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by Max Henry
|She was the original "it" girl, a Florentine who became the toast of Parisian society at the tender age of 19. Beautiful and aristocratic, Virginia Oldoini (1837-99) became the Countess de Castiglione by virtue of an arranged marriage to Count Francesco Verasis de Castiglione. Her cousin, a minister to King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont, sent her to France secretly acting as an agent for the unification of Italy (still under the thumb of the Austrians), hoping her enticing presence and seductive powers would sway the court of Napoleon III.
Seduce she did. Fluent in several languages including an unaccented English, the Countess' combination of youth, beauty and brains made her the most talked-about woman in Paris salons -- not least because she became mistress to Napoleon within weeks of her arrival. Her marriage ended in separation and scandal, yet the extravagant lifestyle that bankrupted her indulgent husband gave birth to "La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione" -- a collection of 90 photographs and other works installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's second-floor Howard Gilman galleries.
The Countess Castiglione was a woman of multiple personalities -- Cleopatra crossed with Blanche Dubois. Her narcissism in regard to her own photographic image was a precursor to the self-portraits we've seen throughout the 20th century. Her idea was to re-enact her finest moments in life, right down to the ball gowns and costumes she wore. The Countess also took on personalities of theater and opera heroines, photographing herself in poses as if making a grand entrance.
Starting in 1856, at the height of the photographic boom that hit fashionable Paris, New York and London, the Countess made her first appointment to be photographed by the portrait studio of Mayer and Pierson. In addition to the standard portraits that were all the rage, the Mayer and Pierson studio specialized in hand-painted photos done in India ink, watercolors and oils. These had the richness of Persian miniatures and enhanced the effects of Castiglione's theatrical tableaus.
Pierre-Louise Pierson and the Countess would go on to collaborate on more than 400 portraits spanning more than three decades in her life. A risk-taker who flaunted the conventions of social propriety, she had her legs and feet photographed naked, a scandalous no-no back then -- only women of loose morals would pose in such fashion. Her legs were shapely and stocky, and viewed now look to be complete sculptural perfection.
Other images that show her best angles in front of a mirror, adding a bizarre layer to the affected projections of a schizophrenic person. When laying on a daybed, the heavy gowns she wears are billowy, covering a robust chubbiness, and her hair is pulled up to accentuate porcelain facial features and a far-away gaze. The repertoire of looks she gives range from coquettish and chaste to solicitous and saintly.
More than a sepia-seductress, La Divine Comtesse was an inadvertent innovator consumed with portraying herself as deity and muse to the world. She acted as stage director and lead actress, contractually imposing her will on accomplice Pierson; she had the final cut on all pictures that left the studio. Her artistic touch was more about getting it right for vanity's sake and posterity than out of any concern for the medium itself.
By late 1879 Countess Castiglione was a recluse. She would not relinquish the past. She only went out at night. She had known glorious triumphs and insufferable scandals and tragedy. (Her only child, Giorgio, who had sat for many portraits, died of smallpox). For many years she had been under the care of a renowned psychiatrist, and despite her many physical and mental ailments she continued to produce portraits throughout the 1890's.
The hair was thin and the teeth were gone, only the costuming was the same. The confident gaze is replaced by a deep sadness. Her Baroque grandeur has decayed into a listless parody of herself. One can almost hear a small still voice reciting, "mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest one of all" -- all to no avail...
In "Eugène Atget: The Pioneer" at the International Center of Photography, we see prints he made in 1899 were conventional street portraits of trade people -- bakers, a postman, a lamp-seller. Early on it was a way for him to get a handle on the medium and earn some money, learning as he went along.
Atget's métier, however, would not be people. It would be the places they occupied. Places that have, at certain sleepy hours of the morning or night, a life of their own -- cobblestone courtyards, public-squares and parks, shop-fronts and buildings.
Atget was the first modern photographer to see the value in shooting desolate public squares and winding back alleys. His natural talent for formal composition and straightforward style set the benchmark for establishing documentary photography as a high art.
Like a monk peacefully making his rounds, Atget would record the soul of the city. A series of photos show leafless trees as massive sculptural columns with branches and mounds of bulging roots popping up from the earth. Lush garden landscapes have a dewy air. Interior stairwells have a hard-edged cinematic geometry that must've influenced Hitchcock. Some series, such as "The Hundred Steps at the Par de Versailles," have the esthetic of utopian urban planning and bring to mind Leni Riefenstahl films. Several photos of giant urns brought to mind the poet Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn.
Over time Atget became an amateur urban and architectural historian, making sure to preserve the city's historical past. His work and sensibility seemed to fit right in with the interests of the Cubist painters and Surrealists. The irony in Atget's work is his disinterest in art movements and trends in his day. He was the ultimate outsider artist, an outsider whose work nonetheless created a school within the historical canon. Perhaps he considered himself a man with a trade, the master craftsman who considered a good day's work to be not art but rather a plainspoken though noble endeavor.
MAX HENRY lives in New York.