January 21: Ascendant

#21Marcel Duchamp’s scandalous Nude Descending a Staircase is a translation of photographic and cinematic temporal effects into paint. Shown at the notorious Armory show.

It has inspired many, including include Yoko Ono, Robert Brinker, Pamela Joseph, Mel Ramos, and Tetsuya Yamada, in media from film and photography to ink drawing and painting.

Of course we photographers are reminded of another nude descending, recorded in sequence by Edweard Muybridge. On several occasions, as Duchamp recalled painting his Nude, (relates Aaron Scharf in his landmark Art and Photography ) he admitted unequivocally that the idea came from chronophotography, saying that in 1912 Parisian artists ‘were stimulated by stroboscopic and multiple-exposure high-speed photographs’ of Marey and Muybridge and illustrations like Paul Richer’s drawing ‘Un double pas de la descente d’un escalier’ (Fig.114, p.299) from Physiologie Artistique de l’homme en mouvement (a book owned by Duchamp). Thus is established the direct lineage from Muybridge’s study Descending stairs and turning around 1884-85, to the Duchamp.


A counterpoint to this chronicle of Muybridge’s legacy from our medium, is a lesser-known nude, but equally striking, ascending a staircase. It appears on the cover of Émile Savitry: un photographe de Montparnasse.

“Who is Savitry?”; you might well ask. It is a question posed rhetorically in the publication by Gaëlle Rageot-Deshayes (director of the museum of l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix, Les Sables d’Olonne). She echoes a 1976 inquiry by Le Photographe which devoted a section to the photographer’s rediscovery. More than thirty-six years later, though we do not know much more about him, we at least have this lovely monograph (5 Continents Editions, Milan, Italy). It is full of his sumptuously lit, filmic photographs replete with the ambience of mid-century Paris. 

Born in Saigon, in 1903 on this date, into the wealthy colonial industrialist Dupont family, Émile renamed himself Savitry to go at age 17 to study painting at l’École des Beaux-Arts de Valence then at Arts Décoratifs de Paris and the private Académie de la Grande Chaumière (still located in Paris at 14, rue de la Grande Chaumiere), until 1924. He associated with poet Robert Desnos and painter André Derain and other Surrealists. Like Derain, he quickly assimilated Cubism and then Surrealism. His triumph of this period was to exhibit in 1929 at the  gallery of dealer Léopold Zborowski (1889–1932) a sellout show, the surrealist catalogue essay of which was penned by the celebrated Louis Aragon (1897-1982).

emile savitry (french) title- les chercheurs de sourires , 1929 medium- oil on canvas size- 46.1 x 55.2 cm
Émile Savitry (1929) Les chercheurs de sourires, oil on canvas, 46.1 x 55.2 cm

What follows illustrates Savitry’s quixotic nature, luckiness and wealthy dilettantism, which may account for his obscurity; “He had more than one string to his art” wrote Claude Roy in 1972: “Painting, photography, travel (and doing nothing). But what did not interest him was to be successful.”. On the threshold of artistic fame he decamped to Polynesia in the company of surrealist painter Georges Malkine and Yvette Ledoux, a young Canadian woman whom he’d just met. ImageOn arrival she chose to go with Malkine. Savitry had taken a Gaumont Block-Notes 6×9 camera, so named for its shape and its ingenious sheet magazine, and happened upon a beached ‘ghost ship’. Friedrich W. Murnau, in the middle of shooting his ill-fated movie Tabu was impressed by Savitry’s boat picture and engaged him on his team to research Polynesian iconography and make film stills.

This history no doubt influences the cinematic quality of Savitry’s subsequent photography. On return to Paris in 1930 he launches a career as a photographer. His two-shot sequence of high-angle shots of Place Pigalle, shot at night and in daylight, are like film sets, one lit and full of drama, the other under construction.

The giant, tilted moon-face on the façade of La Lune Rousse nightclub acts as a surreal signature in a lower corner of the frame. It was part of his reportage on Rue Pigalle for Match and Arts et Métiers Graphique which features his close friend Django Reinhardt, whose installation in Paris with his family, Savitry sponsored. Such generosity and empathy enlivened all of his work.


Grande Chaumiere Academy of Fine Arts (still located in Paris at 14, rue de la Grande Chaumiere)

To return to our nude; she springs two steps at a time up the worn narrow staircase of the Grande Chaumiere Academy of Fine Arts toward a room in which, through the half-open door, we glimpse the aluminium scoop of a studio light. The dusty stairwell windows admit a broad drift of snowy light which embraces her rounded, vigorous figure, and across her back sharply delineates sinews, bone and muscle, in a fond but anatomical study. Softer again, reflection from the stained wall provides just enough modelling on her shadow side to trace it against the dark-painted door and stairs, in a counter-change to her raven hair before the bright open room.

Her hand reaches to balance her momentary contrapposto, and is hooked at the wrist in sympathy with the twisted balustrade, the uprights of which are patterned with a series of small orbs trailing into the image like an elipsis…amplifying her motion. She is caught between two states, between the models’ dressing room and the drawing studio, also in the throes of the metamorphosis, from a woman with dirty feet to classical model, who sanctions the probing gaze that is a moment later to be cast upon her by all in that room.

Such an everyday art-school incident, this moment of transformation has so impressed Savitry that he returns twenty years later to this familiar setting of his youth to make of it a souvenir ; in the original, French sense of ‘remembrance’, with this picture. In doing so, and with his first-hand experience of formative twentieth-century art iconography, is he not also making a witty, but rather wry, reprise of this Modernist trope of the nude on the stairs, humanising her, and restoring her in poetic motion?

Émile Savitry

Such prestidigitation materialises the photographs in this book, literally in the case of the astonishing sight of a woman being levitated by magician Guy Bert (1947), and in the mesmeric encounter with Pierre Prévert photographing us with his behemoth studio portrait camera.

Émile Savitry (n.d.) Pierre Prévert

It’s magic that gives his film stills the power to evoke whole dramas in one shot, amongst these the much imitated Anouk Aimée holding her cat in the filming of Marcel Carné’s Fleur de l’âge, just as in his reportage, real-life dramas like the fleeing Spanish of the war years in Perpignan, become cinema frames.

anouk aimée (barbara) et son chat tulipe. elle a 15 ans
Émile Savitry () Anouk Aimée (Barbara) with her car Tulipe at age fifteen.

Amongst his fashion photography there is his Balthus-like serendipitous capture of an elegant eighteen year old Brigitte Bardot (1952) in her home, and who, discretely unnamed, appears two years earlier in an image titled Nu à l’oreiller (1950).

BardotNu à l’oreiller

An exhibition Émile Savitry, un récit photographique de La Fleur de l’âge, with his stills from  the film directed by Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert was held at Château de l’Hermine as part of the Festival Photo de Mer de Vannes from 1 April to 1 May 2013. A companion publication by  éditions Gallimard came out on 28 March 2013

Coincidentally, Ed van der Elsken, a favourite of mine among photographers of last century, also provides us with images of ingénue Bardot as a young ballerina at the practice bar, as yet uncorrupted by her appointment with fame…just shows; it pays to keep your eyes open!


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