. Things certainly didn’t and the business was closed for good by 1938. Yva went to work as a radiographer in the Jewish Hospital in Berlin until 1942 when she was arrested, along with her husband, by the Gestapo and deported to Majdanek concentration camp where they were murdered shortly after.
As an interesting aside one of Yva’s apprentice’s from 1936 to 1938 was a young Jewish boy named Helmut Neustädter, who after escaping Germany would later change his name to Helmut Newton, creator of some of the most iconic fashion photography and celebrity portraits of the twentieth century.
As regulars visitors will know, I have an unending fascination with the romance and creative collaboration between Man Ray and Lee Miller. I recently discovered this wonderful and wittily titled photograph of Lee taken by Man Ray in The Lives of Lee Miller written by her son Antony Penrose.
Man Ray work frequently featured the technique of light patterns upon the body and face, a striking way to render the familiar unfamiliar and by doing so adding an extra erotic allure, which was the essence of the Surrealist attitude to desire.
When British Vogue sent staff over to Man Ray’s Montparnasse studio in 1929 they were greeted by his new assistant, who was also doubling up as his receptionist, Lee Miller. She was ‘…a vision so lovely they forgot why they had come.’
Lee Miller had left her very successful modelling career in New York at the age of 21 to become a photographer in Paris, then the centre of the art world. She had set her sights on learning the craft from her fellow American, the pioneering photographer, film-maker and painter Man Ray. Approaching him in a cafe she told him her name and that she was his new student. Man Ray answered that he didn’t take students and besides he was going to Biarritz the next day. Miller answered that is where she was going too. Man Ray, unsurprisingly, was captivated and they did indeed go to Biarritz, the start of an incredibly intense artistic and romantic relationship.
Man Ray soon realised her talent and their artistic relationship was reciprocal. It was Miller who, by letting in the light on the darkroom, discovered the technique of solarization (see Dreams of Desire 31 (Solarization)) that became a Man Ray trademark. In fact it is hard sometimes to distinguish their work from this period apart, as Miller herself commented, “We were almost the same person when we were working.”
Self Portrait is from the period immediately after the bitter break-up of 1932 (see Dreams of Desire 12 (The Lovers)). The classical pose generates a muscular tension that accentuates her astounding beauty. As an aside, there exists a brand of champagne glass shaped from a mould of Miller’s left breast.