Is fame contagious?
Rózsa Klein (1900–1970) was born in Budapest into a bourgeois family. She suffered severe curvature of the spine that limited in her movements due to the steel corset her father prescribed for her. He encouraged her to study art and violin and she became accomplished in both. She left the Budapest School of Fine Arts in 1925 and settled in Paris amongst exiled supporters of Count Mihály Károlyi, temporary president of the Hungarian Republic, all opposed to the dictatorial Horthy regime. They included the sculptor István Beöthy and his wife, the painter Anna Beöthy-Steiner (1902–1985).
Her neighbour in the Montmartre Hôtel de la terrasses was photographer André Kertész. They appear together in 1926 with a mysterious friend posing for Kertesz’ camera in front of a mirror which also reflects a painting—perhaps a self-portrait by Rogi which repeats her face—on an easel.
In 1928 they were married. It was an exciting time for Kertesz who had just purchased his first Leica and was getting commissions photographing the modern excitements of travel by motor and aeroplane from the prestigious Vu magazine, with credits on several covers.
Alongside Eugène Atget, Berenice Abbott, Germaine Krull, Man Ray, Albin Guillot, Paul Nadar and others, in May he participated in the ‘Premier Salon indépendant de la photographie moderne’ (known also as the Salon de I’escalier) at the Théâtre de la Comédie des Champs-Élysées—the first avant garde show of photography in Paris—the organisers of which opposed Pictorialist “art photography”. Florent Fels, French journalist, publisher, and one of the curators of the Paris exhibition, announced a desire “above all to avoid: […] a whole aesthetic which finds its ends in painting, but which escapes the laws of photography”. Then, in November, Kertesz showed in Brussels at the L’Époque gallery, finding his place amongst the authors of a new photographic vision of the artistic avant-garde.
Kertesz and Rózsa Klein lived together at 75 boulevard de Montparnasse next to the constructivist gallery/bookshop L’esthétique founded by their friend, painter Evsa, husband of Lisette Model. Like Brassai, who also knew them, she was influenced in her photography by her husband, but like Brassai she nevertheless eschewed the 35mm camera for a Voigtlander Bergheil 9×12 folding camera that took glass plates which by the 1920s were quite outmoded. Anne Lanoë in her 2017 young adult novel Des lendemains qui chantent imagines a conversation (which I translate here) between Dora Maar and Rózsa;
“It’s unusual to use a Contax …”
“It must be because of that,” replied Dora, with a little smirk. “I don’t like what everyone likes, and the Zeiss Ikon optics are a marvel of finesse and precision! With that, I can make enlargements as large as I like! Frankly, I even wonder if they are not better than those of Leica …”
“Here! can I?” said the woman, grabbing the device. Then she glued her eye to the finder, adjusted the sharpness and took several photos of the Boulevard Montparnasse without even asking Dora for permission.
“Hmm… It’s interesting” … she said after a moment. “I am not into street photography, but I can understand your choice. It’s not always fashion that wins … Me, you see, what I like are portraits … faces. And for that, I only use an old Voigtlander with plates. Yes, yes…plates! No film! Everyone puts me down because it’s old fashioned, but I don’t care! I do my portraits and that’s all that matters to me. You know, there is something very moving to capture when you photograph a face, a look. The very essence of being. Its truth. I never tire of photographing writers, for example. I started a short time ago, but it’s a real passion! Photograph their hands, their eyes … You wouldn’t want to pose for me one of these days? I like your face very much. I move among people and I photograph them, as I feel them. Like that, she snapped her finger. By the way, I did not introduce myself … Rogi André. Nice to meet you!”
In fact in 1941, Dora Maar did pose for Rózsa Klein, who by then had become financially independent. In the portrait session she captures Maar’s calm, serious beauty, which Brassaï, with whom Maar shared a darkroom in Montparnasse in the mid-1930s, describes in his memoir, Picasso & Co, the “grave, tense countenance of this girl with the light eyes, and that look that was so fixed and attentive, it was sometimes unsettling.” One can sympathise with Jean Cocteau‘s remark that Maar’s mouth was “like a torn flower,” or with the descriptions of both Françoise Gilot who said “The most remarkable thing about her was her extraordinary immobility. . . . I noticed her intense bronze-green eyes, and her slender hands with their long, tapering fingers,” and Pierre Cabanne who added that though much in demand, she had a distant air that put off most would-be suiters.
Around 1927–1928, Rózsa began photographing nude female figures, which found a ready market, despite her reluctance over this genre.
Rózsa’s relationship with Kertesz was short-lived (their marriage he kept secret and rarely mentioned it for the rest of his life) and they divorced in 1932 after he left her for his mistress Élisabeth Sali whom he next married. Deeply affected by this separation Rózsa started signing her photographs with the pseudonym of Rogi André, taking her ex-husband’s first name as her surname.
She nevertheless quickly managed on her own and was tutor to her friends Lisette Model and later Dora Maar, who both began working in photography as well.
From 1930, she specialised in portraiture, and her self-portrait of that year shows a quite different woman compared to that immortalised by Kertesz in 1926; thin-lipped and determined, with an aura of melancholy.
In 1932, she moved into a building on the Rue du Père-Cotentin, where she reunited with two other photographers, Florence Henri (1893–1982) and Ilse Bing (1899–1998), and her work started to be published in the magazines Paris Magazine, Arts et métiers graphiques and Verve.
Between 1930 and 1950, she produced a pantheon of painters, sculptors, writers, artists among the most remarkable of the time, including Pablo Picasso, Aristide Maillol, André Derain, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Balthus, Le Corbusier, René Crevel, Ambroise Vollard, Antonin Artaud, Colette, André Breton, Jacques Prévert, François Mauriac, Pierre Roy, Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, Oscar Dominguez, Le Corbusier, Julio Gonzales, Maurice Utrillo, Max Ernst, Henri Matisse, Peggy Guggenheim, Jean Lurçat, Soutine, Pierre Descaves, Roland Penrose, Jacques Lipchitz, Jean Cocteau, Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall, Maurice de Vlaminck, Luis Bunuel, André Gide, Pierre Reverdy, Jacques Villon, Raoul Dufy, Jacques Prévert, Max Jacob, Alberto Giacometti, Django Reinhardt, Jean Sablon, Marie Laurencin, Mondrian, Nush Eluard, Marcel Duchamp, Aristide Maillol, André Lhote, Paul Eluard, Pierre Loeb, Pierre Bonnard, Florence Henri, Natalia Gontcharova, André Derain, Georges Braque, André Breton and so on—a list of famous subjects more extensive than in the much better known oeuvre of Giselle Freund or of Berenice Abbott.
Many convey a sense of presence; her double portrait of the composer Varèse with Artaud places us in close proximity, right across the desk, as if we are joining the two men in an absorbing intellectual conversation. Likewise, Fernand Léger engages, somewhat quizzically, with André behind her camera, his furrowed brow echoing the interlocking forms in his painting behind.
Amidst the Parisian intellectual milieu, she befriended the French and immigrant avant-garde creatives including the Surrealist writer and leader André Breton for whom in 1934 she photographed Jacqueline Lamba‘s performances at Le Coliseum cinema and dance hall at 65 Rue de Rochechouart where several times a week she could be seen swimming naked. Rogi made the pictures using a mirror angled under the water (the edge of the mirror can be seen in the picture at the head of this post). One was published to accompany Breton’s text in Minotaure and subsequently reproduced in his L’Amour Fou.
It is in L’amour fou that Breton names “Ondine” whom he met in Cyrano cafe on Place Blanche on May 29, 1934. Writes Breton;
“I had already seen her enter two or three times here before: I had sensed her each time, before I saw her, through some—I do not know what—tension undulating through me… This impulse, whether in life or in art, has always warned me of the presence of the beautiful.”
She agrees to an assignation at midnight, after her show and all night long, they wander from Pigalle to rue Gît-le-Coeur, passing through the Halles district and the Saint-Jacques Tower.
A few days later, Breton recalls his poem of 1923, Tournesol (Sunflower) as a premonition of Jacqueline Lamba’s appearance to him as “the all-powerful authorizer of the sunflower night”. They quickly married that August 14 with Alberto Giacometti and Paul Éluard as witnesses in an event which Man Ray recorded in his photograph of Jacqueline posing nude in the middle of the three men, in reference to Edouard Manet‘s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Their daughter Aube Elléouët was born on December 20, 1935.
Rogi André showed at the galleries Art et industrie, Pléaide, Le Chausseur d’images, and in several group exhibitions, and in the exhibition Photography, 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937.
Collecter and art critic Louis Chéronne in his review of a group show at François Tuefferd‘s gallery Le Chasseur d’Images in taking up the name of the gallery identifies as the most striking example of the photographer as ‘hunter’ in a “snapshot of a diver in a swimming pool by Steiner”. André’s own picture of Jacqueline Lamba in a pool was clearly not in the show, but he goes on to praise André’s portrait of painter Pierre Bonnard as “No less sensitive, but more psychological”…
“…inscribed in this image are: the man, his character, his living environment, his artistic symbol, all with an astonishing subtlety of softness. Only Nadar knew how to succeed in such works, all meditated for a long time and taken from life.”
For each of her portraits, Rogi would take four to six photographs. She carried her own equipment; the cumbersome 1912 9 x 12 Voigtländer Bergheil with glass plates, but setting it up gave her more time to meet and study her models. As was her habit, she made several careful and considered shots of Bonnard, including one of him at his window, and this still life that we see in at the bottom of the portrait above.
During WW2, in 1941, she left Paris for Touraine in the unoccupied zone with the help of by Renée Beslon, whom she met in the studio of André Lhote, whose painting classes she took. After she returned to Paris the gallerist Jeanne Bucher protected her by hiding her in her daughter’s bedroom. In 1944, Rogi was commissioned to photograph Wassily Kandinsky on his death bed for an image in which his 1935 painting Mouvement I
(now in Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) evokes the departure of his soul.
Well recognised and widely published in her own country, her international reputation was growing. During her lifetime Rogi André’s portraits appeared in three Museum of Modern Art exhibitions; Portrait Photographs, July 9–September 28, 1969; Portraits, November 4–December 7, 1943; and Photography 1839–1937, March 17–April 18, 1937.
Dora Maar is widely known and currently on exhibition at the Tate but, in 1950, Rogi was living in poverty and had returned to painting. On April 11 , 1970, Rogi André died in Paris, still in poverty, and her modest possessions were put on sale at the Hôtel Drouot auction house. Part of her archives, and in particular her prints, were saved thanks to the efforts of Jean-Claude Lemagny, curator responsible for contemporary photography in the Department of Prints and Photography of the National Library of France, who acquired them for the collection.
By some accounts, André was a difficult person and had no other relationships after her divorce from Kertesz, but despite her having met all of the painters and writers from the legendary Montparnasse neighbourhood during the interwar period…had you ever heard of her?
Likewise, my father Brian McArdle, while editor of Walkabout magazine, photographed many of the leading artists of 1960s Melbourne, including Albert Tucker, Mirka Mora, Sidney Nolan, Laurence Hope, John Perceval, as well as NGV director Eric Westbrook, among many others. His photography—determinedly of the available light persuasion—improved ‘on the job’.
It’s a phenomenon amongst photographers, Rogi and Brian included, that they expect, after a career spent photographing the famous, that their subjects’ celebrity has somehow rubbed off on them, only to find, once they stop, that unexpectedly they remain little known, ignored, or forgotten.
[Friday 1 Jan 2021: Today, I’ve updated the English Wikipedia article on Rogi André from research I did for this article]