Madame d’Ora @Neue Galerie

JTF (just the facts): A total of 161 photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against gradually darkening grey walls in a series of 4 rooms on the third floor of the museum. The exhibition was curated by Monika Faber.

While no detailed information on printing processes, dimensions, or edition sizes was provided on the wall labels, the following works have been included in the show:

Stairwell

  • 3 enlarged photographs on lightboxes, c1920, 1922, 1954

Entry/Hallway

  • 1 enlarged photograph on vinyl, 1909
  • 5 black and white photographs, c1920, c1925, c1928, c1929, c1930
  • Visual biography/timeline with images, magazine covers

Vienna 1908-1923

  • 49 black and white photographs, 1908, 1909, c1909, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1915, c1915, 1916, 1917, 1919, 1920, 1922, 1923
  • 1 vitrine with evening coat (1911-1915), tunic (1900-1908), and enlarged photograph (1910)
  • 1 vitrine with negligee (1912), and enlarged photograph (1913)

Paris 1923-1939

  • 48 black and white photographs, 1923, c1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, c1929, 1930, c1930, 1931, c1931, 1933, c1935, c1936, 1937, c1937, c1938, 1939
  • 5 paper headpieces, Brett McCormack, 2020
  • 1 vitrine with evening gown, 1933
  • 1 video screen, Lanvin studio album, 1932-1937
  • 1 video, 1928, 6:30

Post-World War II 1946-1957

  • 36 black and white photographs, 1927, 1939, 1946-1948, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1954, c1954, c1954-1957, 1955
  • 1 vitrine with 11 spreads/images from Chevalier book project

The Marquis de Cuevas 1953

  • 9 black and white photographs, 1953, 1954, 1955-1957
  • 1 film/interview, 2016

(Installation shots below courtesy Neue Galerie New York. Photography by Hulya Kolabas, 2020.)

A catalog of the exhibition has also been co-published by the museum (here) and Prestel (here). Hardcover, 220 pages, with 80 color and 100 black and white illustrations. Includes a preface by Ronald S. Lauder, foreword by Renée Price, and contributions by Katrin Bomhoff, Christian Brandstätter, Jean-Marc Dreyfus, Monika Faber, Esther Ruelfs, Lisa Silverman, and Magdalena Vuković. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Early 20th century fashion photography set its roots firmly in a culture of studio portraiture that catered to the whims of the rich and famous. In most of the major capitals in Europe, as well as in America and elsewhere, sought after portrait photographers made flattering images of society ladies, royal and aristocratic families, artists, actors, and other notables and celebrities, who were invariably outfitted in finery ranging from military dress to the boldest fashions of the times. Names like Steichen, de Meyer, Hoyningen-Huene, and Beaton recalibrated the painterliness of turn of the century photographic Pictorialism for more modern needs, creating a generous soft focus style that made even the most homely of sitters look glamorous. These photographers (and others) then leveraged their relationships with this refined clientele into commercial and magazine work for the major fashion houses, particularly in Paris. By the end of the 1930s, the genre had quickly expanded, pushing fashion (with its elegant aspirations and associations) down further into everyday society.

This exhibition makes the case that the underknown Austrian photographer Madame d’Ora deserves a more prominent place in this early history. Born as Dora Kallmus in 1881 to a family of Jewish intellectuals, she opened her first portrait studio in Vienna in 1906, and soon became the leading portrait photographer in the city, ultimately taking on the more stylish pseudonym of Madame d’Ora. The show systematically traces the arc of her career, building up from her beginnings in Vienna, through to her widening success in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and eventually on to her unexpected artistic transformation after living through the traumas of World War II.

The photographs from Madame d’Ora’s early years settle into stylistic patterns that we have seen before in images from this period. Her closely cropped torso and head shots of pensive men in suits (invariably artists, composers, authors, and thinkers) center on the power of eyes and penetrating stares (along with more than a few elegant beards). Her women generally get more full body treatment to show off their style, the more demure seen seated in chairs or accompanied by infants and the more bold found lounging on chaises or showing off the sweep of an evening gown. For the most part, these are well-crafted and flattering but less than artistically risky portraits, the kinds of images the sitters would have been pleased with. A few of the pictures hint at a willingness to explore something more fresh and modern, with dense patterns, bold draping, sleek lines, fur collars, and jaunty hats given more central attention, and several convention defying women (from dancers and actresses to younger, more independent souls) pushing the limits of what was acceptable. During this time, Madame d’Ora worked for both the Wiener Werkstätte and the Zwieback fashion house, and took formal pictures of the Archduke Karl I’s family, the range of her connections and local renown ever growing.

But Paris was where the real action was taking place in the fashion world, so Madame d’Ora relocated to follow the momentum, and her work quickly evolved to fit the changing requirements of magazine and fashion clients. The everyday studio portraiture which had been her main focus was gradually replaced by more celebrity commissions, including a number of glamorous pictures from the late 1920s of Josephine Baker, against shimmery backdrops, partially nude, and draped in jewels and furs. An extra large print of the identical twin vaudeville stars the Dolly Sisters (also from 1928-1929) finds Madame d’Ora overtly bridging towards a leaner fashion aesthetic, their sharp haircuts, swishy flapper dresses, and shiny shoes given crisp attention.

Most of the notable images from Madame d’Ora’s time in Paris are true fashion photographs – pictures where the clothes (or the accessories) are what is being featured most prominently. A video screen album shows dozens of photographs made for Lanvin between 1932 and 1937, and the work of other major designers (Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Chanel) is also featured in single prints. Madame d’Ora photographed all kinds of looks: evening dresses, bathing suits, wool ski suits, long coats, as well as closer in studies of hats, bracelets, diamond necklaces, and vanity cases. And while she never embraced the stylistic motifs of Surrealism (which was swirling around at the same time), she did add drama and verve to her straight product shots, particularly with lighting and turned posing.

World War II and the related horrors of the Holocaust proved to be an artistic turning point for the Viennese photographer. When she picked up a camera again in 1946, she first adopted a humanistic documentary mode, making images of Jewish refugees, traumatized families, and and lonely elders. And while she did continue to make some celebrity portraits – 1950s images of Picasso, Colette, Jacques Tati with a cat, and a whole series of Maurice Chevalier in particular – her vantage point had clearly changed; many of the works are quieter and more intimate, looking for intimacies rather than flashy surfaces. The most striking evidence of this aesthetic transformation comes in a series of images she made in the mid-1950s in Parisian slaughterhouses. These works take the unsettling realities of Surrealism several steps further, forcing us to witness the aftermath of mutilation, suffering, and automated killing. Severed heads, skinned bodies, piles of legs and hooves, and other grimness inflicted on sheep, cows and other animals provide a direct artistic response to the concentration camp atrocities inflicted on fellow Jews. These photographs are not only stylistically complex, they are orders of magnitude more emotionally powerful than any of her previous fashion work.

That this raw inventiveness came so late in her artistic life, and as a result of such tragedy, is the “one that got away” subplot to this artistic story. Of course, on the basis of her fashion work, Madame d’Ora will be most remembered as one of the European photographers who helped fashion imagery gain the respect it needed to carve out its own separate niche. But her haunting images from the Parisian abbatoirs are evidence that there was much more empathy and emotion in her artistic toolbox; had we seen that brusquely honest point of view earlier, maybe her society portraits and dress forms would have ended up as a glamorous footnote.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are, of course, no posted prices. Madame d’Ora’s work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, primarily in European auctions. Prices for individual prints have ranged from roughly $1000 to $8000.

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Read more about: Neue Galerie, Prestel Publishing

One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    I so wanted to see this. Thank you so much for the review. I am wondering if and when museums open will they hold over exhibitions so the public can see them or will it be more like they have a schedule and tough luck but the next show must go on , so to speak.

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