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Philippe Halsman: Portraits of American Artists
September 17 - January 14, 2007
Portraits of American Artists, curated by
Gail Stavitsky, opens at the Montclair Art Museum (MAM) on September 17,
and will remain on view through January
14, 2007. One of the leading portrait photographers of the twentieth century,
Philippe Halsman was best known for his provocative, penetrating portrayals
of celebrities, politicians, and intellectuals which graced the pages of
such major magazines as LIFE, Look, Esquire, and the Saturday
Evening Post during the 1940s through the 70s. His portraits
of leading American artists and cultural figures such as Andy Warhol and
Georgia O'Keeffe will be featured in this exhibition. Leading musical figures
such as Marion Anderson and Louis Armstrong, as well as the pioneering dance
figure Martha Graham, and the photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen,
Weegee, and Margaret Bourke-White are also in the exhibition. Also on view
will be a self-portrait of Halsman and a family portrait which includes
his daughter Irene Halsman, an artist in her own right, who resides in Montclair,
NJ and is co-executor of the Halsman estate from which most of the photographs
in the show are derived. Commenting on his own work, Halsman observed,
"This fascination with the human face has never left me. . . . Every
face I see seems to hide and sometimes, fleetingly, to reveal the mystery
of another human being. . . . Capturing this revelation became the goal
and passion of my life." (right: Philippe Halsman, Andy Warhol,
1968, Color photograph, Gift of Beth and George Meredith, 2005.23.7,
(c) Yvonne Halsman,1989, Photo by Peter Jacobs)
Philippe Halsman (1906-1979) was born in Riga, Latvia. He studied engineering in Dresden before moving to Paris, where he set up his photographic studio in 1932. Halsman's bold, spontaneous style won him many admirers. His portraits of actors and authors appeared on book jackets and in magazines; he also worked with fashion. By 1936, Halsman was known as one of the best portrait photographers in France.
Halsman's career came to a dramatic halt in the summer of 1940, when Hitler's troops invaded Paris. Finally, through the intervention of Albert Einstein (who had met Halsman's sister in the 1920s), Halsman obtained permission to enter the United States, and he arrived in New York in November, 1940 with little more than his camera.
Halsman's big break came when he met Connie Ford, a striking young model who agreed to pose in exchange for prints for her portfolio. When publicists at Elizabeth Arden saw Halsman's photograph of Ford against an American flag, they used the image to launch a national campaign for "Victory Red" lipstick. A year later, in the fall of 1942, LIFE asked Halsman to shoot a story on new hat design. To Halsman's delight, his portrait of the model smiling through a feathery brim landed on the cover. One hundred more covers followed before the magazine ceased weekly publication in 1972.
In Paris, Halsman had studied the work of other artists and photographers, especially the Surrealists, from whom he learned to make images that surprised his viewers. By including homely, and ultimately disturbing, details, he gave his subjects memorable tension. Through subtle lighting, sharp focus, and close cropping, he turned formal fashion shots into serious investigations of character. When Halsman posed NBC comedians against bare white paper, eliminating all defining context, their isolation made them look both frail and funny. Most important of all, from the Surrealists' exploration of the erotic unconscious, Halsman learned how to combine glamour, sex, and wholesome energy in one portrait. This unusual ability made him LIFE's favorite photographer for sensual stars like Marilyn Monroe (1952) and Brigitte Bardot. Halsman's sympathy for Surrealism also led to his long, productive friendship with Salvador Dali. Halsman met Dali on assignment in 1941, and over the next three decades they became partners on many projects, including a series of playful tableaux that had all the disturbing irrationality of dreams or a painting by Dali. Their most notable production was "Dali Atomicus," in which the artist, his canvas, furniture, cats, and water all appear suspended in air.
Over the course of his career, Halsman enjoyed comparing his work to that of a good psychologist who regards his subjects with special insight. With his courtly manners and European accent, Halsman also fit the popular stereotype at a time when Americans regarded psychology with fascinated skepticism. In fact, Halsman was proud of his ability to reveal the character of his sitters. As he explained, "It can't be done by pushing the person into position or arranging his head at a certain angle. It must be accomplished by provoking the victim, amusing him with jokes, lulling him with silence, or asking impertinent questions which his best friend would be afraid to voice."
Like many who escaped Hitler's Europe, Philippe Halsman
rarely discussed the past. He rightly insisted that his most important work
took place in America, and in many ways his adopted country became his subject.
One typical review noted his patriotic flair, praising Halsman's "unsanctimonious
and immensely intense portrayal of American bounce." From a historian's
perspective, it seems clear that Halsman invented a glowing image of the
nation as he saw it, using light, persuasion, nerve, imagination, psychology,
and experience. This place and these faces are his creation.
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