Alfredo Boulton, Boulton Moderno 1928/1944

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Editorial RM (here) and Toluca Editions (here). Hardcover (11 ¾ in. square), 160 pages, with 84 black-and-white reproductions. Includes bilingual texts (in both English and Spanish) by Juan Manuel Bonet, Luis Pérez-Oramas, and Sofía Vollmer de Maduro. $695.00 pesos (approx. $45.00) (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Alfredo Boulton (1908-1995) occupies a lofty position in the 20th century intellectual history of his native Venezuela. Literary critic and essayist, art historian and curator, and photographer and publisher, he was an early importer of Modernist ideas as well as a committed nationalist. Urging his countrymen and –women to appreciate the diverse culture and landscapes that was their birth rite, he became a guide for several younger generations of artists and writers.

As the Venezuelan poet, curator, and art historian Luis Pérez Oramos writes here, Boulton “was, without doubt, our first eye.” In his support for other Modernists, and in the examples of his own art, he was a pioneer in his ability to construct “an integrated vision of the country.”

This handsome volume surveys the period (1928-1944) when Boulton had returned to Caracas from Europe. Born into a wealthy and distinguished family, schooled in Switzerland and England, he left the continent a year too soon to have visited Film und Foto but spent enough time in Paris to encounter the work of Man Ray and the burgeoning Surrealist movement. Early efforts with a vest-pocket camera were advanced by the adoption in 1930 of a Rolleiflex, its 6×6 cm frame becoming the format for most of his subsequent photography.

As an International Style can be seen in architecture of the 1930s and ‘40s, so is it found in photography. Boulton relied on the Modernist and Surrealist dramatic repertoire of techniques: jutting diagonals; tight cropping and close-ups of human and plant parts; isolation of everyday objects from their normal context in order to enhance their mystery. Surfaces are eroticized with dangerous shadows lurking in the corners of rooms and in alleyways. The dignity of rural laborers is affirmed in solemn, unsmiling portraits of anonymous farmhands and fishermen.

Many of Boulton’s images bear the imprint of prominent artists he admired: Strand, Weston, Outerbridge, Blossfeldt, Adams, Man Ray, Chirico, Magritte. To avoid the appearance of imitation, he commonly added Venezuelan content (tropical fruits and plants in his still lifes; local mountain ranges in his Edenic landscapes.)

The history of Modernism is populated by men and women whose artistic curiosity was enabled by personal fortunes, and Boulton’s life exemplified this pattern. During the 1930s he bought a house in Maracaibo, in the west of the country, which led to a series of photographs and writings on the Andes. The publication of his Imagenes del Occidente Venezolano in 1940 was the first photo-book by a Venezuelan artist. With his wife and muse, Yolando Delgado Lairet, he also liked to get away and spend weeks in the art scene of Los Angeles.

In 1944 they bought another house on the island of Margarita, along the Caribbean, and exhibited a series of 89 photographs he had taken there at the Bellas Artes Museum of Caracas. Having celebrated the landscapes on both ends of the country, as well as the lives the people therein, he began a systematic study of the entire country as part of a nationalist art history project. Before he was done he had photographed the Llanos grassland in the interior and the men who herded there. (The Llaneros had been instrumental in helping Jose Antonio Paéz to win independence for Venezuela from Gran Columbia in 1830.)

Boulton did not lack for recognition during his lifetime. Four of his images were chosen by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall for New Photographers, the 1946 MoMA traveling show that included Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Arnold Newman, Todd Webb, György Kepes, and Frederick Sommer. His association with the museum lasted many years afterward. A member of its International Council in the 1950s and ‘60s, he became its chair between 1970-74.

As a photographer, he might be dismissed as a third-tier artist had he not chosen to preserve his work in massive scrapbook volumes (41 x 88 cm.) These fascinating artifacts, reproduced here in a generous selection, reveal private experiments with the mounting of images and with subjects not altogether fit for public display in a deeply conservative nation.

Boulton was unusual, if not unique, for his era in that the erotic sensibility in his nudes swings both ways. There are almost as many males as females. Some of the women, photographs from 1928, recline in sand dunes in a manner that openly acknowledges ones done by Weston a few years earlier. All of the men are dark-skinned and some wear sailor hats, presumably models that he had found in the nation’s ports.

Boulton took care to vary the presentation of these images on the page. Most are arranged in grids of four to twelve; others are less confining and more fun. In the most startling example, done sometime between 1928-1942, he sequenced four large prints of a male nude so they overlap and partially eclipse each other. Although the pose embodies classical restraint—stoic expression, one arm raised, genitals in shadow—the layering of the prints begs the viewer to peel them back and discover something hidden, as if for a photographic strip-tease.

Another extraordinary page in these scrapbooks from 1942-43 shows rows of hands holding feet, toes scrunched or twisted, fingers clasping or cradling the instep or sole. One can imagine Boulton taking one picture and then turning the incongruous joining of these two extremities into a playful exercise about the surprising personality of faceless flesh.

There are also a few outstanding individual pictures here. The greatest of these may be Mi Ventana (My Window) from 1931. Half of the photograph is blurry and half isn’t, and it takes a few seconds to figure out the photographer is looking from an upper floor of his house at the tiles on his roof, the mysterious parallel lines across the frame caused by wooden blinds on the window.

The tiles are fragmented, almost illegible, but the blinds organize them in rows. They could be loaves of bread in a bakery or shoes lined up in a closet. The obscured view gives the scene a voyeuristic cast, as if the photographer were revealing an illicit secret. Of course, this is not the case. Instead, when the mind is oriented correctly, it becomes the earliest kind of photograph, a Modernist update of the one that Nièpce made from his farmhouse window in 1827.

Decapitación from 1928 is a more self-conscious revision. A bundle of starched white collars in the loose shape of a head, the strips intertwined like a rat’s nest, it’s Outerbridge’s icon from 1922 but done in a more convoluted fashion.

After more than 20 years of making his own pictures, Boulton preferred to write about ones made by others. By the 1950s, writes Juan Manuel Bonet, “the photographer gave way to the art historian.” This “tropical and patrician Vasari,” as Oramos has called him, devoted the last 40 years of his life to writing about the history of Venezuelan painting, from colonial times to the 1970s.

For anyone unfamiliar with Boulton’s photographic career, this book is an essential introduction. Those wanting to go deeper should pick up the 2008 essay collection, Alfredo Boulton and His Contemporaries, edited by Ariel Jimenez. But nothing in English or Spanish matches the high production and scholarly values of this volume. Overseen by Sofia Vollmer de Maduro, who wrote a helpful timeline and commissioned Bonet’s splendid essay, this book is hers, and for that she deserves our thanks.

Collector’s POV: Alfredo Boulton is represented by Toluca Fine Art in Paris (here). His works have little consistent secondary market history in the past decade, so gallery retail is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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