Figurative sculpture presents an object lesson in lighting for the photographic animation of plaster, clay, marble or bronze. Who rises to the challenge of transforming into two dimensions these minerals, once shaped and rounded by the sculptor’s hand, into supple flesh and warm skin over working muscle and scaffolding bone? Can that substitute and flattened semblance be rekindled with human passion?
What better sculptor to test the photographer than Auguste Rodin, who said “The sculptor must learn to reproduce the surface, which means all that vibrates on the surface: spirit, soul, love, passion — life…”?
André Steiner fits this achievement in a rare book published by Henri Martinie, himself a photographer, and a producer of numbers of monographs on artists. The production in this limited first edition is magnificent; one can see here the impress of the photogravure plates which calender the textured pages of fine deckle-edge art paper, rather then being tipped-in, and with text in crisp letterpress.
Photogravure, familiar to us from Alfred Stieglitz‘s Camera Work is an intaglio process that prints the images in continuous tones of ink without a mechanical dot-screen, and the idea is as old as photography itself, a technology intended, but not achieved beyond making the plate, by Nicéphore Niépce in his original manifestation of our medium and furthered by Henry Fox Talbot who patented it in 1852 as ‘photographic engraving’ and in 1858 as ‘photoglyphic engraving’.
Talbot was first to publish a discovery that chromated gelatin becomes insoluble after exposure to light, which is key to the process. Dichromated (i.e. light-sensitised) gelatin was coated on a steel plate prepared for engraving, dried, exposed to sunlight under a positive image, then parts of the gelatin coating not exposed to light were dissolved in hot water, leaving a relief image. Bichloride of platinum poured over the plate etched away the thinner parts of the gelatin relief — i.e. areas that were protected from light by darks in the positive image— leaving a depression to hold ink which, as in any intaglio plate, was transferred onto paper with a printing press.
His first process, while suitable for line work, did not reproduce a full range of tones, a deficit that he partly remedied by employing the aquatint etching process invented in the 1760s by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince. The Viennese Karl Klic perfected Talbot’s process in 1879, introducing carbon tissue for transferring image to a plate prepared with an aquatinted ground to achieve true photogravure, or heliogravure as he called it, which is still used today for ‘hand-pulled’ fine prints, as opposed to rotogravure, a machine printing process.
As you can see in the Rodin book, the technique reproduces photographic tonality superbly, while its appearance, the ink embedded in the grain of the paper, and the plate mark, makes one aware that it is ink. The Getty kindly provides a guide to their qualities and identification.
Even though Rodin himself made and commissioned photographs of his work and kept a large collection of reference photographs, his opinion of the medium was poor;
“If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because, all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art. […] it is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended.”
To record work in progress in his studio, with mixed results, Rodin found amateurs from amongst people he knew; Eugène Druet, owner of café that Rodin had patronized since 1893, and from 1900, Jean Limet, the patinator of Rodin’s bronzes. He was known to use photographic prints in visualising improvements to the work, scratching and drawing into them and cutting them out.
Amongst his collection of photographs were others which he used as reference material in designing his sculpture. With the advent of photography artists and art schools were making use of its realism to augment, or to even replace, life drawing.
The most prolific and best known of such suppliers of such visual reference material was the Swiss/Italian artist Gaudenzio Marconi (whose Wikipedia entry I have just expanded) and who in 1868 took over the Paris studio, and the archive, of Joseph Auguste Belloc, a daguerreotypist since 1851 and member of the Société française de photographie since its inception, who had ‘disappeared’.
Belloc had taken up wet collodion and had improved the wax coating process that preserved their gloss, undertook colour stereoscopy, gave photography lessons, and issued ten treatises on processes; his 1855 Les Quatre branches de la photographie, was especially successful. As Sylvie Aubenas and Philippe Comar recount in their 2001, Obscénités, Photographies interdites d’Auguste Belloc, his stereoscopes were declared illegal in 1856 and 1860.
Marconi listed himself in the Paris directory and sold académies; the photographic figure studies of nude men, women and children for use by artists. He faced the same peril as did Belloc— to be charged with producing and marketing pornography—and in 1869 took the precaution of registering his photographs in the depot legale or copyright office.
His pictures also clearly signal their purpose, just as Belloc’s were intimismes clearly intended as voyeruristic vignettes of women’s boudoirs. Marconi’s are bare of mirrors or furniture, like the workaday life drawing studios of the academies they resemble. Coarse blankets, not decorative drapery, cover makeshift supports of expediently-arranged boxes, the subjects often hold a staff to steady themselves, and backgrounds are blank; the minimal props could be transformed by the artists’ imagination into weapons, horses or divans.
They concentrate attention on the professional models whose dramatic poses lend themselves readily to allegories or ‘history paintings’ then in vogue in the Salon. Marconi’s consciousness of artistic symbolism is put to use during his frequent visits to sell his pictures at the Ecole des Beaux Arts; he poses the students, one of them ‘planking,’ in a tableau vivant imitating the frieze above them; a cast from the original at the hospital of Pistoia (Tuscany), executed from 1514 to 1535, by artists of the family and school of Lucca della Robbia. Tragically this same school courtyard would house the monument erected to its pupils killed in the defence of Paris in 1870-71
As Marie Lathers notes, the Italian woman—the Italienne—was valued for her “oriental” features by history and academic painters especially between the 1850s and the 1880s. The large numbers of Italians who had emigrated to Paris during the Second Empire (1852-70) provided both female and male models, young and old, and posing became a family business. Though working-class Italians generally were not educated in art, they could boast a cultural history long associated with the history of painting and sculpture and their instinct for posing was assumed to be a legacy of the Renaissance.
Of note in the albumen print of the young boy below is the label; Services des élèves de l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts permis sans étalage Marconi rue de Buci, 11; “For the use of the students of the School of Fine Arts; permit without display. Marconi rue de Buci, 11.” Such a permit was required by order of the conservative regime of President MacMahon which forbade public display of nude photographs and from April 1871, even académies were forbidden to be displayed in the public spaces of Paris such as shop windows, a restriction that included even photographic reproductions of paintings of nudes such as those publicly displayed in the annual Salons and the Louvre.
While French authorities had since 1864 generally arrested distributors rather than producers, as Susan Waller details, Marconi fell foul of these more strictly enforced French censorship laws imposed between 1871 and 1877, and
“on 1 July 1873, in the seventh chamber of the Tribunal correctionnel de Paris, photographer Gaudenzio Marconi was convicted of crimes against public morality. According to court records, Marconi had supplied Pierre Pagnon with obscene photographs and instructions in selling them. Both men were sentenced to six months in prison and fined 100 francs.”
That Rodin used Marconi’s académies is evident from their presence in his collection preserved at the Musée Rodin, and from similarities between the photographs and his artistic productions (above). Furthermore, he used Marconi’s services in the course of making The Age of Bronze, his establishing work, and also in upholding his reputation as a sculptor. Rather than use a professional to model for it he decided that someone with experience of battle would best suit an image of primitive man, this sculpture also being known as The Awakening Man. Accordingly, a young Belgian soldier, Auguste Neyt, a 22 year old soldier from barracks near to Rodin’s home in Brussels was selected as the model and in October 1875 he began work on the sculpture during which Rodin made his first visit to Italy in Spring 1876, and some trace in this pose the influence of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave which impressed him.
In January 1877, the plaster model was exhibited in Brussels where an article in L’Etoile belge asserted that it was cast from a live model; a cheat practiced by pretenders to the art. Defending himself in its crucial showing at the Paris Salon in 1877 he offered to show the jury Marconi’s photographs as proof, artist Gustave Biot wrote in support, “I find it strange that a certificate such as you have asked me to provide could be needed in Paris, but it is a pleasure and duty for me to give it to you,” and well-known sculptors—Dubois, Falguière, Carrier-Belleuse, Chapu, Chaplain, Thomas, Delaplanche—insisted that “his energy and extraordinarily powerful modelling” proved that Rodin’s new work was made without cheating.
So if the sculpture was in progress in 1875, when was this photograph actually made? Clues indicate that it was taken earlier than 1877, and not made specifically as evidence; around the toes are chalk marks on the rough timber plinth which assist the amateur model in resuming his pose between sessions. He holds onto a metal adjustable support (as does the young boy in our earlier picture) to steady his free arm, and in early versions it became a spear, a complication that Rodin abandoned for the free-standing figure whose unadorned naturalism and eloquent ambiguity (“There are at least four figures in it,” he was to boast) earned him both shock and admiration. The photograph proved the model was more robustly-built than the slender sculpture itself. Under commission by the French Government, and thus marking Rodin’s official acceptance, Thiébaut Frères cast the first bronze of the figure in May 1880 and it was installed in the Luxembourg Gardens in 1884.
Let’s return to Steiner, on whom I have just finished writing a Wikipedia entry, and his interpretation of this key work, 30 years after the sculptor’s death. He has photographed it in the Hôtel Biron, architect Jean Aubert’s 1732 rococo mansion which Rodin found practically abandoned and occupied as his studio and accommodation in 1908 and which became the Musée Rodin in 1919. The figure is amply lit by full-length windows where it would appear to be standing in the foyer when Steiner made his picture, adding his own studio lighting, so that extended reflections play along the limbs and knot at the joints. In placing his camera he emphasises motion and progression. Defying Rodin’s criticism of photography’s instantaneity, he draws out the twisting at every plane; feet, knees, hips chest, shoulders and head. From that angle of view both hands appear to press the head, conveying a confusion, as if this ancient being has just become aware.
Steiner was a photographier devoted to the human form, with a curiosity deriving from his initial studies electrical engineering at the Vienna University of Technology where he encountered X-Ray photography as assistant to Prof. Josef Maria Eder, and through his own sporting prowess and devotion to culture physique; the ‘hygienic’ virtue of sport expressed in ‘father of the Olympic Games’ Baron Pierre de Coubertin‘s Essais de psychologie sportive of 1913 :
I want to establish the correlation between psychology and physical movement and create a social therapeutic that will halt the universal neurosis of modern life. Sport is an incomparable psychic instrument, and a dynamic to which one can profitably appeal in the treatment of many psychoneuroses. For, very often, the psychoneuroses are distinguished by a kind of disappearance of the virile sensibility and there is nothing like sport to revive and maintain it. It is the art of virilizing bodies and souls
French magazines to which Steiner contributed, Vu and Art et Médicine, extolled the virtue of a culture of the body, the latter exclaiming in November 1934 that there is “no master of aesthetics more perfect than water for making muscles play and shaping flesh.”
Physical culture was a movement found also in England and here in Australia. The German version was nationalistic, ultimately a fascist Aryan eugenic fantasy of strength and the survival of the fittest, while in France after the defeats of 1914-18 it seemed simply a celebration of the vigorous victory of life over war.
Steiner was encouraged to take up photography by Eder, who gave him an early Leica to test. The portable, precision instrument was an inspiration to his adoption of a distinctly modernist manner for this scientifically-minded photographer, though he remained aloof from the considerable, mostly Modernist, Hungarian photographic community in Paris which included André Kertész, Brassaï, Robert Capa, Nora Dumas, Ergy Landau, Ervin Marton, Émeric Fehér, Lucien Hervé, Rogi André, Rosie Rey and others.
Through his involvement at seventeen in Hakoah, Vienna’s Jewish sports organisation, and as one of the trainers of the prestigious swim team to which she belonged, he met Léa Sasson, then aged thirteen.
Their passion defied their age difference of 9 years and conflicting origins; she the daughter of a Sephardic Istanbul Jewish family, and he a Hungarian and Ashkenazi. They married in Hungary, when he was 27 and Lily had reached eighteen, and arrived in Paris husband and wife. There by 1933 he had set up a photography studio and the following year they had a daughter Nicole.
As curator François Cheval and novelist Arnaud Cathrine express it in the catalogue of the 2011 Musée Nicéphore Niépce Steiner retrospective Ce qu’on n’a pas fini d’aimer (‘What We Never Finish Loving’) published by Bec en l’air;
“André Steiner sculpted his body and helped shape that of his wife and, as a result, he made their bodies, their anatomy, the subject.”
The couple divorced in 1938, a fact explained nowhere that I can discover. I imagine that the separation was prompted by the impending war and their peril as Jews; she, who was the dependent, departed leaving him with their daughter. Perhaps Nicole joined the other children taking refuge in the countryside in this story covered by Steiner in the penultimate issue of Vu?
Later he also photographed her riding horses and, astonishingly, as a nude model for the pages of Paris Sex-Appeal to which he had contributed since its earliest issues.
At first glance it is a men’s magazine founded at the time Steiner took up professional photography, but in researching to create this Wikipedia article, I discover that it supported a number of significant writers and photographers, including Maria Eisner and René Zuber creators of the agency Alliance Phot, forerunner of Magnum, Jean Moral, Pierre Boucher, Serge de Sazo, Roger Schall, Nora Dumas, and many others.
Naughty and light, it played on the stereotype of the liberated “Parisian woman” and on the city of Paris to appeal to a male audience. Not pornographic, it featured fictional texts often authored pseudonymously (Pierre Mac Orlan as Sadie Blackeyes, for example, and Ernest de Gengenbach’s ‘La Satanisme moderne’ penned by ‘Jehan Silvius’), and illustrated with photographs and drawings, most credited, in which usually athletic women, and some muscular men, appear more or less naked, which delighted international subscribers. Never banned or restricted, it was openly available on newsstands as evidenced by its legal deposit under a more liberal administration than that which criminalised Marconi’s acadèmies.
Nevertheless, numbers of artists used it as a source for surrealist works, including Francis Picabia, and Clovis Trouille, whose 1946 reclining nude shown from behind is entitled Oh! Calcutta, Calcutta! (familiar since as the title of the controversial 1969 musical revue by Kenneth Tynan), a pun in French from pronunciation of the phrase “oh quel cul t’as” (“oh what a lovely arse you have”) and is a close copy in paint from a small reproduction of André Steiner’s nude photograph in the July 1935 issue of the magazine.
His own statement on the nude, made in the 1950s after he reoriented his practice to concentrate on scientific imaging, betrays his modernist, rather than erotic, intent, describing the nude as a fiction;
“suggested by the photographer… The main quality of the model is to lend themselves as a disarticulated puppet, in order to fill up a space that is sometimes cut through by shadows, sometimes exaggerated by too much light…”
His work was selected for the International Exhibition of Contemporary Photography at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris in 1936 and he was subsequently specially commissioned for reportage by magazines Paris-Soir, Marianne, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and others.
In 1939 he made a fashion photographs of the Swedish dancer Lisa Fonssagrives (who modelled for and married Irving Penn).
Lily died in Cannes in 1974 and Nicole is credited in exhibitions of André’s work as Nicole Steiner-Bijolet, manager of his archive.
During the War he joined the French Army, then under the German occupation, as a committed communist, fought in the Resistance, for which he was granted French citizenship.
Steiner’s definitive book of nudes, delayed by the war, was finally published, though by then he had discontinued his work with the nude human figure to concentrate on applied work in the fields of industrial and medical imaging for which he also acted as a consultant.
Nevertheless, his pre-war figurative imagery is formative of his approach to Rodin’s sculpture for Martinie’s superbly produced book. In particular, the controversial sculpture The Kiss he treats with lighting that enlivens its passion…here as seen in the photogravure…
…in an original proof…
and in his contact sheet…which makes clear that a spotlight is being positioned and repositioned before it illuminates the figures’ heads and the breast of the woman to Steiner’s satisfaction.
He also photographed for Jean Charbonneaux’ Maillot monograph, also printed by Braun, and released in 1948, with softer lighting befitting the sculptor’s neoclassical art deco style.
Thanks to his own decision to turn away from art photography and photography of art in preference to his scientific interests, Steiner remains largely anonymous, a footnote of modernist photography, like the scant credit given for his poetic renditions of sculpture…