Minou Drouet: A Forgotten Child Poet

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (1)

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the media and public opinion in France, and to some extent in Europe, were impassioned about a little girl who wrote very imaginative poems and letters, sang on stage with famous artists, starred in a film and was even involved in children’s fashion: Minou Drouet. When she grew up, she stopped writing poetry, and soon fell into oblivion, so that now only old people barely remember who she is. As writes Robert Gottlieb in his essay “A Lost Child” (November 2006):

In fact, you can’t find a book by Minou Drouet in any bookstore in Paris, not even her phenomenally successful Arbre, Mon Ami, which was published just over fifty years ago—early in 1956—by the aggressive René Julliard, who a year earlier had scored an international triumph with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. But Sagan had been eighteen; Minou was eight.

Minou Drouet was born on July 24 or 27, 1947. Her birth certificate did not indicate a father, and her mother relinquished her parental rights, so the baby was put up for adoption. On June 17, 1949, she was officially adopted by Claude Drouet, an unmarried woman who worked as a private teacher. The girl was christened Marie-Noëlle, with the diminutive Minou. As writes Robert Gottlieb:

Minou Drouet’s existence was turbulent well before she became a cause célèbre—in fact, from the very beginning. When she was a year and a half old, she was adopted by Claude Drouet, an educated woman who earned her living by coaching children at home. The story was that Minou’s parents had drowned in a fishing-boat accident, but actually she was illegitimate, and her birth mother had signed away all rights to her.

Indeed, when Ms. Drouet adopted her, she had heard about a child whose parents had both drowned, and she sometimes told that story in order to preserve the reputation of Minou, so she would not be called a “bastard,” since at that time single mothers were considered shameful.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (2)

The baby was almost blind and affected with a strong strabismus; she also suffered from poor health and it seems that she had difficulties closing her mouth on food. Ms. Drouet herself had a very poor eyesight and had been completely blind during seven years of her childhood, then in her youth she had written a short tale about the marvellous world that a blind little girl creates inside herself as a shelter from the torments of the world. So her choice was deliberate: to raise a child who had suffered in the same way as her. She was also inclined to the occult, and she read the lines in the baby’s hands. Says Gottlieb:

Minou was almost blind at birth, and for three years or so lived in a semi-autistic state, unable to speak and cut off from communicating with people other than her mother and her beloved grandmother. Years later, she wrote, “Locked inside myself, I led the life of some kind of vegetable. … The doctors warned Mama, ‘The condition of this child is desperate. We can’t imagine her being cured.'” Other children were unkind to her, and her emotions were directed almost entirely to nature: to animals, birds, and especially the big tree in the garden—“Arbre, mon ami.”

It took on the part of Claude Drouet a long and patient work of love to change this sickly and closed off baby into a healthy, happy and creative little girl. Music was the means by which she could awaken to the world. There are several versions of how it started (her age at that time, the music composer and the medium through which she heard the music vary in each); here is the one of Gottlieb:

Then, when she was three, Minou heard Bach organ music on the radio, and it awakened her to the world. Music became her link to humanity, and in those early years it was music rather than writing that obsessed her. Her passion led to piano lessons from a local teacher, and her abilities led her eventually to Mme. Descaves, in Paris; if the child wasn’t a miniature Mozart (any more than she was a miniature Rimbaud), she was clearly gifted.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (3)

A more extravagant version of Minou’s early childhood is given by Charles Templeton in An Anecdotal Memoir:

Minou Drouet’s mother was a prostitute and her father a field hand. As an infant she was taken into the home of a middle-aged woman, whose ambition to write well exceeded her talent. She adopted the child and raised her with love, surrounding her with music in a home dedicated to literature. It appeared that Minou was retarded. At six she hadn’t spoken a word. The judgment of four doctors was that she would never be normal.

One day, her mother played a recording of a Brahms symphony for her. Minou swooned. When she was revived, she spoke perfect French in complex sentences. Shortly thereafter she began to write poetry.

Similarly, Carol Mavor writes in “Tragic Candy, Time” (an article leaning towards post-modern speculations and titillation):

Her father was a very poor field hand. Many said that her mother was a prostitute.

By age six, little Minou still had not spoken a word. She was tight-lipped and silent.

In fact, Minou’s childhood has been surrounded by mystery, and fantastic tales have been told about her. Ms. Drouet herself seemed to be involved in fortune telling through cards or reading lines in hands. According to a French online article, Ms. Drouet told the author that Minou possessed a gift of clairvoyance; she could foretell exactly a visit or a death. When the controversy erupted about the authorship of her published poems, some critics hypothesized that her mother had hypnotized her or transmitted her poems by telepathy. The writer Louis Pauwels even hinted at “possession” and labeled her “not a case of a child prodigy,” but “a case of sorcery.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet with Lucette Descaves (1956)

In 1954, Minou started piano lessons first with a tutor, Ninette Ellia. The latter put her in contact with famous pianists: Alfred Cortot, Yves Nat, and foremost Lucette Descaves, professor at the Conservatoire de Paris, who took Minou as pupil on July 29, 1954. Minou, an affectionate child, developed strong feelings for her teacher and sent her letters full of love, together with poems. Ms. Descaves showed them to professor Pasteur Vallery-Radot of the French Academy, who became immediately fascinated, and remained afterwards a staunch supporter of Minou’s exceptional talents. He told about her to the publisher René Julliard. Ms. Descaves entrusted Julliard with a batch of Minou’s writings, and Julliard met Minou on May 6, 1955.

Then things started to move fast. Professor Paufique, an ophthalmologist in Lyon, operated successfully on her eyes. In September, Julliard made a private edition of a booklet with a selection of poems and letters by Minou. A controversy immediately erupted, involving the major French media. Some disagreements concerned the quality of her poems, but mainly it dealt with her authorship, many stating that it was an imposture, that her adoptive mother had written the poems and letters herself. Templeton writes (getting wrong with Minou’s age, she was then aged 8, not 6):

Some of the poems were published and immediately provoked debate. It was said that no child of six could possibly have such thoughts, much less express them so profoundly. It was argued that, unlike music, poetry demands an experience of life, experience that no child so young could have had. It was charged that her adoptive mother — a poet herself who aspired to recognition but had been judged second-rate — was the author of the verses.

Several journals sent reporters to interview the Drouet family. In particular the magazine Elle sent a journalist and a photographer for an “investigation,” then published their report, claiming to give a “proof” of forgery. This article was shown to Minou. Also journalists revealed her adopted child status, something that Claude Drouet had hidden her in order to protect her. Many letters of Minou published later show the deep hurt felt by that sensitive girl, resenting the cruelty and wickedness of people; in a very sad one of them, addressed to her mother, she compares herself to a frightening cat whose whiskers have been cut out, or to an old castle surrounded by moat.

Graphologists and writing experts were called in by both sides, with conflicting opinions. At the end of November 1955, Julliard took Minou without her mother at his home for a few days, so he could witness himself how Minou composed her poems (and it is during that stay that she wrote that letter to her mother mentioned above).

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (4)

The surrealist leader André Breton published in Paris-Presse, December 20, a short article where he stated firmly that he did not have to investigate the facts, simply by examining the texts he could deduce that no child aged 8 and even beyond could write such texts, which show a maturity and experience of life unavailable to such a child. “Between the physico-mental structure of Minou and what is published under her name there is an incompatibility of structure.” He invoked in particular the works of Jean Piaget on the psychological development of children. He finally speculated on Ms. Drouet’s personality, and the possible reasons for her to write under the guise of her daughter.

Minou seems to hint at that in a letter to Pasteur Vallery-Radot, where she mentions “the article by B,” adding that “if this was true, I would have only to go back to classroom and burn everything I have written. This dreadful man says that some sixty-year-old dictates me what I write.”

Breton would not have written such a nonsense if he had only examined the writings of Ms. Drouet herself. As she told Julliard, in her youth she submitted some poems to a “floral games” competition, but did not win. Then around 1925 she had submitted her tale about the blind little girl, which was again rejected, and in 1948 she had again tried to publish it, still without success. She contributed articles to third-rate serials, especially religious ones. The book L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud reproduces two of her works, an article about the misery of fishermen and a short tale about a poor family, they are drab and show her as a mediocre writer, very far from the flamboyant imagination shown by Minou. And indeed Julliard said to Parinaud that he saw her writings, except her poems, and their dullness reassured him. When Ms. Drouet was accused of fraud, he envisaged publishing these texts, but he felt this would be ungracious to her.

It has been said that this “literary” quarrel was a way for media bosses to settle their accounts, in particular between Hélène Gordon-Lazareff of Elle and Françoise Giroud of l’Express, and that Julliard himself encouraged the debate in order to get more publicity. In particular he published in 1956 L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud, a detailed analysis of the whole controversy.

On January 14, 1956, Julliard published Minou’s first book, Arbre, Mon Ami, with 21 poems followed by letters she wrote to various people. In it she displays a flamboyant imagination, with powerful metaphors, and she freely creates neologisms. As remarks Carol Mavor, “like Apollinaire, she liked to make her poems into calligrammes, serpentine shapes, crystal cages of words.” At the same time she shows an immense sensitivity, a huge capacity for love towards all her friends, and a maturity usually not expected at that age. The book knew an immediate success. As writes Gottlieb:

By the time Arbre, Mon Ami was published, in January 1956, the publicity had been so unrelenting that within a few months the little book had sold forty-five thousand copies. (Later, Minou said, “I believe that René Julliard himself was at the bottom of this campaign.”) The celebrated actress Madeleine Renaud recorded a group of the poems and letters. A jazz band, Michel Attenoux et Son Orchestre, released the “Minou Drouet Stomp”—you can find it in a recent CD collection, Jazz in Paris.

A month after publication, Minou was put to the severest test of all. The February 13 issue of Life tells the story: To resolve the controversy, Minou agreed to take a test for membership in the Society of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers. She was left alone in an office (from which “the telephone had been removed to prevent all communication with the outside world”) and given a choice of two topics to write on: “I’m Eight Years Old” or “Paris Sky.” “My eight years were already too sad,” she said. “I chose Paris Sky.” Within twenty-five minutes she had written a few dozen lines, and the judges, as Life put it, admiringly awarded her membership. ‘I’ve won’ yelped Minou.”

This poem, “Ciel de Paris,” was published in her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), with the following dedication (translated from French by me):

My Mummy, it is to defend you that I composed this poem, to prove that it was indeed me who wrote my little things. This text has been much more than an imposed subject, it has been for me an act of love towards you.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (5)

Gottlieb tells then how Minou became a showbiz star:

Soon after the publication of her book, Minou’s life began its transformation from that of a controversial child poet to that of a full-fledged celebrity. She mixes with cabinet ministers at the Julliards’; she collaborates with famous singer-songwriters like Gilbert Bécaud; she’s photographed with Maurice Chevalier (he’s kissing her hand) and at the premiere of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s The World of Silence. (She’s ten, and that big bow is still in her hair.) She stars in a movie. She launches and designs lines of children’s fashions. She demonstrates her guitar playing for Andrés Segovia. Pablo Casals teaches her his “Song of the Birds.” In Rome, she encounters Vittorio De Sica, and “quickly we were inseparable—we spent the entire day together.”

By this time, Minou was in rigorous training, every minute accounted for. She practiced the piano for hours every day; studied guitar and gymnastics; spent six years learning ballet. Soon she was touring France, appearing with other celebrities—pop singers and comedians—in nightclubs, theaters, arenas. Her act involved reading her poems aloud, singing to her own guitar accompaniment, playing “Clair de Lune,” Handel’s Passacaglia, Albinoni’s Adagio on the piano. (There’s a demented photograph of her standing on a piano, arching backward until her fingers are on the keyboard. She’s playing upside down!) In June 1957—she’s about ten—she’s at the Gaumont Palace in Paris, the largest theater in Europe (six thousand seats), performing between screenings of Gary Cooper’s Friendly Persuasion. In Brussels, she’s on with Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour. At La Scala, she’s a guest of honor at a gala for Mario del Monaco. She’s thirteen when a rose is named after her.

She starred in the film Clara et les méchants directed by Raoul André in 1958 (some pictures from it can be seen here). In his article, Gottlieb recounts her private audience with Pope Pius XII, and how she made him laugh (the story can also be read in his shorter article in the JohnShaplin blog).

Claude Drouet’s influence on Minou has been much discussed. Because of her eyesight problems (and maybe the scoffs of other children), the girl did not attend public school for a long time, so she was educated at home by her mother. Julliard wrote in the introduction to Arbre, Mon Ami that Ms. Drouet raised her daughter with as much tenderness as severity, and that she constantly encouraged her to work, both for music and for her general education. Gottlieb writes: “The child was firmly disciplined—kept hard at work and punished for infractions of the rules.” In several letters, Minou mentioned being spanked on the buttocks, and Ms. Drouet did not deny using this form of punishment, which was considered normal at that time. However the press spread the rumour that Minou was a battered child, that one witness said having seen Ms. Drouet beating her daughter with a wet towel, etc. This image of an abusive mother is echoed in the article by Carol Mavor:

As in many fairy tales, Maman was the wicked stepmother. Mme. Drouet cracked the whip: ballet lessons, guitar lessons, hours of piano practice and gymnastics, “every minute accounted for.” Even though she could play Mozart while doing a backbend on the piano, Minou could never be perfect enough; one might even say “empty” enough. (“Innocence is … like air … there’s not a lot you can do but lose it.”) Mme. Drouet beat the innocence (air) out of Minou for the most minuscule mistakes.

Nevertheless, since Ms. Drouet had chosen to adopt a child who suffered the same blindness as her in her own childhood, one may speculate whether she used Minou’s talents in order to compensate for her own failure as a writer. Gottlieb writes:

Mme. Drouet encouraged her gifts—some would say exploited them. However devoted she was to her child, to strangers she could appear severe, controlling, overprotective. She would jump to answer questions put to Minou, declaim her poetry, boast about her talent. She was, clearly, a classic stage mother—using her child both to live out her own ambitions and to carry her and Minou onto a larger stage than was available to them in La Guerche-de-Bretagne. Minou read the situation with a cool precision: “My successes opened the door for her to opportunities that would otherwise have remained closed.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (6)

After her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), Minou ceased to write poetry. She tried writing novels and singing, studied nursing, married the artist and radio chronicler Patrick Font and soon divorced. Says Gottlieb:

In her early twenties, Minou published some fables, a novel for children, and a novel for adults, but the irresistible impulse to write had left her when she was fourteen: “When a bird no longer feels the desire to sing, it stays silent.” Her mother contracted Parkinson’s and needed her, her marriage petered out, and in her early thirties she retreated to La Guerche-de-Bretagne, to the house where she had grown up. There she cut herself off completely from her public past, making no appearances and refusing all interviews, until 1993, when, having remarried—her husband, Jean-Paul Le Canu, is a local garageman—she published a reticent and skimpy memoir, Ma Vérité (My Truth). But the public was indifferent. Her celebrity, like her talent, had disappeared.

In that book she wrote that since the death of her mother, “I sing in myself and I am the only one to hear me.” I quote again Gottlieb:

In her book, Minou acknowledged that part of her had found it hard to give up the fame, the applause, the perks: “You amputate part of yourself.” But she went on to say, “If I had the kind of child I myself was, I would try to protect her from all the temptations and assaults of the world. … Beyond the public recognition there’s everything that can’t be replaced—play, friends, family, a kind of freedom. Everything I had to live without.”

It doesn’t require much psychological acumen to figure out that what she needed to express and what she needed to suppress are the same thing: her anger at what had been done to her. “No one protected me. Adults rode on my back to exploit me. . . . I was caught up in the gears.”

She is also reported to have said: “I was sold like a soap, I was criticized as a child prodigy. I was neither.” Gottlieb stresses the responsibility of her mother:

And who was the person who should have protected her? Her mother—the one who exposed her to the world, first as a beleaguered victim, then as a performing seal. Yet it’s also her mother who rescued this semi-autistic, semi-blind orphan and gave her a life. Minou is rigorously fair, fully aware of her debt to the woman who adopted and succored her. But her account has very little warmth, and it leaves out a good deal—for instance, that her birth mother, who she discovered lived only a few kilometers away, had refused to meet her.

Under the influence of her mother, Minou Drouet rose from a near-autistic and nearly blind baby to a precocious poet with a powerful imagination, becoming a superstar … then abandoned poetry and fell back into silence, finishing her life in seclusion. Was the weight of her mother too heavy? Or was it the cruel adult world that tore her sensitive soul? Gottlieb concludes:

This is Minou Drouet before she’s eight—a primitive, an ecstatic, an original. A few years later, she’s become a phenomenon, a scandal, a by-word. “I was a lost child,” she says. “I was only a pathetic little animal,” she says. “What crime did I commit to be persecuted this way?” she asks. There is no answer. That she survived at all is a testament to her strength. That she lost Minou on her way to becoming Mme. Le Canu is the price she was willing to pay.

On the other hand, Carol Mavor writes:

Completely sugarcoated and consumed by the time she was fourteen, Minou lost her passionate desire to write.

As in the years before she was six, Minou is once again silent.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (7)

The photographs by Roger Hauert shown in this article were scanned from the booklet Poèmes. They are included here for scholarly purposes. Please do not use them publicly without citing their authorship (or, for commercial purposes, without the express permission of the copyright holders).

Bibliography:

  • Minou Drouet, Arbre, mon ami, Julliard (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Poèmes (with photographs by Roger Hauert), René Kister (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Le Pêcheur de lune, Pierre Horay (1959).
  • André Parinaud, L’affaire Minou Drouet, Julliard (1956).
  • Chez les libraires associés, “Minou Drouet : ‘On a fait de moi un animal qui a mal’,” September 13, 2012.
  • Robert Gottlieb, “A lost child,” A critic at large, The New Yorker, November 6, 2006 (Full article reserved to subscribers). Republished in Lives and Letters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Apr 26, 2011, pages 52–64.
  • Carol Mavor, “Tragic Candy, Time,” Cabinet, Issue 40, Hair Winter 2010/11.
  • Charles Templeton, An Anecdotal Memoir (1982), “Inside Television CBS & CBC.”

Preserving a Sense of Wonder: Rachel Carson

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder, 1965

The power of a single image is amazing, like the following odd but charming image found on a sales site. It came with no identifying information except that the face looming in the background was Helen Hayes. Being a famous actress, I figured there should be some clue to the photo’s history. One of our guest writers, Arizona, took the initiative and offered a treasure trove of leads which are the basis of this post.

Jules Power International - The Sense of Wonder (promotional photo) (1968)

Jules Power International – The Sense of Wonder (promotional photo) (1968)

It turns out that it was a promotional shot for a special nature documentary to be aired on ABC in late 1968 called The Sense of Wonder. This film was a posthumous tribute to biologist, writer and environmental activist Rachel Carson (1907–1964).

Carson was born near Springdale, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she also spent a lot of time exploring her family’s 65-acre farm. She started writing her own stories at eight and by age ten, was published in St. Nicholas Magazine. In her childhood, she was inspired by Beatrix Potter, Gene Stratton Porter, and in her teens, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson.

(Photogapher Unknown) -Rachel Carson reading to her dog Candy (c1913)

(Photogapher Unknown) -Rachel Carson reading to her dog Candy (c1913)

At the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Carson studied English then switched her major to biology in 1928, still contributing to the school’s student newspaper. She graduated in 1929 and did postgraduate work in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, earning her master’s degree in zoology in 1932. She intended to continue on to doctorate work, but the first of a series of family tragedies in 1934 forced her to find steady work to support her family.

She took a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio copy for educational broadcasts focused on aquatic life, all the while submitting articles to newspapers and magazines. In 1936, Carson became only the second woman in the Bureau of Fisheries to be hired for a full-time professional position. Due to her skill at writing, she was encouraged to expand her various research articles into a book, Under the Sea Wind (1941). Carson continued with the Bureau (by then called the Fish and Wildlife Service) through the 1940s because there were few other naturalist jobs—money in the sciences was focused on technical fields during the advent of the nuclear age. During that time, she encountered the subject of DDT, a revolutionary new synthetic pesticide, but because editors found the topic unappealing at the time, nothing was published on the subject until 1962. Carson continued to move up the ranks in the bureau with its increasing administrative demands, prompting her to make a conscious effort to transition into full-time writing. By 1950, she published The Sea Around Us. Because of the success of this book and a reprint of Under the Sea Wind, she was able to break away permanently in 1952.

Her books were made into a screen adaptation in 1953, but she was displeased with the result and lack of creative control and never sold the film rights to her work again. Her third book, The Edge of the Sea (1955), focused on her special interest in the dynamics of coastal ecosystems. She had a special connection with the coastlines of Maine and she along with her closest friend, Dorothy Freeman, purchased and set aside some land for preservation they called the “Lost Woods.”

Another family tragedy gave Carson the responsibility of raising her orphaned 5-year-old nephew and she moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. For the rest of her life, she would focus on the overuse of pesticides, particularly chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates. The result of her careful research in the subject led to her most well-known book, Silent Spring (1962). It was a pioneering piece and is credited with being to first to give public attention to environmental degradation caused by pesticides and industrial activities generally. To accomplish credible research, Carson took advantage of her personal connections with government scientists, who willingly shared confidential information. She attended FDA hearings on revising pesticide regulations, coming away discouraged by the aggressive tactics of the chemical industry and the insidious implications of financial manipulation. She also developed good working relationships with medical researchers investigating the carcinogenic effects of these compounds. The completion of Silent Spring was delayed because of Carson’s poor health and subsequent diagnosis with breast cancer in the early 1960s. After her dire prognosis, she arranged for her manuscripts and papers to be bequeathed to the new state-of-the-art Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

In 1965, Marie Rodell, Carson’s long time agent and literary executor arranged for the publication of an essay intended for expansion into a book: A Sense of Wonder. The essay exhorts parents to help their children experience the pleasures of contact with the natural world. Carson early recognized the importance of exposing children to nature and even wrote an article dedicated to the subject, Help Your Child to Wonder (1956). But it was only during the raising of her nephew that this idea came to the fore. After the publication of A Sense of Wonder, Jules Power, an executive producer of nature films for ABC took an interest in making a news special based on Carson’s work. The script, written by Joseph Hurley, was based on that essay and was supplemented with information from The Edge of the Sea. It was narrated by Helen Hayes and its two-year production brought cameramen to several locations in the United States, with special emphasis on the Maine and Florida coastlines. The film, The Sense of Wonder, was produced by Daniel Wilson, directed by Alan Seeger and aired in November 1968. The film also gave some coverage to nature photographer Ansel Adams, offering a west coast perspective.

Jules Power et al - The Sense of Wonder (1968)

Jules Power et al – The Sense of Wonder (1968)

Carson understood the challenge of parents who have inquisitive children; they would never be confident about answering all their questions which might range from the microscopic world to the mystery of the skies. Her answer to such concerns was that attitude is much more important than knowledge.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in. -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder, 1965

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder, 1965

Carson was also aware of the realities of city life for many children and encouraged them nonetheless to explore what nature existed there and to listen to the songs of birds and insects.

Although the film was innovative for its time, it is hard to recognize this with today’s highly-polished, big-budget nature documentaries. As a result, there are only a handful of neglected copies in university libraries in the midwest. You will notice how red the film still is—a consequence of celluloid that was not stored properly. It is ironic that a little girl was used to promote the film, because most of the scenes with children in the documentary showed boys. This may have been an unconscious bias of the producers, but I think Carson would agree that it is just as important to expose little girls to nature and science as boys.

Sinister Charm: Ronald Searle and the St. Trinian’s Girls

In the course of working on Pigtails, I have to view a lot of films that feature little girls. Some are good, some not and some defy classification. One was The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) and after watching it, I knew I had to review it because of its unusual portrayal of girls. Upon further consideration, I could not help wondering where the idea for the film had come from.

After leaving school at the age of fourteen, Ronald Searle (1920–2011) took night classes at the Cambridge School of Art. To pay for his tuition, he worked various jobs: solicitor’s clerk, parcel-packer and clerk at the Co-op. At fifteen, he became the resident cartoonist on the Cambridge Daily News and in the next year began contributing to the student magazine. A scholarship awarded in 1938 allowed him to study full-time at the school. In April 1939, he joined the Territorial Army as an Architectural Draughtsman and saw his first drawing published in the Daily Express that November. His military service then took him to the village of Kirkcudbright in Scotland, which happened to be an artist’s community. One of his most welcome ports of call was the home of the Johnston family. One day, as a purely domestic joke, he made a drawing to please the two schoolgirl daughters who attended an academy by the name of St. Trinnean’s.  He was encouraged to include it with a small number of cartoons he was hoping to submit to the monthly magazine, Lilliput.

Searle, however, had been posted abroad before publication and within a month of his posting in Singapore, the Japanese invaded. While under fire, Searle found a copy of the October issue of Lilliput and saw his cartoon in print for the first time. After the British forces surrendered, Searle was listed as missing and no more was heard of him for almost two years. On December 29, 1943, the Red Cross finally informed his family that he was in fact alive.

During his incarceration as a prisoner of war, Searle continued cartooning and drawing secretly, recording many of the atrocities he witnessed. The Japanese were aware of his activities, and for three months in 1945 he was allowed to draw murals at a beach villa and officer’s club. In August 1945, a ceasefire was declared and he returned home that October.

An Assistant Editor at Lilliput noted that he picked up his career right where it had left off.

…[Searle] walked into our offices bearing a neat folder containing seventy-two cartoons. They were drawn in faded brown ink, on stained and yellowing paper. Some of them were crumpled. Most of them had survived burial in the jungle undergrowth or under disease-ridden mattresses, where the Japanese would be unwilling to search…We asked him for more and published them every month for the next three years. -Kaye Webb, November 1945

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (1)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (1)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (2)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (2)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (3)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (3)

It is reasonable to expect that Searle’s experiences would have found a way to spill over into even his most light-hearted work. Webb, with whom Searle began an affair, stated that:

It hardly seems necessary to mention that Searle does not really think of schoolgirls as murderous little horrors. But unconsciously he was seeking to reduce horror into a comprehensible and somehow palatable form.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (4)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (4)

In 1947, Webb gave birth to a twin son and daughter at about the time the gin-swigging, cigar-smoking portrayal of the girls emerged.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (5)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (5)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (6)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (6)

Hurrah for St Trinian’s! (1948) was introduced by D.B. Wyndham Lewis, who became the girls’ official chronicler when a writer was needed to accompany Searle’s cartoons. He later published a full-length novel with Searle, The Terror of St Trinian’s (1952), writing as Timothy Shy. Other books included The Female Approach (1950), Back to the Slaughterhouse (1952) and Souls in Torment (1953). Additional writers seized on the opportunity to bring St Trinian’s to life with more stories and songs. After the cartoons were reprinted in The Tribune, Art News and France Dimanche, the girls had become unstoppable and, despite his intentions, Searle’s cartoons remained in print into the 1990s. The first book to publish the complete drawings was finally compiled in 2007 as St Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business.

Searle’s biographer Russell Davies noted that though, at the time, scarcely more than a dozen St. Trinian’s drawings had yet appeared, the invention of new horrors for the girls to wreak was becoming a chore. By 1952 Searle decided that his life had been dominated by them for too long and stopped drawing them, killing the girls off in an atomic explosion the following year.

St. Trinian’s has gone. Encouraged by the success of recent atomic explosions in the Pacific, the school Nuclear Fission experts threw themselves into their experiments with renewed enthusiasm and with the help (thanks to certain old girls) of some newly acquired top secret information, achieved their objective at midnight last night. The remains of the school are still smouldering. By some miracle the statue of our patron saint, scorched but uncracked, still stands where once the ripple of girlish laughter could be heard on a clear frosty morning. The fate of the teaching staff is unknown, nay, will never be known, and a few young ladies are believed to have survived. Early morning reports from parts of the country bring news of blackened figures silently trotting through sleepy villages, but bloodhounds have failed to pick up a scent—however radioactive. This blow from which St. Trinian’s cannot recover (the building fund has been embezzled anyway) may bring a sigh of relief to many a parent and a quiet tear from true lovers of healthy girlhood. Let it suffice for us to say (before we draw a veil over the last broken limb) we are proud that the name of St. Trinian’s has echoed through the land. R.S. -From Souls in Torment, 1953

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (7)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (7)

Searle may have been trying to please the British public and presumably the children’s book critics, but he was not happy to regard it as a key part of his life’s work.

The cartoons were both incredibly popular and highly ridiculed. The novelty of British schoolgirls breaking stereotypes may simply have been refreshing, but it may have also had therapeutic value for a populace recovering from the horrors of war. For women and girls, it likely had a liberating effect—giving them a way of voicing a seething resentment at the confinement of polite British society and hope in being accepted as they are, warts and all. The ridicule was a predictable backlash against women’s independence and the latent fear of lesbianism. Despite these attacks, St. Trinian’s became a household name and the basis for countless inside jokes.

It was probably Arthur Marshall—another St. Trinian‘s author—who gave the school’s headmistress, Ms. Fritton, her persona in the film comedies that followed. As is often the case, the first film was the best and it was no small task for the screenwriters—Frank Launder, Sydney Gilliat and Val Valentine—to patch a series of comedic beats together into one coherent story.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (8)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (8)

The main plot is about the goings on surrounding a horse race. Ms. Fritton’s brother—both brother and sister were played by Alastair Sim—has a contender named Blue Prince and is coercing his sister to allow his daughter, Arabella (Vivienne Martin), to reenroll in the school after having been expelled for arson. That in itself would have been a small matter except for the fact the the building in question was not insured. Here we meet Bella and one can see she is holding a cigarette at the bottom of frame.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (1)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (1)

The reason for her return is to help her father spy on another contender, a horse owned by a sultan called Arab Boy. This is his daughter Fatima’s (Lorna Henderson) first year at St. Trinian’s and will presumably be the source of the intelligence.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (2)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (2)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (3)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (3)

When the girls of the Fourth Form learn how fast Arab Boy is, they hope to make some money by placing a bet on him before word gets out. At one point, due to Bella’s interference, they have to hide the horse in their dorm room. Ms. Fritton gets wind of this situation and also sees it as an opportunity to finally get some funds for the school and perhaps finally pay off her staff. The situation has the Fourth Form and Sixth Form girls plotting against each other and one can’t help rooting for the younger girls who finally prevail.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (4)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (4)

One girl in particular has learned to survive by keeping her ear to the ground, and she is periodically squeezed for information by the other girls.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (5)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (5)

Even in the beginning of the film, it is established that the girls terrify the local constabulary which, along with the Ministry of Education, is conspiring to shut the school down.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (9)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (9)

A female detective infiltrates the school posing as a gym teacher in order to gather evidence. A tour of the school exposes her to the many terrors of the school and what the girls get up to. In chemistry class, Ms. Fritton advises the girls to be cautious when working with nitroglycerine and we also learn they are producing bootleg gin which a shady character named Flash Harry helps them sell.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (10)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (10)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (6)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (6)

The detective is dismayed to learn of the girls’ lack of discipline and tactics in field hockey matches. They do not win by skill, but by literally putting their opponents—and any meddling referees—out of commission well before the second half! There is always a stack of stretchers on hand at these games.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (11)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (11)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (7)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (7)

The girls of the Fourth Form have saved the day and for the first time since 1927, the school is able to give an award for good conduct, which the girls immediately spoil.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (8)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (8)

There were several sequels, but there was no consistent feel to the films given how far apart they were produced. In Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957), the girls contrive to cheat on a national competition to justify traveling abroad to meet a rich and eligible bachelor. In The Pure Hell of St. Trinian’s (1960), the girls are subjected to a scheme to be inducted into a sheik’s harem. In The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), the girls are relocated after burning down their school and discover that robbers have stashed their booty there. In The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s (1980), the girls decide for some reason to go on strike and get other schools to join them. And then there has been a recent spate of remakes: St. Trinian’s (2007) and St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009) which take advantage of the public’s new familiarity with British boarding school life since the Harry Potter films.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (12)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (12)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (13)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (13)

Although St. Trinian’s is a fictional school, various aspects of it were inspired by different schools. It was reputedly based on two independent girls’ schools in Cambridge—Perse School for Girls and St Mary’s School. Searle, growing up in Cambridge, saw the girls on their way to and from school on a regular basis. In fact, in the Perse School for Girls’ Archive area there are several original St. Trinian’s books, given to the school by Searle himself. The gymslip style of dress worn by the girls closely resemble the uniform of the school that Searle’s daughter Kate attended.

I found an interesting site that chronicles the history of girls’ schools, both real and fictional, and you can read more here.

Science at Age 9: Emily Rosa

Linda Rosa - Emily Rosa at age 11 (1998)

Linda Rosa – Emily Rosa at age 11 (1998)

One usually considers children as naive, even gullible, and living in a magical fairy-tale world. However, when adults put their trust in them, children can show themselves to be logical, skeptical and even scientific.

Emily Rosa was born on February 6th 1987 in Loveland, Colorado. In 1996, she saw a video about the so-called Therapeutic Touch, a quack medicine whose practitioners claimed they could feel the “Human Energy Field.” Astonished, Emily decided to scientifically test that claim. For her 4th grade science fair she devised a simple and elegant experimental protocol; technically speaking, it was single-blind, which means that the subject is not aware of the experiment’s procedure and development, while the experimenter knows it. Through two sessions, 21 Therapeutic Touch practitioners were asked to sit at a table and extend their hands through a screen; on the other side of the screen, Rosa randomly selected (by flipping a coin) which of the practitioner’s hands she would hold her hand over. Then they were asked to state whether her unseen hand hovered above their right hand or their left hand; the practitioners identified the correct hand in only 123 (44%) of 280 trials. This shows that they were unable to detect the investigator’s so-called “energy field.” This experiment led to a scientific paper co-authored with her mother Linda Rosa, a registered nurse, her stepfather Larry Sarner, who made the statistical calculations, and Stephen Barrett, an MD who suggested the publication of the results. It appeared on April 1, 1998 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a renowned peer-reviewed medical journal.

Emily performed this research at age 9, and the result was published when she was 11 years old. For this she holds the Guinness World Record for the youngest person to have research published in a scientific or medical journal.

Emily Rosa Wikipedia page.

The above photograph is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

To Become Somebody: Paula Modersohn-Becker

There is so much more that I have to learn, and then maybe I’ll become someone… –Paula Modershon-Becker in a letter to her husband, Otto Modersohn, 1906

I am becoming somebody—I’m living the most intensely happy period of my life. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a letter to her sister, Milly Rohland-Becker, 1906

I am beginning a new life now. Don’t interfere with me; just let me be. It is so wonderfully beautiful. I lived the past week in such a state of excitement. I believe I have accomplished something good. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a letter to her mother, Mathilde Becker, 1906

If a man had written these words, we would get the impression of blind ambition—someone simply wanting to make a name for himself for its own sake. But a closer look at this artist’s life and the emphasis in the letter to her mother, it becomes clear this is about freedom—freedom at a time when women had little leeway to really be themselves and accomplish outside the domain of traditional gender roles.

Born Minna Hermine Paula Becker in Dresden, 1876, she was the third of seven children. She grew up in Bremen and her father insisted she study a profession so she could stand on her own two feet. While training as a teacher there, she took some classes in painting. She loved it and pursued her interest enthusiastically. In 1896, she enrolled in a school of drawing and painting sponsored by Verein der Künstlerinnen und Kunstfreundinnen in Berlin (Union of Women Artists and Friends of Art). It was one of the few options for aspiring women artists because they were not allowed in most art schools. The official justification was that women would be shocked or corrupted by the presence of nude models. She also had a wonderful experience taking classes for 7 months in London in 1892 but became disillusioned by their emphasis on effect rather than form. She was an eager student and diligently honed her skills, carefully assimilating any critique of her drawings. Over 1200 sheets are known to exist, some two-sided.

I live entirely with my eyes now and look at everything with the mind of an artist. –Paula Becker in her diary, 1896

Paula Becker - Standing Child Nude with the Skeleton Drawn In, 1899 (cat. 108)

Paula Becker – Standing Child Nude with the Skeleton Drawn In, 1899 (cat. 108)

Paula Becker - Standing Girl Nude with Her Hands Behind Her Head, c. 1899 (cat. 107)

Paula Becker – Standing Girl Nude with Her Hands Behind Her Head, c. 1899 (cat. 107)

In her eager researches, she saw an exhibition of works from the Worpswede Secessionist colony in 1895. As a result of that exposure, she included Worpswede in her vacation plans in 1897. There she befriended many people including Otto Modersohn, who would become her husband in 1901, and Heinrich Vogeler, who became one of her closest friends.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Standing Girl in Front of a Goat Shed, 1902 (cat. 27)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Standing Girl in Front of a Goat Shed, 1902 (cat. 27)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Head of a Blond Girl in Front of a Landscape, 1901 (cat. 14)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Head of a Blond Girl in Front of a Landscape, 1901 (cat. 14)

Although Becker made extensive use of the local landscape and people in her work, many of her ideas about form, composition and texture were not embraced by the group and she had to experiment in seclusion. Becoming acutely aware of the importance of Paris to the art world, she made her first of four visits there in 1900. Initially, she was a sponge, trying to learn all she could from the old masters. But in subsequent visits, she trained a more critical eye on those anointed artists who came before. She was particularly taken by a series of mummy portraits recently excavated in Egypt; they are a kind of life-cast made in one’s youth to preserve that image for eternity after death. In viewing these, she had a breakthrough and this mask-like quality is evident in her work.

I see such a lot and believe that I am getting closer to beauty in my mind. In the last few days I have discovered form and have been thinking much about it. Until now I’ve had no real feeling for the antique…I could never find any thread leading from it to modern art. Now I’ve found it, and that is what I believe is called progress…A great simplicity of form is something marvellous. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a journal entry, 1903

One of the Worpswede children she painted was her own stepdaughter, Elsbeth.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Bust of Elsbeth with a Flower in Her Hands in Front of a Landscape, c. 1901 (cat. 15)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Bust of Elsbeth with a Flower in Her Hands in Front of a Landscape, c. 1901 (cat. 15)

In 1905, she was accompanied by her sister, Herma Weinberg, who was a frequent and patient model. She took every opportunity to see the works of masters, such as Gaugin, found in private collections. She had high regard for two living artists, Charles Cottet and Maurice Denis, and made a point of visiting them as well. She alternated between Worpswede and Paris in her short career, gleaning the best of both worlds. In Worpswede, there was seclusion and beauty and a strong Germanic accent while in Paris there was freedom, vitality, the spirit of internationalism and access to the work of great masters. This alternation was reflected in the juxtaposition of Northern elements—an amber necklace, for instance—and those of the South—exotic fruits and flowers.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Mother with a Child in Her Lap, May/June 1906 (cat. 76)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Mother with a Child in Her Lap, May/June 1906 (cat. 76)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Zwei kniende Mädchenakte, 1906/07

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Zwei kniende Mädchenakte, 1906/07

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Girl with a Black Hat and a Flower in Her Right Hand, c. 1903 (cat. 32)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Girl with a Black Hat and a Flower in Her Right Hand, c. 1903 (cat. 32)

Modersohn-Becker defies classification in many ways and yet we learn much in the attempt. Living between the formal periods of Impressionism and Expressionism, some say she presages those later developments, boldly forging ahead with no role models. But I believe she expresses a raw feminism that has eluded classification simply because art movements have been interpreted in terms of patriarchal scholarship. An honest analysis of her work reveals that her subject matter is a sincere and passionate expression of the female psyche.

I don’t think a man could have made these paintings. I mean she’s already gone further than so many other artists at that time. She was the first woman to paint herself nude—and on her sixth wedding anniversary, too! –Chantal Joffe in an interview with Greta Kühnast, 2014

…when I was a child, it spooked me. The smile is strange and somewhat insane and then there is this weird intimacy, like the woman is luring you into her secret room…She holds a secret and it is intriguing, but at the same time you don’t really want to know about it because you sense that it could be something horrible. –Daniel Richter in an interview with Tine Colstrup, 2014

There are many parallels to artists who followed and Francesca Woodman comes quickly to my mind when reading accounts of her life. Both women, separated by almost a century and using different means, engaged in obsessive self-exploration and created images of themselves nude. In this respect, Modersohn-Becker is a pioneer, being credited with being the first woman to paint a full-length nude of herself. Some male artists have done this before, but never before a woman. And because her images did not express the kind of idyllic sentimentality of the female body—objects of male artistic and romantic inspiration—she once again shattered conventions, ruffling the feathers of many in the artistic community.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Self-Portrait as a Standing Nude, Summer 1906 (cat. 68)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait as a Standing Nude, Summer 1906 (cat. 68)

Art historians often lose sight of how acculturated we can be. Many have observed the strange posture of the self-portrait and the unconventional use of fruit. The simple explanation is that Modesohn-Becker was not constrained by the established modes of symbolism. She often used fruits (particularly citrus) and flowers (like poppy and foxglove) and was able to intuit a sensible symbolic meaning. Citrus was relatively exotic at the time and thus gave extra punch to the symbolism that a more mundane fruit would not have. Also, the strange pose was not used tactically to observe some convention of modesty; breasts and pubic area were in plain view. But the positioning was meant to emphasize the mystery of the female body, one hand at the breasts and the other on the belly.

Modersohn-Becker would never be accused of painting pretty pictures—portraying local peasants, including children, in a frank introspective way. This contradicted the propaganda of the National Socialist Party (The Nazis) portraying peasants as beautiful and valued subjects of the state. Thus her work was included in two exhibitions of so-called degenerate (entartet) art in 1933 and 1937.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl in a Red Dress at a Tree Trunk in Front of a Background of a Clouded Sky, c. 1905 (cat. 57)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl in a Red Dress at a Tree Trunk in Front of a Background of a Clouded Sky, c. 1905 (cat. 57)

Even the least sentimental paintings of children have their charm and they were subjects in over 300 of the artist’s 734 cataloged paintings. But even here, she manages to avoid the traditional portrayals and brings us the child as a personality with a vivid inner world. “Creating free children will be the most distinguished task of this century,” (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902) expressed the dominant sentiment of the time. Yet there is an undeniable sweetness when the children are paired with other children, mothers or an animal. The reality of a peasant’s life is hardship and work, little time for the niceties of raising and enjoying one’s children. It was quite usual, especially in large families, for the older siblings to raise the younger. This fact means that in studying children as they really were, which the artist did fastidiously, one comes away understanding that there would be a strong bond and solidarity between siblings and between children and animals in the absence of adult affection. Modersohn-Becker effectively illustrates this phenomenon in her paintings.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Kneeling and Standing Girls Nude, Poppies in the Background II,  1906 (cat. 73)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Kneeling and Standing Girls Nude, Poppies in the Background II, 1906 (cat. 73)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl in a Birch Forest with a Cat, 1904 (cat. 48)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl in a Birch Forest with a Cat, 1904 (cat. 48)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl with Rabbit in Her Arms, 1905 (cat. 58)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl with Rabbit in Her Arms, 1905 (cat. 58)

During this period, the “cult of the child” was in its heyday and images were usually idyllic and bereft of character. The portrayal of nude children were either produced as a matter of course or to exemplify ideals of purity or innocence. An examination of Modersohn-Becker’s paintings of children show them naked or wearing the most plain and indistinct clothing. This was her way of washing out any distracting cultural accoutrements and allowing the child to express the artist’s symbolic intent more clearly. Stripped of class and nationality, these images express universal ideas that can have an enduring impact on the art world, despite the artist’s short career.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Kneeling Girl Nude with a Stork, 1906/07 (cat. 87)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Kneeling Girl Nude with a Stork, 1906/07 (cat. 87)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Two Girls in White and Blue Dresses, May/June 1906 (cat. 72)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Two Girls in White and Blue Dresses, May/June 1906 (cat. 72)

There was plenty of tension in her marriage with Otto Modersohn. Ironically, with her focus on the mystery of the female body, she failed to satisfy her own desire for children. In addition, Otto himself was just as baffled as his colleagues by Paula’s artistic ideas and was openly critical of her work. During a trial separation, Modersohn-Becker visited Paris for the fourth and final time in1906. This was a time when she really came into her own and expressed some of her most ecstatic feelings about what she was accomplishing. She returned to Worpswede one last time to try once more to have a child. This time she was successful and Mathilde was born in late 1907. Shortly thereafter Paula complained about pain in her legs which was misdiagnosed and she died from an embolism. Most of the work she did in seclusion only became known to her closest friends upon inspection of her estate. Heinrich Vogeler was one of the first and made an effort to document the artist’s output and Rainer Maria Rilke, one of her closest confidants, wrote a requiem for his cherished friend.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Elsbeth among Fire Lilies, 1907 (cat. 91)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Elsbeth among Fire Lilies, 1907 (cat. 91)

Many women artists have found kinship in this pioneer of feminine artistic expression. Interviews with Rineke Dijkstra and Chantal Joffe bring out many of the parallels and I believe history will bear out the long-term significance of the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Paula Becker - Standing Girl Nude,Turned Left, c. 1898 (cat. 109)

Paula Becker – Standing Girl Nude,Turned Left, c. 1898 (cat. 109)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Girl Nude, Turned to the Right, 1903 (cat. 35)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Girl Nude, Turned to the Right, 1903 (cat. 35)

This artist came to my attention from an associate who visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark during their exhibit of the artist (December 2104–April 2015). Another major exhibition is scheduled for the Spring of 2016 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The information for this post is gleaned almost exclusively from the museum’s excellent catalog which can be ordered through artbook.com. Unfortunately, I am told that the museum itself is currently out of stock. Hopefully, there will be a resurgence in interest in this artist and they will see fit to commission a reprint.

Below is a list of the excellent essays and interviews (in English) contained in the catalog:

  • Venus of Worpswede, Tine Colstrup, Curator
  • The great simplicity of form: Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Art in Modernism, Uwe M. Schneede
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker—Pioneer of Modernism: Her life and work as reflected in her self-portraits, Rainer Stamm
  • “It’s good because it’s serious. And peculiar”: An interview with the German painter Daniel Richter, Tine Colstrup
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker: Meaning of Flowers and Fruits, Gisela Götte
  • The cradled cat: Children and Animals in Works by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Verena Borgmann
  • Body of Evidence: Modersohn-Becker’s Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude, Diane Radycki
  • Paula-Modersohn-Beckers Still Lifes: Construction and Poetry, Anne Buschoff
  • “The complexity of every single human being”: Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra on Paula Modersohn-Becker, Hans den Hartog Jager
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Drawings: Absolutely Modern in the Tradition, Anne Röver-Kann
  • “A radical way of seeing”: An interview with the British painter Chantal Joffe, Greta Kühnast
  • Biography, Wolfgang Werner

Potent Personalities: Sally Mann

Mann’s challenging images of childhood and, by extension, motherhood have become ubiquitous. This post has been long in coming because of the nagging question: How will I ever do justice to this artist’s work? Finally, the release of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, published by Little, Brown and Co., this May forced my hand and convinced me that I could procrastinate no further. The book is the kind of self-examination that would have made Socrates proud and an enviable genealogical legacy to her entire family.

Sally Mann (neé Munger) was born in 1951 in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Her father, a family physician from an established Texan family, was educated in the North where he met Sally’s mother. This kind of heritage would almost inevitably make Sally a fish out of water in social circles but impress upon her an appreciation for the land itself. She took a serious interest in photography when at The Putney School in Vermont which her two brothers had attended before her. Her father introduced her to the arts and she has fond memories of several books he shared with her. One was The Family of Man (1955) and on only her second roll of film, she shot her first nudes in 1969, inspired by Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest. For the most part, Sally bares all in her book, but out of respect for one of her subjects who now has a prominent position in a major corporation, she did not reproduce it.

Wynn Bullock - Child in Forest (1951)

Wynn Bullock – Child in Forest (1951)

Two films were produced about Sally, both directed by Steven Cantor. The first, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (1994), was shot and produced during the furor over the exhibitions of her child nudes and the second, What Remains (2005), gives a much more comprehensive picture of her inspirations and body of work. When I personally learned of the artist’s work, I was naturally impressed by the raw and pristine imagery, but after seeing these films, I admit to falling in love with the humanity of this imaginative and tortured soul. We begin to get an insight into Sally’s attitude about nudity by the fact that in her first two years of life, she obstinately refused to wear clothes. In fact, the assumption that nudity was an integral part of everyday childhood caused her to overstate in interviews the number of photos that existed of her in a state of undress. After a careful review, she was compelled to amend the record. Some of the photographs of young Sally reveal some of the striking characteristics to be seen later in her own children.

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (1)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (1)

After high school, she opted to attend Bennington College, deciding that she was not cut out for one of the more urban schools. She met Larry Mann during a Christmas visit home in 1969 and they were married six months later. During their early years together, they traveled throughout Europe on a thin shoestring budget, much to the consternation of Larry’s socially ambitious parents. And even after visiting some of the most beautiful places in Europe, the couple felt nothing held a candle to Rockbridge County so they moved there for good in 1973. Sally shares a rich tapestry of family history including how her father first bought the land and how she later bought out her brothers’ shares so that it could become the Mann estate.

It seems remarkable in retrospect, but at first, Sally did not consider her children suitable subjects for art photography. She did the usual photos that parents are expected to make, but they were snapshots and not done with an artist’s eye. Sally has always respected the presence of serendipity in the creative process and in 1985, one of her biggest took place. Emmett, Sally’s eldest child, was born in 1980 and then Jessie came in 1981. With the birth of Virginia, she fancied that she should capture the event on film. Unfortunately, the exposure time needed to compensate for the poor lighting meant that Virginia’s entry into the world was a blur—”a dud”. A few months later, Sally took what she considered her first good family picture, Damaged Child, of Jessie’s swollen face from insect bites. She got the idea from the title of a Dorothea Lange photo Damaged Child, Shacktown,Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936). As she continued her efforts in this vein, she began to realize that she was blessed with children of potent character. Even so, none of this would have materialized without an attitude shift. It is perhaps within the most mundane material that we find the sublime.

Sally Mann - Damaged Child (1984)

Sally Mann – Damaged Child (1984)

Sally’s family photographs are a mixture of spontaneity and deliberate composition. For example, here we can see her directing Virginia to get one of her shots.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Sally Mann - At Warm Springs (1991)

Sally Mann – At Warm Springs (1991)

On the other hand, when she sees something she just has to capture she asks the child to hold still until she can get her camera set up. These are precarious times because as time passes, some of the spontaneity is lost and the strain of holding the pose adds to the intensity of the posture and facial expression. In one of Sally’s favorite images, she had the camera nearby and was able to shoot The Perfect Tomato. The strange title was the product of haste; the tomatoes were the only thing in focus in the shot. The lens flare was a happy accident that gave the subject an angelic quality. In Blood Ties, Jessie described her memory of how it happened.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Sally Mann - The Perfect Tomato (1990)

Sally Mann – The Perfect Tomato (1990)

In 2000, Melissa Harris interviewed Jessie Mann who was preparing for her freshman year in college. Among other things, she spoke about the nature of her relationship with her mother.

When we were taking pictures, it created a relationship with Mom that’s very different from other people’s relationships—much more powerful…Because there already is a very powerful bond, then add to that the bond between artist and subject…On top of being our mother, she became a whole lot more. So that made our relationship stronger, but of course more complicated. -Jessie Mann, 2000 (Aperture No. 162, Winter 2001)

The combination of an artist’s eye and a desire to get the image just right created a kind of ambivalence within the family. On the one hand, it is flattering to get so much attention, but getting the image right sometimes meant a seemingly interminable effort. In the case of the image The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, when she first saw Emmett in the water, she did the usual and asked him to hold still. Shot after shot did not come out to Sally’s satisfaction and over the next 7 or 8 days, Emmett patiently followed his mother’s instructions until everything was right: the light, the reflection in the water, the eye level, Emmett’s position in the water, Emmett’s position in the frame and the right pose and facial expression. The title, which later came to have a double meaning, was meant to express the exasperation after such an ordeal. Several versions were reprinted in Hold Still to illustrate this process.

For the most part, Larry and the kids were good sports and for that reason, Sally has to give equal credit to her subjects for the successful collaboration. But sometimes, as Emmett remarked, whenever one of them noticed that look in their mother’s eyes—when she suddenly “saw” a picture—if one was not in the mood for another photo session, one had better make himself scarce. Or if there was no way out of it, the kids could torment their mother in more subtle ways. The top shot of all three kids appeared on the cover of Immediate Family, but the bottom illustrates one of the variations where the girls have softer facial expressions. Emmett confessed later that during this shoot, he was moving his body ever so slightly forward and back to keep his mother from getting the perfect focus.

Sally Mann - Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Sally Mann – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Despite these battles of will, the family members recognize that Sally brings out something special in the seemingly ordinary.

…She sees the world in images. -Larry Mann (What Remains, 2005)

It’s almost like she sees something happening and she just thinks to herself, “I know that this is special—what I’m seeing right here.” -Emmett Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When you’re around an artist all the time, you’re always reminded of what’s beautiful and what’s special, and you can’t forget it. -Jessie Mann (Aperture, No. 162, Winter 2001)

I think what makes Mom different is that she can look at the same object that I would consider pretty commonplace and ordinary, but she’ll make a print of it and suddenly I’ll see the beauty of it. -Virginia Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When Immediate Family was published in 1992, Sally assumed it would be greeted with moderate acclaim just like her previous work, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988).

Sally Mann - At Twelve (c1984)

Sally Mann – At Twelve (c1984)

The family was not prepared for the explosive sales and the notoriety that came. Listening to the detractors, one might come away with the impression that Sally published the work without regard to the feelings and reputations of her family, but this was far from the truth. The children were consulted about their favorites and which images they objected to. Never was nudity at issue and Larry mediated to make sure the children were not just trying to please their mother. For example, Emmett vetoed an image (Emmett Asleep, 1985) because, at the time, he was pretending to be Bugs Bunny and was wearing white stockings on his arms. Given his age, he was concerned about looking like a dork. Another candid image was of Virginia entitled Pissing in the Wind. Now that they are grown up, they can appreciate these images for what they are, candid moments of family life and these two examples were reprinted in Hold Still. Sometimes Sally censored herself as in The Bent Ear. With Jessie’s thin figure and the strain of waiting for the camera to be set up, Sally thought the picture made her look like a torture victim and was simply too painful to look at.

Sally Mann - The Bent Ear (1989)

Sally Mann – The Bent Ear (1989)

When the letters came in, Sally was surprised at the range of comments. In her characteristic fastidiousness, she sorted them into For, Against and What the Fuck? Although a sense of humor was undoubtedly helpful, the one ray of light was that more than half the letters were positive. It is tempting for visually literate people to write off any negative comments as narrow-minded and not worthy of acknowledgment. Whatever the interpretation, what was happening was a kind of culture clash. Nudity seems to be a natural mode of expression for the liberal-minded proponents of counterculture; and just as there are clothing-optional parks and beaches, there are bound to be many households that observe this custom as well.

The real breakthrough in Hold Still is that Sally makes the context of the land paramount in the interpretation of the pictures. Within this context, these images make perfect sense and without it, they seem bizarre at first glance. The land that the Manns owned was a secluded plot surrounded, unusually, on three sides by the Maury River. Even in the most difficult of times, the family felt safe there away from the madness and ridicule of society—without radios, without television and without computers.

How natural was it in that situation, to allow our children to run naked? Or, put another way, how bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for their river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark, when all three would would dive like sleek otters for glow sticks thrown in the pool under the still-warm cliffs? -Sally Mann (Hold Still, 2015)

For the most part, Sally would avoid looking at the almost endless barrage of reviews. She was an artist, after all, and would not want her art to be tainted by the influx of public opinion. But occasionally, something would come across her radar and one review in particular was devastating in its thoughtlessness and self-righteousness. It was an editorial by Raymond Sokolov, a food critic of all things, published in the Wall Street Journal in February 1991. Ostensibly about government funding of the arts, it took the opportunity to ridicule and mutilate an image published on the cover of the Fall 1990 issue (No. 121) of Aperture. Virginia happened to see it and was very upset about being “crossed out”. For a time, she became extremely self-conscious about her body and even wanted to wear shorts and a shirt in the bathtub the following night. In an attempt at a kind of psychotherapy, a photo shoot was conducted to make a light-hearted mockery of the censorship.

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia's Letter to the Editor (1991)

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia’s Letter to the Editor (1991)

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (1991)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (1991)

To Sally, her family photographs were partly therapeutic. She would take every mishap and exaggerate it into a worst-case scenario to help alleviate her own anxieties about motherhood and as a kind of sympathetic magic to prevent the worst from actually happening. Whether this actually worked is a matter of perspective. Both Jessie and Emmett are only alive today because of stokes of good fortune, Jessie having been born premature and in guarded condition for an extended period and Emmett surviving a car impact that ought to have killed him.

Sally Mann - Jessie's Cut (1985)

Sally Mann – Jessie’s Cut (1985)

As statistics will bear out, whenever there is a large group of people, a tiny percent are bound to be weirdos. Two particular individuals stand out in Sally’s memory and their tales are told in the book. A few years into their marriage, Larry’s mother, who lived in Connecticut, murdered her husband and then killed herself. Because the couple was respected in the community, the police did not really conduct a full investigation and quickly closed the case. Sally fancied she’d investigate further on her own and called the police to request a copy of the case file. Strangely, the police had the file readily at hand. The reason was that they were receiving strange letters from someone in Richmond with fanciful suggestions of foul play. It turned out to be the mother of a disgruntled artist, envious of Sally’s fame. The other was a man who became love-sick for the Mann children. He would track down family members, neighbors and institutions for any scrap of information about them such as birth certificates, school events and grades. The FBI became involved but informed the family that since this man did not make any threats and had not trespassed onto the property, nothing could be done. The family decided not to go public with this information until now based on the notion that they should not dignify the efforts of this man. Ironically, in their diligence to keep a wary eye out, this man came up in family conversations more often than blood kin. In a sense, he got his most fervent wish as his specter was a constant presence in the house.

Perhaps the most hurtful type of negative criticism was that Sally was a bad mother. This put her in an intractable position as no mother is perfect, but with the public scrutiny, every little thing would be interpreted as some shortcoming. As mentioned before, mother and children are all strong-willed people and there were the usual conflicts as is bound to happen in any family. Sally was apparently not physically affectionate with her children and so there are signs that they sought other forms of comfort. Jessie, for example, developed a drinking problem which she has been managing. After reflection, the children now recognize that their mother expressed her love through her art and gifted them with a sense of their beauty. For this reason, each of the children are consistently very protective of their mother and defend her as necessary. And Sally has her regrets as well, like the time Jessie refused to eat her flounder and was made to sit there all night until she finished it.

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (c1986)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (c1986)

Fame is a two-edged sword, but it would be unfair to blame its negative effect on an artist who could never have anticipated it. She reasonably assumed that quality work would eventually get recognized by cultured people—but slowly. Sally’s notoriety sometimes interfered with schoolyard relationships because other kids would tease them or other parents objected to their mother’s work. With this kind of fame, what room is there for the children to find their own place in the world? Once Emmett and Jessie were in college, they started talking to each other about their childhood in a kind of exclusive support group; who else would understand their experiences? And should they parlay their mother’s fame to their own benefit? Another effect of all this attention is that one can get used to it. In the film What Remains, Jessie talks about being a kind of modeling junkie. Whenever someone wanted to do a photo shoot of her, she just couldn’t say no. On the other hand, Virginia, being much younger, had a slightly different perspective, hoping simply to fit in and get on with her life.

All the while, in the background of all this drama, was the land. One can see Sally’s interest in the family photographs wane as the children became smaller and smaller in the background of these timeless landscapes.

Sally Mann - Sempervirens "Stricta" (1995)

Sally Mann – Sempervirens “Stricta” (1995)

A theme that permeates Sally’s retrospective is death. She learned that her father collected art that featured portrayals of death and analyzing Southern culture, Sally feels there is always an undercurrent of death, as though it were a familiar companion. This is an understandable reflection of all the blood shed on battlefields and the brutal use of Africans and their descendants in the building of the South.

There were two events in Sally’s life that precipitated two of her projects. The first was the death of one of her beloved greyhounds, Eva. She could not bear to bury her and so, over time, she studied her pet’s decomposing remains. Even the smallest fragment of bone seemed to evoke memories of Eva. She became fascinated about what happens to bodies when they decay and was given permission to photograph bodies at a facility where they study decaying bodies in the open. The results of her work appeared in the book, What Remains (2003). The other event was the killing of an escaped convict on the family compound. When the authorities finally cleared out, she stared at that place contemplating the dichotomy of death and renewal. While the land indiscriminately recycles, the memories of death linger in the writings and minds of human beings. This prompted a visit to the great battlefields of the South to capture this sentiment on film, culminating in the book Deep South (2005). And as if there were not already enough presence of decay in Sally’s life, Larry was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy in which the muscles waste away. Fortunately, Larry had a well-developed physique to start with so it would take longer for the condition to be debilitating. For most men, this kind of indignity would cause him to hide his disease, but instead Larry has generously allowed Sally to photograph him and his condition as time passes in a project calls ‘Proud Flesh’.

Another expression of Sally’s fascination with the past is that she processes her own negatives and has practiced a number of antiquarian techniques. She likes the feel of handling the materials, much as Julia Margaret Cameron did. Also like Cameron, she welcomes the serendipitous flaws that are rejected in a professional process: dust getting on the plate or laminate peeling on the negative in just the right place. Using older techniques also means longer exposure times and in her series, ‘Faces’, she asked her grown up children to hold still for various 3-minute exposures. The flaw in this image gives the impression of soapy tears.

Sally Mann - Faces No. 10 (2004)

Sally Mann – Faces No. 10 (2004)

A manifestation of the superficiality of society is that if a gallery can’t make money on art, they aren’t interested. Sally was disheartened that no New York gallery would exhibit ‘Faces’ and she later found an excellent venue in Washington DC which made it possible for friends and neighbors to view it. This project also became a kind of personal discipline. Sally admits to being a nervous and frenetic person by nature and so has challenged herself to produce self-portraits that require her to hold still for 6 minutes while she exposes the plate.  This development is also a result of the fact that her children are no longer on hand to model

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (2)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (2)

Having both Southern and Yankee blood, Sally was exposed to the best and worst of both cultures. She embraced the philosophy behind the Civil Rights movement, but she herself was raised by a black woman she knew as Gee-Gee. The day-to-day management of the household was done by this woman and she made sure Sally was fed, dressed and ready for school. Sally’s contemplation of the role of black people in the South made her wonder about this alien lifestyle and upbringing—so utterly different from her own. In an effort to explore this “otherness”, she recently embarked on a project to photograph the bodies of black men. To bring out the truth in her subjects, she keeps things as anonymous as possible. She does not ask them about their lives and she does not share any particulars about herself except what she requires of them. After about an hour, they part company.

From time to time, Sally—sometimes with the kids—would review the family photographs. She shares an interesting theory about the interplay of memory and photography. Not really remembering her own childhood, she has relied on photographs and other artifacts to reveal her own past. It is as though the ability to record things photographically diminishes our capacity to remember. Historians have noted something similar after the invention of mechanical printing and the development of popular literacy centuries ago. In her Aperture interview, Jessie expressed a sense of disembodiment about her old pictures, a feeling that they are not really of her. This makes some sense since we are not the same people we were as children and here the images are not just family snapshots, but partly constructions from their mother’s imagination. An anecdote about Jessie takes place when she was dressing for an exhibition of the the family pictures. She realized that a sleeveless top she was considering would expose her chest if she raised her arms and so she rejected the garment. A friend remarked how odd it was that she should be concerned since there would be numerous photos showing her chest at the show. Then Jessie responded, “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.” Children can indeed distinguish between the production of an image and the real thing.

Sally Mann - White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann – White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann - Holding the Weasel (1989)

Sally Mann – Holding the Weasel (1989)

Many today might feel that Sally Mann and her family have been vindicated. They rode the rough waters of celebrity and controversy, the adult children continue to make their way in life and Sally is still pursuing her art. But one unrecognized effect of the thoughtless rhetoric has been that many good family photos have still not reached the public. This subject was discussed in What Remains, but whenever the family mulled over the possibility of another book or exhibition, there was the inevitability of answering the same tiresome questions and they became discouraged. Perhaps someday we will see them when our society respects real artists and galleries regard them as more than just an opportunity to make money.

A favorite image of mine is Steven Cantor’s parting shot in Blood Ties. In it, Virginia is saying that she wishes her mother would take a picture of her right now.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Thank you Virginia, Jessie, Emmett, Larry and Sally for your courage, generosity and irrepressible human spirit.  -Ron

Sally Mann photography (official site): some of the unseen family photographs may be coming to light here.

Jessie Mann (official site)

Pigtails posted a this delightfully irreverent image a while back.

An excellent collection of reproductions of Sally Mann’s work were published in a Christie’s catalog for an auction held on October 7, 2009 and copies have been sold on the secondary market.

I have done my best to give a good overview of this artist, with an emphasis on the children, but Mann’s work is such a linchpin to many issues regarding art, child rearing, nudity, psychology, social justice, commerce and privacy that these will have to be discussed in a supplement post later.

[160108] A colleague has informed me of a scholarly article about the Mann photographs entitled “Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann” by Sarah Parsons.  It is worth a look for anyone interested in the work of this artist and how it has affected the family dynamic. -Ron

Truth in Beauty: Georges Guérard

It seems the greatest discoveries are always accidents. I was sharing the acquisition of a new sculpture with Peter Dominic and he said it reminded him of another sculptor and sent me an image. He was given permission to photograph the sculptures at an exhibit by La Fondation Taylor in Paris in April 1992. He shared many of his slides and forwarded whatever reviews he could find on the artist, Georges Guérard. Thanks also go to Christian for translating the text and thus saving me a lot of time.

Guérard (1909–1990) was born in Saint-Denis, France. He was the youngest of six children and orphaned while he was only 9 years old. His life after that reads like a Dickensian novel: first working hard labor in a trading house for some people in Groslay, near Montmorency and then to an orphanage, where he received blows more consistently than food. He was finally given a home by his elder brother, Robert, who was married and a roofer by trade in Le Havre. But he still had to earn his way at the tender age of 13. Unskilled at masonry, he did numerous odd jobs and in his few hours of rest, he taught himself sculpting, using his pocket knife to carve small figures in wood, chalk, barely-baked clay or other materials encountered on work sites during the day.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (1)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (1)

*The image above and number 9 below are of a girl named Christine.  The model recently came forward to identify herself and to attempt to contact the artist’s son.

Another uncle Georges, also living in Le Havre, took notice of these little works and enrolled him in drawing and modeling courses at the School of Fine Arts in Le Havre. Showing promise, he studied under the tutelage of a Professor Doisy, a medal maker, and lessons took place every evening from 6pm to 10pm. But the next morning, he would still have to get up early and go to work to earn his keep. At age 17, Doisy decided to enter some of Guérard’s little medallions at the great Paris Salon of 1926 where he received an honorable mention. This distinction and his consistent beautiful work earned him a scholarship in 1927 and a membership to a society of French artists. Later that year, he took the entrance examination for the National School of Fine Arts in Paris and placed first, introducing him to the workshop of a renowned master, Jean Boucher.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (2)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (2)

Over the years, he gained acclaim with a number of prestigious awards but had his share of failures as well. Not conforming to the fashions of his time, he made it his express purpose to bring out the essential qualities of clarity and balance, whether in clay, stone or cast bronze. The best examples of this are his busts and portraits of children which capture the crisp character and emotion of each subject with an almost Hellenistic purity. He managed to make the best of his knowledge of tradition without being locked into any particular convention. He showed a true appreciation for children, not just as subjects for his art, but also as recipients of his charming visions in the form of bas-reliefs he produced for school groups.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (3)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (3)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (4)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (4)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (5)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (5)

Having had such a rough life himself, one might imagine that he demanded that his subjects tolerate the rigors of modeling without complaint. However, Guérard’s son, who was sometimes present at the 1992 retrospective, liked to share the tale of how his mother would keep the children entertained with stories while his father worked.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (6)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (6)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (7)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (7)

In his later years, he could be found dressed in a grey overall, hiding from the noisy stir of society outside, in an environment propitious for reflection. There he could create without considerations of being appreciated by the mass media, the scourge of his time—and ours.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (8)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (8)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (9)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (9)

Thanks go also to Roger B. Baron, whose personal account of a visit in 1981 gave us a real insight into the man.

A Kinder, Gentler Nation? Chris Madaio Revisited

When I wrote my previous post on this artist, I simply took information from the book Il Ritratto Giovanile. When I look beyond the beautiful images and read something about the artist, I usually feel a spiritual connection and the work begins to have a deeper meaning for me. In this case, my own memories of spending time with various families while stationed in Germany gave me some context to understand Chris Madaio’s artistic experiences. After completing that last article, I decided on a whim to try to contact the artist through the internet. I found a strange news item about a Chris Madaio in Alabama being arrested for failure to register as a sex offender. Further digging revealed this was indeed the same artist I had just covered and I could not help wondering, “How could someone who produces work with such sensitivity be capable of such a crime?” I have wisely learned to be skeptical of almost anything in the media and given the grave paranoia about people who work with children, especially in the South, I decided to uncover the facts. I managed to reach him to get his side of the story and give the readers a clearer understanding of his art.

Chris Madaio - Luciano - Napoli (1992)

Chris Madaio – Luciano – Napoli (1992)

Chris Madaio was born in May 1947 in the Bronx, NY and took an early interest in photography. By age 10, he owned his first camera–taking the requisite photos of landscapes, architecture and people. He was also an avid collector of cameras and got his first collectible at age 16—a 35mm Leica IIIf—continuing to hone his craft while working on the high school yearbook. After graduating, he went to Penn State and earned a degree in Fuel Science in 1969 before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. His tour of duty offered him his first chance to live overseas and he was stationed in Gaeta near Naples in Italy, the homeport of the 6th Fleet flagship. Exploring on his time off and rarely without his camera, he caught the attention of the local people, fast making friends and eagerly learning the language. He began to recognize his skill as a teacher after first successfully coaching the kid’s basketball team then later teaching English and science to the young people there.

Digital cameras are ubiquitous and easy to use now, but at that time, the practice of street photography was still something of a novelty and Madaio made one of his first discoveries: young people love to have their pictures taken. Over time, he realized that having someone take one’s picture is a form of validation that can boost self-esteem. The following comes from a 1976 issue of the Penn Stater:

Most serious amateur photographers don’t venture beyond scenics, muscular sports heroes or glamorous models. It’s the small, unnoticed people and things that also require our attention if we are to go beyond the ordinary and mundane … I feel that everyone has a need to be recognized. During that instant when the shutter is snapped, the subject is important to one other person in this world—important enough to have his or her picture taken.

Chris Madaio - Emanuela (1993)

Chris Madaio – Emanuela (1993)

After completing his tour on active duty, Madaio returned to the U.S. with a strong attachment to this beautiful place. He went back to Italy in 1972 to use his GI Bill and take additional courses in engineering while maintaining his connection to the people and place. Recognized and appreciated for his work, he was published in Long Island Newsday in 1973 and then in the Penn Stater magazine in 1976, the same year he held his first photo show at La Nave Caiattas in Gaeta during a vacation. Shortly thereafter, he had his first major exhibition at Penn State and 10 other Pennsylvania commonwealth campuses. He continued his work as a part-time professional by covering gymnastics, swim and softball teams and capturing important milestones of the adults and youngsters in Maryland and Pennsylvania. His photography also included travel, industrial, wedding and architectural subjects.

Chris Madaio - Maria (1994)

Chris Madaio – Maria (1994)

Because of his skill in engineering, he had the opportunity to travel throughout the world on one project or another working for Bechtel Corporation and a few other companies. All the while, he made a point of returning to Gaeta every few years to spend time with his friends. In 1999, he became an avid biker and in 2001 trekked from Great Yarmough, UK to Gaeta on a Triumph Trident motorcycle—a 1600 mile journey.

Chris Madaio - Angelica (1994); (2002)

Chris Madaio – Angelica (1994); (2002)

After leaving samples of his work in a bookstore in Amsterdam, Madaio caught the attention of Ophelia Editions and was offered his first chance to publish. The result was Il Ritratto Giovanile (Portraits of Youth) in 1996. As a fledgling company, Ophelia Editions had a necessarily narrow focus, hoping to establish itself in a wider market and that has given most people—at least those who don’t really know him—the wrong impression about the artist’s scope and interest. There were plans for another book, Lo Scugnizzo, covering his work with street boys in southern Italy until Ophelia Editions shut down. In retrospect, the failure to publish the second book may have been a blessing. Scugnizzo translates as “street urchin” and in the English-speaking world, that has connotations of poverty but also of charm due to Charles Dickens’ humanistic portrayals. In Italy, however, the expression has a more pejorative meaning and having his now grown-up subjects—especially those who were not really street kids—associated with that term would belie the artist’s respect for the people whom he still regards as friends.

Chris Madaio - Giovanni (1974)

Chris Madaio – Giovanni (1974)

One of Madaio’s most vivid memories is of a boy who might more properly be called a scugnizzo:

I was hiking/backpacking through Tarragona Spain, on leave from the U.S. Navy (I did that often). I believe it was 1970 and I was 23 years old … I slept in an open meadow that night. When I got up the next morning, Francisco was hanging around. He told me he lived in a trash dump nearby (presumably with his parents), and he had a horse. I assume he told me the latter because it was painfully obvious how poor he was, so I guess that was his way of saying he had something of value. Then we split up and went our separate ways.

This picture appeared in Newsday and the Penn Stater.

Chris Madaio - Francisco sin Caballo - Tarragona (1970)

Chris Madaio – Francisco sin Caballo – Tarragona (1970)

After the publication of Ritratto, another major show was held in Gaeta—promoted by the local community—and another at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland shortly thereafter.

Chris Madaio - Martina

Chris Madaio – Martina (1999)

Despite his earlier success, by 2003, Madaio had largely curtailed his photography of young people as he noticed a decline in demand and less respect from his former clients and friends about the focus of his work. He attributes this to the rising hysteria taking place in the U.S. that casts a suspicious eye on anyone doing substantial work with youth.

Keep in mind that one of the joys of taking pictures of children is when they actually act like kids and not little adults. Sometimes kids act goofy. It may not be artistic, but the spontaneity is enjoyable and reflective of my attitudes toward childhood … Anything can happen with kids and usually does. This spontaneity can manifest itself either with a street boy skinny-dipping in a public fountain in Italy or little girls cutting up in gymnastics class.

Chris Madaio - Frederick Gymnastics Club (1993)

Chris Madaio – Frederick Gymnastics Club (1993)

Accompanying the decline in photographic work came a stressful period during his mother’s precarious health. These conditions contributed to what could only be called an addiction to pornography. Despite these setbacks, he continued to get good engineering jobs, the latest in Alabama in 2002 and he moved there. In 2004, he brought in his computer for repair and was reported to the authorities for his images, many which had been exhibited or published. In October of that year, FBI agents from the Huntsville office visited his home without a warrant and inquired about those photos. Madaio did his best to cooperate and turned over his two computers, fully aware that adult pornography would be found and he gave them some of his professional photography as well. He was surprised when over a year later an indictment was handed down from the federal authorities accusing him of receiving child pornography. Madaio had cooperated confident that no such images were present on his computer—only legitimate adult pornography. It appears the prosecutors used his browsing history to help secure the indictment and then stretched the definition of “child” to bolster their case. He was released on pre-trial bond at a January 2006 arraignment. He was not savvy to the ways probation officers gather evidence, so after winning a gun in a company raffle (he is a certified expert marksman), he made sure it was turned in to comply with the probation conditions. They say no good deed goes unpunished and that gun was then used to justify incarcerating him until his conviction on child pornography charges in June 2006. He served 48 of the 60 month minimum sentence in a federal prison. Little did he know his mother would pass away during this time and he never had the chance to see her again.

Regarding the professional photographs that were still being held by the authorities, Madaio filed a civil action under the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 (PPA)¹. However, unable to get any legal assistance from the local or national chapters of the ACLU²—who seemed more concerned about their political image than justice—the petition was dismissed in 2010 on a technicality. While in prison, he taught literacy and GED courses to prisoners and in 2008 began to take paralegal courses so he could defend himself and his fellow inmates more effectively. After his release in early 2010, he was instructed to return to Alabama despite no longer having any ties there—neither a job nor property. Thus began a 3-year fight to convince the U.S. Probation Office to allow him to return to his native New York where his handicapped sister was living.  In the mean time, he had to comply with state laws regarding sex offender registration and in the heat of legal negotiations, he momentarily forgot about a new Alabama law that required him to register quarterly. When he did present himself to register, he was arrested and searched, this time by the local Sheriff’s Office. Many items were seized including those that had been returned by the federal authorities in 2010. To complicate matters, a one-time associate of his shortly thereafter had a storage unit raided where child pornography was found and was used as a basis for additional charges issued in December 2012. He was released on bond that same month and a month after that was released from the federal probation restrictions. But he still faces a possible second trial on the state’s charges this February.

Madaio is not claiming to be completely blameless and in a properly functioning justice system, he knows he should pay some kind of penalty for his hapless browsing in 2004. But the tragedy is that because of the stigma of this kind of conviction, he cannot get a fair hearing or a fair sentence and to make matters worse, there is a culture of vigilantism in the South that prevents him from moving on and reintegrating into society. Our society would rather punish than treat a person’s problem and because of these restrictions, he has not held a steady engineering job for more than four years. On the brighter side, most of his own photographs were returned after the original seizure and are therefore still available to us. He recognizes that there are fewer years ahead of him than behind and is making a concerted effort to establish a noble and compassionate legacy.

Chris Madaio - Vista da San Francesco (1986)

Chris Madaio – Vista da San Francesco (1986)

Legal battles cost money even if one is representing oneself, so any assistance in scraping together some funds would be very much appreciated. To offer your support, order prints or hire his legal services, you can visit his website here.

In reviewing the background material for this article, I realized that the artist’s experiences are a treasure trove of legal and political advice. It would be naive for the layman to imagine that his legal system is just and that he would have nothing to worry about if he were accused unfairly. Therefore, I intend to write an article that will make use of this material and shine a light on our current political situation, its realities and offer some vital practical advice. -Ron

Footnotes:

‭1. The Privacy Protection Act of‭ ‬1980‭ [‬42‭ ‬USC‭ §‬2000aa‭]‬,‭ ‬was enacted into law by Congress to limit searches for materials held by persons involved in First Amendment activities who are themselves not suspected of participating in the criminal activity for which the materials are sought. This is meant to discourage law enforcement officers from targeting publishers simply because they incidentally gathered evidence of a crime.

2. The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”  The Free Speech Coalition was also approached to no avail.

Madaio’s tumblr account

The Connoisseur: David Hamilton

On November 25, 2016, David Hamilton died under suspicious circumstances.  The details of the case are not clear.  However, there are some excellent comments made on the December ‘Maiden Voyages’ post which are worth examining.  -Ron

A few months ago, a friend reminded me that April 15th was David Hamilton’s 80th birthday. Although Hamilton’s work covers an older age range than that usually addressed by Pigtails in Paint, I still felt it important to show his work at some point simply because he was an important influence on many artists and played an important role in my own discovery of the mysteries of the young girl. Therefore, it seemed important to have some thoughtful coverage of this artist before the end of the year, and due to circumstances outside my control, I am just managing to get this in under the wire. Also, even though Hamilton mainly covered girls budding into womanhood, he nonetheless captured a few fine examples of girls at the younger end of the age spectrum.

David Hamilton - from I Grande Fotografi Argento (1984)

David Hamilton – from I Grande Fotografi Argento (1984)

The importance of Hamilton’s work personally and to many others, to be sure, is that since his books are widely available, they have probably been our introduction to the young girl nude. Despite this, I must confess that as I learned of the work of other artists, I did not consider Hamilton’s work the acme of the craft, maybe because of his preferred age range or maybe his incessant dreamy eroticism which is perhaps too narrow a focus. Nonetheless, in preparing for this post–and as has happened with many other artists–I gained a new respect and appreciation for the artist. I was told the best expression of his thoughts and life appeared in the book 25 Years of an Artist. After reading this in detail, I felt I got to know this gentle spirit a little and now believe that his words and thoughts may perhaps be even more beautiful than his images.

The original French text was organized and written by Philippe Gautier and adapted for English by Lilian James. This was the first time Hamilton agreed to sit down and write down his thoughts about his life and artistry. Gautier’s introduction frames the significance of Hamilton’s unconcealed obsession. When Dreams of Young Girls, the first album of his photographs, was published in 1970, in Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States, it is important to realize that they are not only the dreams of an artist but that shared by a freer, more aware, less violent society and one promising sexual liberty.

David Hamilton - from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (1)

David Hamilton – from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (1)

David Hamilton - from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (2)

David Hamilton – from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (2)

Gautier and James believe that what is erotic in Hamilton’s photographs is the juxtaposition of two traditionally contradictory concepts: sexuality and purity. This contradiction developed under the influence of Christendom and by 1969 Hamilton’s pictures were for many a breath of fresh air, not only complementing women’s new-found sexual freedom but offering acceptance of their nudity as a perfectly viable state. Now these awakenings of yesterday are threatened by intolerance and a jaundiced eye.

“Life has given me one very important gift: the ability to appreciate perfect simplicity, whether of nature or of the human form.”

Hamilton’s earliest memories were of the declaration of the Second World War. Churchill’s plan to evacuate London children to the safety of the countryside proved a blessing. Suddenly, the boy found himself transplanted from the dreary city to a new life in the countryside and a childhood spent climbing trees with birds-nesting, fishing and swimming. So in 1939, Hamilton began his true life in Dorset at the home of Lady Talbot who lived in a greystone Georgian mansion in the village of Fifehead Magdalen where he was given a room of his own, lodged in a delightful cottage on the grounds, where the lady’s cook and butler lived. He admits to being spoiled, given good food and exposure to fine clothing by the husband and wife, and even in those early days his ideas about clothes and shoes were very well-defined. Although he enjoyed the country life, he still found school and the requisite visits to church twice every Sunday boring.

After more than five years in Dorset, he returned to London at the end of the war, which was not at all pleasant. His home was in Kennington and his mother lived alone, his father having disappeared shortly after his birth. However, soon after his return a man moved in with them and later married his mother. They had a daughter, Mary, but Hamilton had little contact with his step-father, as he wanted to preserve his new-found independence and the particular outlook on life he was beginning to develop.

The second chapter of his life, from the age of twelve to eighteen, was dominated by a passion for cycling. His enthusiasm for the sport knew no bounds and he managed, by borrowing money, to buy Apo Lazarides’ bicycle, the same one which was ridden in the Tour de France. It took a year to repay the loan. “The concept of a man and machine, working together as one, brought me to my first appreciation of the beauty of shape and form: bicycle and rider were as pure in line as horseman and mount.” Nothing else seemed to matter, neither school nor girls, who seemed at that time out of reach anyway. One particular bicycle ride through Dulwich Park with friends stuck in his memory:

“It was a warm day and we had stopped to catch our breath when I saw something, fleetingly, which made a lasting impression upon me. Two boys and a girl were on the grass. One of the boys had pinned the girl down, and the other boy had pulled up her dress and was sliding blades of grass and daisies between her knickers and her skin. The three of them were rolling around, giggling and joking. Without understanding why, the eroticism of this incident affected me profoundly. I made no comment to my friends but the scene and the feelings it aroused remained with me.”

During early adolescence, two people came into Hamilton’s life who were to exert important influences upon him. One was his uncle, William Leat, who undoubtedly gave him a taste for the good things in life, wearing the finest suits, handmade shoes and shirts after whom Hamilton eventually adopted as his own style. The other was Terry Round, and the two of them were inseparable and became involved in numerous escapades and slightly nefarious activities. They played cards regularly and as betting had not been legalized then, it was a fairly hazardous enterprise. Gambling became their main source of income. His taste for expensive clothes was well-developed and he would buy everything he could with his ill-gotten gains. The two adolescents had little money but they managed to dress like millionaires.

Hamilton left school at fifteen and became an apprentice in a small firm, and as he was good at making things, he wanted to get some technical training. He began by meticulously learning carpentry and cabinet-making. The firm manufactured huge shop counters made entirely by hand. Some of the carpenters would come to him if there were technical problems or difficulties reading a plan. He would explain things and this ability soon enabled him to move from the work room to the planning room where he drew plans. He asked a friend, who was a photographer, to travel around London and photograph the façades of all the fashion stores for him and collected them in an impressive catalog which came in handy when it came to designing shop fronts himself. At barely the age of 18 he had already begun to earn a respectable living from his expertise.

About this time he had an urge to see Paris and hitch-hiked there with Round. His first discovery was the crowded Place de Clichy, buzzing with life and activity. For the first time he saw restaurants with people sitting outside, eating and watching the world go by. They did see many attractive girls there but they did not dare to approach them, particularly since neither of them could speak French. In London the only opportunity to meet girls was at the dance-hall. The girls had to leave before midnight and so the young men would take them home in the hope of a goodnight kiss. One night at the dance Hamilton had a success. He met a girl who seemed to like him and she let him take her home. Her family was out and he was invited in. As Hamilton was totally inexperienced, she made all the advances. In retrospect, his first sexual encounter was far more disconcerting than it was edifying.

At twenty he left home and moved to an attic flat in Hampstead, where he met his first girlfriend, Marie, at a party. For several months they shared his small flat. Though short, the relationship was important; it was the first time that either of them had made love, and Hamilton made his second trip to Paris with her. Those early trips to Paris convinced him that he should settle there.

Having worked for some time with a firm of architects in London, Hamilton assembled a collection of drawings and showed them to Siegel, a company in Paris. He changed employers from time to time but was always paid the same meager sum for drawing store layouts. One of his jobs was with architects whose business had been started by a Frenchman and a young American, Bill Perry, with whom he became a close friend. Perry was rich, had a Mercedes-Benz, and spoke some French and became Hamilton’s mentor, making life a little easier.

He had begun to paint; Max Ernst’s La Ville Endormie fascinated him. In his cramped room he had painted a very large canvas. After all this strenuous effort, he noticed one section that he particularly liked, cut this out and submitted it to the Biennale, where it was chosen, along with three hundred entries, from three thousand applicants. Hamilton dreamt of being a painter, but after going to several cocktail parties given by the Vicomtesse de Noailles, where young painters were invited, he realized painting would not pay the rent, and so he continued to work in the architects’ offices.

Another vivid memory of Hamilton’s took place when he moved to another small room on the Rue d’Alger. He recounts that from his window he could see, on the other side of the courtyard, the inside of another room where a young woman lived.

“Often, in the mornings or evenings, we would wave and smile to one other. We had never spoken but nevertheless, these few silent gestures had created an intimacy between us. She would undress and wash herself in front of the window with a total lack of concern. One summer morning, very early, I decided to visit her. It seemed that all the girls living in the building knew each other, as the doors of their apartments were open to let in the cool air. With a rose in one hand, and my shoes in the other, I tiptoed across the hall. I came to a door which was ajar, and recognised my neighbour. She was naked on her bed; lying on her back, one leg outstretched and the other bent over. A lovely picture—a painting by Bonnard come to life. I looked at her for a moment, then realised that she was not alone; a man slept next to her, he too was naked. I left the rose for her. In my mind’s eye the image remains; the girl asleep in that beautiful position, the sheets in disarray; it is a favourite pose, which I have used many times in my photographs.”

David Hamilton - Napping, South of France (1988)

David Hamilton – Napping, South of France (1988)

One day Peter Knapp, whom he had met several times at exhibitions, offered him a job at his magazine Elle. Hamilton was responsible for the layout of the magazine and it was there he met Michel Paquet who became a close friend and colleague. Knapp was the art director and would tell them what he wanted in each edition. Hamilton was in charge of the fashion section and would take the elements of the layout and organize them into 12, 15 or 20 pages. This way of working was an innovation and several of the top people from Queen magazine came from London to see them. Because he was English, they offered him the position of art director. In 1960 he accepted the offer and returned to London, taking Paquet with him.

They worked hard at Queen to make it a success, and Hamilton published one of the very first photographs of a David Hockney painting. One day Irving Penn’s agent came by and unpacked a suitcase crammed with photographs. When he saw the strength and the quality of the work, he bought everything. It cost a small fortune but many of Penn’s photographs were published over time, which contributed to the success of Queen. After more than a year with Queen, Hamilton had a disagreement with Jocelyn Stevens, the chief executive, about one of Terence Donovan’s photographs, which he wanted to publish as a two page spread, but Stevens was against the idea. Hamilton tried to stand firm, but the executive would not listen to his ideas, so he and Paquet left immediately and returned to Paris.

An attempt was made to return to Elle but that was not possible, so he was offered a position as art director of Printemps Department Store. Here Hamilton was responsible for all the promotional flyers, the publicity which appeared in magazines and the billboards outside the store. The exceptional quality of the fashion publications at that time was due to the fact that the art directors made the decisions and gave the photographic layout priority over the text. Peter Knapp at Elle, for example, had discovered Gene Laurence, an American photographer with a great deal of talent but no money and bought and published his work. When Hamilton was at Queen he bought photographs from Laurence and owed his early ventures into photography to him. Later things changed: the words took precedence over the photographs and general layout, and the quality and prestige of these magazines deteriorated.

Hamilton became increasingly interested in photography, and it was inevitable that he should begin to indulge in it. He bought a camera, which was not quite as simple to master as he had thought. Eventually, “I took some very simple shots: random objects, street scenes. We often used young Swedish models at Printemps for the fashion pages and I started photographing them… I practised this new hobby and experimented with a flash light but found I could never achieve what I wanted with artificial lighting.”

His studio became a popular meeting place for models, artists and photographers. Often forty or more people would crowd into the forty square meters and line up outside the door if it was too packed.

“It was when I was working for Printemps that I discovered St. Tropez, in its sublime setting with beaches where people sun-bathed in the nude. It was a world that was completely new to me, and nothing, during my youth in England, or the life I had led until then, had prepared me for it.”

He decided to buy a house in nearby Ramatuelle in 1962 and went there regularly with models, to shoot his first fashion photos. It was in this place that he was able to create his special style of photography. “The village, the surrounding countryside, provided perfect settings, full of softness and charm, and it was, for me, a life so beautiful and new, that I wanted to show, through my work, this earthly paradise. I went there at every opportunity.”

David Hamilton - Young girl at the window, Saint-Tropez (1978)

David Hamilton – Young girl at the window, Saint-Tropez (1978)

Hamilton’s work at Printemps interested him less and less. His stubbornness about artistic choices, perhaps taken as arrogance, created sufficient resentment to get him dismissed in 1965. Fortunately by that time he had begun to enjoy photography, and his professional status over the preceding years meant that he had established good contacts with publishers and models. He engaged in photography for his own pleasure but also took on freelance work, including fashion photos.  “I had been fascinated for some years by the beauty of two particular young women, whom I have previously mentioned: Jean Shrimpton and Celia Hammond. Both were tall and slender with long legs end exquisite bone structures – the high cheekbones, high brows, retroussé noses. For me and many others, these two were the epitome of feminine beauty.”  Then two years later Twiggy came on the scene; Hamilton liked her very much and felt she gave hope to all young girls who, like her, had little in the way of a bosom or hips. His preference for tall, slender bones was inspired by these three women, and it was therefore natural for him to choose similar models for his photographs.

David Hamilton - Pia, St. Tropez (1975)

David Hamilton – Pia, St. Tropez (1975)

The light in the South of France is so beautiful that the artist found artificial lighting unnecessary. He prefers pastel colors and soft shades, which is why he never shoots pictures in bright sunlight. This attitude extends to his models as well; he found that blondes are best for such settings because the characteristic in a true blonde, or in a redhead, is the translucency of the skin, the color of the hair and the distribution of body hair. He says he would have found it difficult to photograph naked brunettes, whose hair and pubis would have been in stark contrast to the softer shades. The great classical painters never depicted the pubis in their nudes; it was blotted out or discreetly covered, thus maintaining the sense of mystery. “The paradox of the erotic is that it reveals and hides simultaneously.”

David Hamilton - False innocence, South of France (1986)

David Hamilton – False innocence, South of France (1986)

The German magazine Twen, managed by Willy Fleckhaus, published his first photographs. The ones taken for Printemps were fashion pictures and were rarely signed by the photographer. The photos in Twen and Réalité in France, were published under his own name and more of his work appeared in Photo. Free of all professional obligations, he could work assiduously on his own images and soon had enough material to put together his first album, Rêve de Jeunes Filles (Dream of Young Girls), with accompanying text by Alain Robbe-Grillet. The composition of this first album was inspired by Leonard Cohen’s song Suzanne, the words of which had been translated and used as captions. The first editions sold very quickly; then there came copies which were mass-produced and the quality of the prints was not as good as Hamilton would have liked. Nevertheless, the response was phenomenal, but there were a few detractors. Hamilton’s work was criticized for its erotic expression which was claimed to lack realism. Journalists exclaimed that people don’t really live like that, but the remarkable fact is that Hamilton really does live that way in his sanctuary in Ramatuelle—with the girls. He is convinced that the public liked his work because it was natural and uncontrived, something that cannot be found in a studio portrait. This state of affairs understandably provokes envy because he is able to realize his dreams and make money at the same time.

David Hamilton - Maggy, Ramatuelle (1988)

David Hamilton – Maggy, Ramatuelle (1988)

Hamilton was asked to direct the film Emmanuelle, but as this wasn’t the kind of thing he wanted to do, he declined. There were also many requests for publicity photos, but he has always found it difficult to work to order and has never been pleased with the results. One exception was his work for Nina Ricci perfumes on the L’Air du Temps campaign.

No biography of David Hamilton is complete without dealing with probably his most contentious peculiarity—his partiality for a particular theme: the young girl. In 25 Years of an Artist, he explains why he finds a particular type of girl so immensely attractive and why she has become the main feature of his work:

“There exist among young girls, within a clearly defined age group, some rare beings who are able to exert a powerful erotic attraction upon certain much older men. It is a kind of magic, a fleeting charm which touches such men, of whom I am one, in a secret part of their sensibility. By means of my photographs I make a sincere confession that few men, bewitched as I am by the forbidden desire, will dare to make.”

Hamilton goes on to explain that not all young girls of this age have this rare quality; no common trait of character differentiates them from the rest, but in observing them closely, one has the impression from their attitude and their gaze, that they sense the particular attraction they exert around them, thus rendering them different. They seem aware of it, and sometimes play on it.

“It seems to me that their femininity is revealed sooner than that of their contemporaries. A femininity too mature for their age, an animal instinct that they already know to be right for them, even if they decide to hold out against it for as long as possible. This intuition, which they do not understand, tends to make them discreet, shy, and thus mysterious. These young nymphs who fascinate me, often shun the avid gaze of the public which reflects an awareness of the beauty that they themselves are trying to ignore. However, being able to recognise them, to approach them and to understand them with patience and trust, I have felt their need to express the difficulties they face from having suddenly found a sensuality that took them by surprise. Some of them would give anything to be different; to be ‘normal’, as they sometimes dare to say. It is true, the rare delicacy of their physical appearance sets them apart, and everyone knows how much it costs to be different in this world… these young girls take refuge in dreams which they have wished me to bring into reality.”

David Hamilton - The mirror, Ramatuelle (1986)

David Hamilton – The mirror, Ramatuelle (1986)

Hamilton later discovered that other artists and writers had this same passion; Laclos described the type in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, written in 1782 and the great painter Balthus did not try to hide it in his work. A writer would need an exceptional talent to expound on such a sensitive subject without risking alienation. Hamilton believed Vladimir Nabokov such a talent. The author of the unique novel established the name Lolita as the icon for young girls in possession of that certain fatal charm.

David Hamilton - Homage to Balthus, South of France (1980)

David Hamilton – Homage to Balthus, South of France (1980)

Hamilton describes the first time he experienced this powerful attraction:

“The first time I clearly perceived in myself the attraction to this particular beau idéal, was on the beach at Bournemouth in England in 1966. I had known and photographed many beautiful girls but had never, until then, experienced what can only be described as a revelation. The girl was playing on the beach with her younger sister, and immediately I noted the long line of her legs, the delicate structure of her body, and most especially, her feline face, the cat-like eyes with the heavy upper lids. Looking at her, I could see the great beauty she would one day become. Her name was Mandy and I asked her where her parents were. I introduced myself to her mother and wondered if she would agree to my taking some pictures of her daughter when she was a little older. Surprised and flattered, the mother seemed to like the idea and I promised that I would give her a call in about two years. I couldn’t understand why I had made this appointment so far in advance, but it seemed important to me and two years later I did contact her.”

David Hamilton - Mandy, Ramatuelle (1971)

David Hamilton – Mandy, Ramatuelle (1971)

This first chance encounter was followed by others which changed his life in ways that he could never have imagined. Another important encounter took place in 1969 on a trip to the Canary Islands. There he saw Mona for the first time; she was nineteen years old and the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Mona came to Paris at Christmas that year and thus their long relationship began. Eventually, they went their separate ways but she remains a central figure in his work. Hamilton has taken more pictures of her than of any other girl and she also starred in his first film, Bilitis.

For years, film producers had been suggesting that he direct a film to bring his young girls to life. He had repeatedly refused because he knew that cinema brought together various talents, techniques and personalities; his pictures have always been created spontaneously and privately. The beautiful play of light which lasts but a few moments can be captured by the camera, but with a team, with complex machinery and the need to shoot a scene several times, you can be certain that something will have changed–a cloud will have moved or the sun will have set. However, Henri Colpi, a director and film producer, and Bernard Daillencourt, a director of photography, had the talent and the experience to make Bilitis. The subject and the title come from Pierre Loüys’ Les Chansons de Bilitis, prose poems published in 1894. They filmed in surroundings familiar to Hamilton: the hills of Ramatuelle, the beaches and the castle of St. Ame above the commune of St. Tropez. The arrival of the set designer, Eric Simon, was essential to Bilitis’ success. Extremely talented, he created sets for many films, and he and Hamilton immediately found they had much in common. The film was released in 1976 and was very successful.

David Hamilton - from Bilitis (1976)

David Hamilton – from Bilitis (1976)

Others films followed with varying degrees of success: Laura, les ombres de l’été (1979), Tendres Cousines (1980) and Premier Désir (1983). Even the effects of the bad experiences making these films were not all negative; they made the artist take stock of his work and goals. His first love was painting; he felt he did not have the necessary technical ability or patience to devote himself to it, so instead he redoubled his efforts to make his photography emulate art. His ballet dancers were by Degas, his still-lifes by Cézanne. This is a practice that has been debated for decades, since the advent of photography itself.

Among his contemporaries Hamilton admired Robert Mapplethorpe, even though his style was radically different. He is surprised that there are so few young photographers today who have followed in the footsteps of the pictorialists. He would have been among the first to encourage and support them, assuming they made the effort to learn something of the history of photography and its great principles. Hamilton works with a fully open lens aperture to obtain a characteristic flatness, without perspective, similar to the frescoes at the beginning of the Renaissance. “I believe that it is a mistake to think that photography can offer an accurate representation of reality. There is always interpretation, even in photographs taken for the purpose of reporting.” Hamilton has little interest in the technical aspects of photography, a fact which sometimes disappoints many students. In many respects he has remained an amateur. He feels that because today’s photography is associated with so many technicalities and tricks, its spontaneity, freshness and beauty have been lost. He may be pleased to know that the ease of using digital technology may be reversing that trend.

Thus, to find his influences, it is necessary to look among the painters. Not being formally trained, he takes a very personal view guided by what concerns him as a photographer. “Those paintings which move me most are those which exploit the fact of the painting itself, as conceived in a single dimension, on a flat plane, such as Giotto’s frescoes where perspective has purposefully been ignored.” Such simplicity is also recognized in the work of Uccello. Cranach the Elder painted some nudes in which Hamilton can discern the criteria for sensuality that he looks for today; the errors of proportion here and there create a feeling of innocence. After the Renaissance, his taste in painting jumps forward to Gauguin and Matisse. “It is impossible not to like the red, or the green, their density and texture.” He admires the great draftsmen too: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphaël. Drawing is, perhaps, the most abstract of art media, perhaps the least illusionistic. And so, with his photography, he has made a humble attempt to move closer to this purity.

David Hamilton - The three graces, homage to Raphael, Ramatuelle (1988)

David Hamilton – The three graces, homage to Raphaël, Ramatuelle (1988)

“I move naturally towards an existence which is becoming ever more simple and harmonious. It seems to me that an accomplishment, no matter what it might be, is not an attempt to build, to amass, as one might imagine, but to depict, to clear away an imaginary landscape. A photograph is capable of changing attitudes. There is more beauty in the perception than there is in the subject. It is a question of the attention that one brings to the things around one: a face, a hand, a cloud, a tree. Should you, while in a taxi, pass a tree which, at that precise hour of the day, in that particular light, seems beautiful to you, you must stop the car. Immediately. You must take the picture immediately. Do not tell yourself ‘l’ll come back tomorrow, at the same time…’ No. Everything will be different. The light will no longer be there, or a crane will have been hoisted on a neighbouring construction site, or simply your perception will have changed, and what you had momentarily seen will have gone. If you are on a beach and you notice a face, or a body, that stands out from the crowd, the sight of which makes your heart leap in your breast, then stop. If your feeling is honest and sincere, it will help you find the right words. Who knows what could then come from such a meeting?”

It is disconcerting after hearing Hamilton’s beautiful words and seeing his images that his work has become the basis for convictions on possession of indecent images in the UK. In one successful appeal in 2011, the judge publicly criticized the Crown Protection Service (CPS) for their unfair pursuit of individual purchasers of these books rather than seriously investigating the publisher or retailer. Of course this advice is a two-edged sword and may make the printing and publishing of this material much more difficult.

David Hamilton - from Holiday Snapshots (1999)

David Hamilton – from Holiday Snapshots (1999)

* I am aware that these scans cannot possibly do justice to David Hamilton’s work, so anyone with better scans that show more fidelity and subtlety of tone are welcome to contribute. Also, I have taken the liberty of transcribing James’ English adaptation that I have used to produce this post for those who would like to read the complete story themselves.

David Hamilton (Wikipedia entry)