The three main conventions underpinning ...(the) images -- personal experience, a sublime vision of the natural world and an interest in the transient effects of light and shade to help depict and dramatize it -- have long-term importance in 19th-century French art. They inform not only Barbizon paintings but also many aspects of naturalistic landscape painting and arguably, even some strands of Impressionism.
-- Steven Adams The Barbizon School and the Origins of Impressionism
"Gustave Le Gray: 1820 to 1884" is an exhibition not to be missed. This illuminating show of photographs by one of the most important yet obscure photographers of the 19th century continues at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles through Sept. 29, 2002. The show has been beautifully organized by the Getty's associate curator of photography, Gordon Baldwin, and is a pared-down version of the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Le Gray's work to date, curated by Sylvie Aubanas for the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris earlier this year. A substantial catalogue, translated from the French and supervised by Baldwin, accompanies this exhibition.
This is the kind of show that the Getty does best, and, reveals the museum's longstanding commitment to the history of photography. The museum has had significant holdings of Le Gray since 1984, when the Getty, shortly after the death of founder J. Paul Getty, whose collection had specialized in classical and Renaissance art, made headlines (and instantly became a principal player in the photography arena) by purchasing the collection of Sam Wagstaff.
Le Gray's work has begun to come into public awareness only recently, with the first monograph on the photographer published by Eugenia Parry Janis in 1987-88. Janis' interest in Le Gray was piqued as a post-doctoral student at Harvard in the early 1970s, when while spending a year in Paris she was fortunate to meet Wagstaff, who brought the work to her attention.
At that time, it was Wagstaff who was single-handedly scouring French flea markets and obscure auction houses for images by this virtually forgotten artist. Wagstaff, who had recently inherited his fortune and was a close friend of Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, both of whom helped form his esthetic sensibilities, decided to make photography the main focus of his collecting. He was struck by what he perceived as the modernity of Le Gray's work and the grandeur of its scope. He took Eugenia Parry Janis along on many of these expeditions and thus the scholarship on this artist began.
Janis also commenced her association with the French photography dealer and scholar Andre Jammes at that time, and pioneered a collaborative study with him of the earliest French photography that used paper negatives, a process perfected and taught by Le Gray. Their collaboration is one of the earliest in this area of photography and became the genesis for the important book, The Art of the French Calotype (Princeton, 1983). Marie Therese and Andre Jammes also bought Le Gray's work as a result of Wagstaff's enthusiasm.
When the Jammes Collection went up for auction at Sotheby's London in 1999, a Le Gray photograph from ca. 1855, The Great Wave, sold for over $838,000, becoming the most expensive vintage photograph at auction. In fact, the Getty purchased over 90 photographs by Le Gray from the Jammes Collection. That expanded on the images that the museum had already acquired from the Wagstaff collection, making the Getty's holdings of Le Gray second only to that of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (to which Le Gray himself had donated many of his most important images, shortly before leaving Paris for the exile of his final years).
The Getty has been continually adding to its collection of Le Gray whenever the opportunity arises. This exhibition combines both these collections with the work of other private and public lenders (Gilman Paper has particularly wonderful examples of Le Grays). Many of the images, including the newly discovered photographs made during the last 25 years of the photographer's life, spent in exile in Egypt, are being seen in public for the first time.
Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884) has a biography that reads like a romantic work of fiction, and a sad one at that. A contemporary of Felix Nadar, who called him a tortured soul, as well as Henri Le Sec, the Englishman Robert Fenton and Charles Negre, Le Gray was part of the pioneering generation of artists, many of whom were trained as painters, who created the language of this new medium.
He began life as the spoiled only son of well-to-do and indulgent parents. A compulsive spender, he climbed to the highest levels of artistic, critical and financial success only to squander his fortune, losing the confidence of his backers, abandoning his wife and children and ending his life destitute and in exile. In the process, Le Gray left behind some of the most spectacular images the 19th century produced in a medium which was to become the visual language of the next century.
Le Gray had a successful studio in Paris during the time of Napoleon III, who commissioned him to photograph his portrait, make nudes of his assorted mistresses (three of which are seen in this exhibition for the first time), as well as his wife, the Empress Eugenie and other members of his family. Ironically, though his studio at one point was one of the most successful of its era, with members of high society desperate to have their portraits painted by the dapper and erudite flaneur.
It is clear that had Le Gray remained a financial success, many of his most haunting and lasting images would not have been created. The portraiture that made him his fortune, though historically interesting because they capture many of the famous characters of the period, are not the images that most impress us today.
Trained as a painter, he always identified himself as such, yet no paintings of his have ever been discovered. It was in this new medium of photography that Le Gray was to make his mark. In fact his ambition was to merge science and art and he made many technical advances to the medium, perfecting the use of paper negatives, and writing several manuals on photography that were to train a new generation of photographers, who were to become more famous than he.
His early photographic work of distinction, particularly the close-ups of tree trunks and rocks in the forest of Fontainbleau, which became such a popular subject of this period (a photographic adjunct to the Barbizon School), were exquisite studies of dappled light and shade, as well as the architecture of natural form and were astonishing in their detail and subtlety. The work predates certain effects in Impressionism, as well as the work of later photographers such as Atget.
Le Gray had an eye for the structure of his compositions that looks decidedly modern in its directness and simplicity. He treated rows of trees like grand boulevards, and also made spectacular architectural photographs of Paris, documenting its transformation from a small medieval village into a major modern city of grand boulevards and dramatic vistas.
He considered himself rescued from his bankrupt business when he was invited by his friend, the novelist Alexander Dumas, to join a tour of the Mediterranean on his yacht undertaken to document Garibaldi's military battles. Le Gray abandoned his wife and children for this life as a nomad and created some of the most hauntingly romantic images of 19th-century photography, works that rival in impact the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Most unforgettable are Le Gray's breathtaking images of restless seas and clouds, battle scenes and ships on the horizon, and troops in battle or maneuvers in the field. Le Gray continued to wander on his own after Dumas returned to France. The exhibition ends with Le Gray's images of Egypt where he lived first as a drawing teacher to the children of the Egyptian ruler and later before his death in poverty, a virtually forgotten figure.
"Watch the horizon, watch the horizon. . . that's Le Gray," Sam Wagstaff wrote to Eugenia Parry Janis in a letter just before his death from AIDS in 1987. We can only be grateful to Wagstaff and those who followed him in bringing this sublime photography to light.
IRIT KRYGIER is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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