Vordemberge-Gildewart was a late member of the De Stijl group that had been formed by Theo van Doesberg and Piet Mondrian in 1917. One of the first painters to focus on abstraction from the very beginning of his career, he produces these balanced, beautiful and harmonious works throughout his life (died in 1962). In Art and Photography (1968), the art-historian Aaron Scharf describes the kind of harmonious aesthetic-technical innovation process evangelised by De Stijl:
“The idea of art as play, discussed by Kant and then by Schiller late in the 18th century, and elaborated upon by Konrad Lange at the turn of the nineteenth, became an important consideration in the aesthetics of twentieth century theoreticians. The spiritual pleasure inherent in the freedom of experimentation was believed by the De Stijl artist, Theo van Doesburg, to be an essential pre-requisite of the truly creative process – the gestalting or forming process as he called it. ‘Play he wrote, is the first step of creation.’ In Film as Pure Form in 1929, characteristically structuring its evolution, he noted that, like other media, photography, having first gone through a phase of imitation, then a second stage of experimentation and manipulation in the mastering of its technical means, must now (as with film), give way to purely creative expression.”
Taking up photography at age 18, and being amongst the first unofficial war photographers till he was wounded in 1915, the Hungarian Kertesz moved to Paris in the 1920s and began photographing the artists and dancers there, exhibiting his work along with the likes of Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, Lisette Model and Philippe Halsman. In 1933, he was commissioned by the Parisian humour magazine La Sourire to take some nude photographs, and he employed a fun-house (fun-fair) distorting mirror to do this, returning to a theme of distortions that he had explored back in Hungary, shooting swimmers underwater. These delightful ‘surrealistic’ photographs are very much in the spirit of the time – Dali had painted ‘The Persistence of Memory’ with its melting distortions in 1931.
With an art school training and a background in advertising and drafting, Man Ray learned of the European avant garde in New York from 1911, making friends with Duchamp, and visiting the Alfred Steiglitz Gallery, making collages and holding one-man shows of his work. He followed Duchamp to Europe in 1921, and quickly became a leading member of the Surrealists, while working as a fashion photographer for Paul Poiret. He exhibited work in the first Surrealist Exhibition in 1925, and during the 1920s and 1930s photographed many of the leading Parisian artists. During this time he experimented with photograms (direct-exposure photoprints) he called Ray-o-Graphs. In 1926 he produced a series of photographs of Kiki de Montparnasse (star of Leger’s Ballet Mecanique, and Man Ray’s lover), several of which feature the African mask in poetic contrast.
Why does this inspire?
It is in his portraits of the great beauties of the time (including Nancy Cunard, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Kiki de Montparnasse, Helen Tamiris, Berenice Abbott,Lee Miller, Dora Maar and many others) that, more than his portraits of artists, writers and philosophers, capture not just the physiognomy but the zeitgeist (the expression of the essence of the moment) as well. In a period and in an art movement dominated by ideas of the Unconscious, and primitive Ritual, and Art as Magic, the African mask signifies the Primitive for the Surrealist avant garde, and the image of Kiki juxtaposed with the Mask synthesises these ideas – Salon beauty and Primitivism, equally stylised faces…